Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for March, 2010

McCreary’s Umbrella

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

March 14, 2010

It all began when the curling rink’s ice-making equipment failed. The club had no money set aside for such eventualities. What community organization ever does? So it turned to the municipal government. Actually, it turned to two municipal governments – the town of McCreary, Manitoba, pop. 500, and the surrounding rural municipality, pop. 600. Neither one had a budget for such things.

The curling club’s crisis brought a deeply-unsatisfactory situation to a head. McCreary has six major recreational organizations – a dance hall, a community centre, a golf course, an agricultural society, a swimming pool and, of course, a curling rink. The six organizations were competing to raise funds in a tiny community – and people were getting tired of giving. I don’t curl or golf, so why should I support the rink and the golf course?

The leaders of the six organizations held a summit meeting, and came up with a brilliant idea. They would form an umbrella group named The McCreary Umbrella, and they would fund-raise together, allocating money to three of the six organizations each year. They went to the municipalities, and asked them to put into each of their own budgets a $5000 annual contribution to the Umbrella. The municipalities were happy to do it, knowing that the contribution would end the desperate and unpredictable pleas for emergency funding.

The Umbrella committee members rolled up their sleeves. Each organization agreed to host a fund-raising event once a year, and to work together to provide volunteers for all such events. They ran a monthly bingo, and raised $30,000 in a year. They did the catering for weddings in the hall, up to 15 a year. They collected everybody’s junk and held a huge community auction in the rink, and raised thousands of dollars in a single day.

Admittedly, they had great auctioneers. I heard about the Umbrella from Don and Doris Fletcher, who attended a conference in Brandon with me in January. Don and Doris are professional auctioneers, and astonishingly good ones. Don auctioned off a $35 book of mine for $53, and Doris auctioned a second copy for more than $80.

Don is a former municipal councillor, which helped in persuading the councils – but the Umbrella members also realized that they were spending public funds, and they had to be both transparent and fair. The key thing, says Don Fletcher, is that the Umbrella demanded that each of the six participating organizations draw up a five-year financial plan, and update it every year.

“That stumped them,” says Don. “They never had any foresight before, and it took them a long time. I knew how to do it from working on the municipal road program. But it forced them to think about management, and about maintenance and all those things.”

It’s true. How many community organizations ever have a financial plan that forces them to think about the fact that the furnace will need replacing, the roof is looking seedy, and you can’t get away forever without replacing the equipment in the bar? When a consultant from Winnipeg attended a meeting about the decrepit rink, he made furious notes – which turned out to be a drawing of a bulldozer.

In five years, however, The Umbrella distributed nearly $200,000. It also set aside $20,000 as a reserve fund, never to be disbursed. This wasn’t just prudence. The Manitoba government has programs that provide matching funds for community needs – but the community organization has to find the original funding. The reserve fund was available for all six organizations, who could literally take it to the bank and borrow against it, then repay the loan from its semi-annual allocations. No project in McCreary was ever stuck for matching money again.

The Umbrella also forced its members to act as a single community. When the rink was in desperate need, the agricultural society and the golf course gave it their allocations. Within three years the building was up to code. Instead of driving wedges in the community, the new fund-raising mechanism was pulling the community together – and, says Don Fletcher, it had turned the work into fun.

Brilliant. Simple. And why wouldn’t it work just as well in Middleton, Middle River or Middle Stewiacke?

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The Education of Susan Sweeney

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

March 7, 2010

“When you were a girl in Newfoundland,” I said, “did you dream about being a search engine optimizer when you grew up?”

Susan Sweeney laughed.

“That job didn’t exist,” she said. “Mind you, that’s not exactly what I do now, either.”

No, but it’s included in what she does, and she does it extremely well. Search engine optimization – or SEO, as it’s known in the beeping, blinking world of online commerce – is the fine art of helping Google to find your web-site when potential customers are looking for what you sell. When a consumer asks Google about maple syrup, you want Google to lead her directly to your Scrumptious Scotian Syrup. SEO makes your web site stand up and wave at Google. Yoo, hoo! Over here!

What Susan Sweeney did do when she grew up was accounting, winning both her CA and her CGA designations. When she started, accounting was done with pencils and paper. “We were still adding up columns of figures in longhand,” she remembers. “We didn’t even have calculators.”

When big, costly mainframe computers began moving into the mainstream of the economy, Susan was working for Thorne Riddell, a national accounting firm. At first, accounting firms provided computerized services to their clients, who couldn’t dream of buying their own equipment. In the 1980s, however, the IBM personal computer made the technology accessible to small businesses, and accounting firms had to re-think their strategy. After working on that issue, Susan moved from Toronto to Halifax and joined the federal government, becoming an International Trade Commissioner helping software and hardware companies export their products.

And then came the World Wide Web, which revolutionized the world of marketing. Even small companies could now market their products and services globally – and do it inexpensively and effectively. But they needed tools – web sites, electronic mailing lists, credit card processing. With two partners, Susan set up one of Nova Scotia’s first web development companies.

“We built the first Bank of Nova Scotia web site, before head office built one,” she remembers. “We developed Maritime Marlin Travel, and a number of others. We had some really interesting projects. We built a portal before the term ‘portal’ was ever coined.”

Along the way, she discovered that she had an ability to “take the technical things and explain them in plain English.” That discovery opened up a very successful career as a speaker and writer. She now has eight books in print. Her first, 101 Ways to Promote Your Web Site, is in its eighth edition. It has sold 70,000 copies, and it has been translated into German, Spanish and Chinese.

Today, Susan Sweeney is an internationally-recognized internet marketing expert operating from a home base in Waverley. She delivers keynote speeches, leads seminars and workshops and provides advice, training and web development services to businesses all across the continent, chiefly in travel and tourism. Golf courses in California, beach resorts in the Bahamas, hotel chains, travel agencies. She shows them how to lure traffic to their web sites, how to get the most from their electronic marketing budgets, how to convert casual visitors into customers.

The web is constantly changing and shifting, Susan notes, and “it’s hard to keep up with all the tools.” Today’s fad is marketing through social media – Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and all. But is that what your company needs? If so, how should you use it? Susan’s job is to figure that out.

When I hear people talking about labour force development, growing the economy, educating children today for the jobs of tomorrow, I think of people like Susan Sweeney. How would her teachers in Newfoundland have gone about educating her for the jobs in her future? Such jobs were unimaginable. And when we talk about growing the economy, are we talking about the shrinking economy of mills, mines and manufacturing – or are we talking about people like Susan, who live in a world of explosively expanding opportunities?

What the young Susan Sweeney needed from her education was not information or even skills, but support for her courage, imagination and curiosity. That’s what we need to nurture in all our children. And in our co-workers. And in ourselves.

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