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February 6th, 2018

Pursuit of Passion: Insights on a Career in Non-Profit

The following guest blog was written for Viewpoint by Jeff Dyer, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary is a charitable, community supported organization who serves 22,000 vulnerable children and youth in Calgary each year. Viewpoint Foundation and the Van Wielingen Family have donated almost $15 million to over 100 charitable organizations since 2001. Through this work, our office regularly engages with numerous not-for-profit professionals and volunteers, and we are thankful for the important work these individuals do every day to better our community and the lives of those in it. For this blog we invited Jeff to share his experience building a career in the not-for-profit sector, and to explore the theme of pursuing passion in ones profession.

I remember exactly where I was when I realized that I needed to find work for the rest of my life that felt like living and not like working. I was standing at the bottom of a climbing wall, belaying a group of elementary kids to the top of the wall while I was working at a summer camp in central Alberta. It was late in the summer and I had been averaging 15 hour work days and being paid less than $2 per hour. As crazy as that sounds, I was so captivated by the opportunity to help these kids climb beyond their fears, and do what they thought impossible regardless of how much (or little!) I was paid, or how many more hours of work I had that day. I would lay down at the end of the day feeling a deep sense of satisfaction before I quickly faded off to sleep. That feeling of satisfaction has been the thread that has woven across my 22-year career in the not-for-profit (NFP) sector, despite the fact that, like the wall, working in the NFP sector is both a grind and a joy.

The fact is, there are incredible benefits and bewildering challenges with a career in the NFP sector. The career tends to be full of paradox. You can make a difference in the life of a vulnerable person, but consequently are exposed to the sorrow associated with that vulnerability. You become acquainted with challenges that are too big for any one person to overcome, but create meaningful collaborations with multiple parties working towards a shared cause. You get to do more with less becoming increasingly capable with scarcity, while constantly dealing with the challenge of not always having what you need. You begin your day knowing that the world is not quite how it should be, but return home knowing you have spent your day in a way that almost certainly makes the world better than when you left home that morning.


Finding Meaning

As people experience big end of life questions, very few wish that they had worked more, made more, or hit year-end bonuses. What we know is that most wish they had taken a dream job or had chosen to do what they love instead of choosing the practicality of punching a clock. One challenge for those choosing to pursue a career in the NFP sector is that it tends to require employees to welcome a ‘discount’ on their paycheck. For each individual, the question then becomes whether that ‘discount’ is off set by the ‘inflationary’ experience of a career well spent. Putting it another way, is that view worth the climb?


Multiple Levels of Employee Fulfillment

As the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary, I know we are in the era of the ‘free-agent employee’. We are no longer in a world where people land a job and stay in it for years, for decades or even longer. Each and every day, we are compelling people who have access to near unlimited opportunities, who can work anywhere, and who often make complete career changes over their working life. Knowing this, at the Boys & Girls Clubs we are constantly asking ourselves: How can we be a better employer? How can we adapt so that our employees love coming to work? How can we put our teammate’s financial concerns to rest so that they can be great at what we need them to do? We know that if we answer these questions well, we will make a world of difference for our employees and they will in turn improve the world for our kids.

As a team, we know that compensation is a part of overall job satisfaction. To help answer questions on financial concerns, we put everything related to compensation on the table: vacation policies, professional development, leadership training, benefit packages and more. Further, we realize that we must change our business model so that we can become increasingly equitable - if not generous towards those who come to work every day for our kids. Finally, we make sure that our culture is as healthy as possible, transforming towards open doors, flexibility, kindness, gratitude and integrity. And after all of this, we tip the balance in favour of the NFP sector by offering unmatched opportunities to spend your work day on things that will make the world noticeably better for the whole community or even for just one child. If we do all of that well, then we can transform an employee’s experience in the NFP sector from a memory or aspiration into a career.


Bearing Witness

As I reflect on the past two decades, I have been the privileged witness to countless breakthroughs. As I look back, I can see kids who have climbed past their fears, the young and old who have journeyed from homelessness to home, others have become leaders and many who have been welcomed to belong in our communities after being marginalized and discounted for years or even generations. That is a rich history of outcomes, which I have been able to play a very small part in. I also own a good portion of my home, have travelled to wonderful places, have saved for my kids’ education and have a good start at retirement. Contrary to popular myths, an NFP career is not agreeing to a life of austerity and poverty. Even so, if it all ended tomorrow, and I was facing the big end of life questions, I know with some degree of confidence that my work has had meaning beyond my bank account and the hours I have worked have been spent on a world that is better than when I started. For me, that is worth the climb and it is easy to put my head on my pillow at the end of a day and rest easy. 


About the Author

Jeff Dyer
CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary

Jeff is currently the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Calgary. Working in the not-for profit sector for over 20 years, he has served in various roles, including leading as the Executive Director of a kids camp, COO and CEO of agencies involved in poverty reduction, affordable housing and service to those experiencing homelessness. In each of these roles, Jeff has had the privilege of aligning personal values with organizational vision, creating spaces for kids to thrive, leaders to grow, justice and mercy to emerge and everyone to belong.

As a native Albertan, Jeff grew up in Edmonton, and lived in central Alberta for 13 years before moving to Calgary in 2010. With early career aspirations of becoming an elementary school teacher and principal, Jeff graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelors in Education. However, he soon discovered a passion for the not-for-profit sector, and completed a Master of Business Administration with the vision of helping such organizations realize their vision in remarkable and sustainable ways.  

Jeff and his wife, Kristy, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. As a father to two children, Maddie (13) and Ian (11) when not at work, Jeff serves as a busy chauffeur. Jeff also runs marathons and enjoys opening his home to share meals with friends and neighbours. In 2014, Jeff was chosen as one of Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40, however he jokes that after taking the family dog into account he is likely not even top 4 in his household.