seven lessons in lifting up your community – remembering edmonton’s invisible giant bob ward

Edmonton lost one of it’s quiet Titan’s today.

An invisible giant.

Bob Ward (pictured here), the head of Edmonton’s Social Enterprise Fund, passed away the other night. I just heard and am not sure on all the details.

I am so sad. Gone too soon.

I don’t even know how old he was. In his sixties I’d guess. His eyes always seemed to have a conspiratorial and mischievous twinkle . . . I always got this feeling around him that ‘we’re in it together’. And that we were going to make amazing things happen.

And I wanted to share some of the lessons I am taking from his life that I think might help all of us who are in it together too.


Seven Lessons from Bob in Lifting Up Your Community:

LESSON #1 – Status vs. Stature: Bob was quiet. I only heard about him last year. He’d been slowly building up the SEF. I got an email from him that my friend Laura had said we needed to talk. And when Laura says someone’s good, I don’t question.

And, over the last year, I’ve heard the people I most dearly respect in Edmonton all grow incredibly fond of Bob. His match of openness to new ideas and his razor sharp mind and questions. He was respected so deeply by the people I respect who came to know him.

He wasn’t trying to get status. Status means people know who you are. Stature means you are deeply respected. You’re a trusted advisor.

He wasn’t trying to become famous. He was happy to act in the background. He just wanted, more deeply than I suspected I think, to see good things happen. And he ended up with stature. Stature is what the community gives us, status is what we try to get. Status is the obsession with our reputation and image. Stature comes from our heart growing big enough to hold the whole community.

“Praise from the praise-worthy is beyond all rewards”

– Faramir, The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien


LESSON #2 – The Sales Funnel: Too many people making social change try to shame people into making change. They ask people to take huge actions. Too many businesses try to push people into making big purchases before they’re ready. Or go broke waiting for enough people to buy.

The other option is to create a ladder of steps for them to climb. To create a funnel. A web of options where people can choose how close to the center they want to get.

I first met Bob at my favourite haunt Remedy and we went over how to let more people know about the SEF and the work it was doing. Their plan was to do a large ‘Dragon’s Den’ style event for hundreds of people. I was curious how they were going to fill the audience given that, so far as I knew, no one really knew of them. I consider myself super tapped into the Edmonton scene and I’d never heard of them.

Bob admitted he wasn’t sure.

But the SEF was clearly poised to become a hub.

I drew out a funnel shape and at the widest part on the top I wrote PRESENTATIONS, under that WORKSHOPS and under that DRAGONS DEN. I suggested they identify the hubs of where they might find people already engaged in social enterprise or interested in it and then go to them with a 20-45 minute presentation (like a TED Talk)  about what social enterprise was and why it mattered to Edmonton. We identified various groups in town and soon 11 of them were scheduled. These all built up to a weekend long Bootcamp for 25 people with social enterprise projects and in the end the Dragon’s Den idea was dropped.

Before you do any of the presentations thought,” I suggested. “You might want to host a hubs gathering. A sort of VIP launch party. Get all the people who the most well connected and well respected you can think of in Edmonton to an event where you can try out your presentation, get feedback and give them a sort of ‘sneak peak’. Hubs and influencers love that kind of access. And they might want to host your presentation for their own network.”

Parties as marketing. It’s kind of my favourite thing.

At the end of all of these the SEF enjoys a much larger email list and significantly raised profile in town.


LESSON #3 – Investing in the Next Generation: Bob invested deeply into those who were just starting down the road he’d already traveled himself. He mentored. He listened. He challenged. He supported. When people are going for status – the next generation is a threat to them and their time in the spotlight. But when you’re a man like Bob, you don’t worry about trying to be in the spotlight – you become the spotlight and you shine it on others.

When you’re a man like Bob, you do what a dear mentor of mine Caroline Casey does . . . your eyes aren’t on the mirror and your reflection – your hands wave and transform the mirror into a window that you invite others to look through to see how wonderful it could be and then with another wave it’s a door that you open and invite people to walk through.


LESSON #4 – Graciousness: Bob thanked me so many times for my ideas. He gave credit to where ideas came from and for the good work that people did. He was so damned affirming. He built people up. He was so deeply respectful of others. Their ideas, their potential, their limits, their natures. He challenged people, he asked pointed questions . . . but he never pushed them with force. Again – Bob didn’t worry about being in the spotlight. He was the spotlight. Graciousness is a lost art but I think it might just be the beating heart of community.


LESSON #5 – Letting People Do What They Do Best: Bob didn’t do any of the presentations around town. He had my friends Kevin and Antoine do them. They were passionate about doing them and so incredibly capable. He knew what he wanted to see happen and he found people who were able to do it and then he trusted them to help him co-create something amazing and deliver it.

But Bob wasn’t just brilliant at letting people do what they do best, he was a genius at picking the right people. He had Jedi level ‘good people radar’. Maybe the reason he could trust people so deeply was that he knew how to pick trustworthy people and then he knew how to ask the hard questions.

“A wise man will form a year’s judgment from one night’s knowledge of another man/Bheir duine glic breith bliadhna air fear na h-aon oidhche.”

– Scottish Gaelic Proverb

So many people I knew had the same experience of Bob – so kind and so full of the hardest questions that struck straight to the heart of the matter. When we met to craft the presentation together he didn’t dominate, he participated. And he asked the important questions about how this would benefit the SEF, about how the presentations fit into the larger goals, about how we would follow up . . . he helped us all come up with something that would actually work.

“The best chief is not the one who persuades people to his point of view. It is instead the one in whose presence most people find it easiest to arrive at the truth”.
~Mohawk Wisdom


LESSON #6 – Social Profit: At the heart of the idea of social enterprise is this notion of ‘social profit’. The idea that not only money matters. That there are other kinds of ‘returns’ we can get on our money. The notion that deepened feelings of community and well being matter. And it showed up in how he lived. He gave so much to the community. I’m sure Bob could have made so much more money by working in the corporate sector (couldn’t we all?) but he chose to do something that made him less money – but enriched his community.

And isn’t this the sticky heart of the this issue of money and ‘manifesting wealth’ . . . the ways that wealth is always defined as an individual thing. There are so many toxic myths around money and wealth these days – but I think that’s the biggest for me.

But wealth isn’t about us as separate individuals – because we aren’t separate individuals. We live in community. It reminds me of Patch Adams’ approach.

Put another way: wealth isn’t an individual thing. Wealth isn’t a community thing. Community IS wealth.


LESSON #7 – Death: I still can’t believe Bob’s dead. He’s like that old tree that shed so many acorns before it passed. And an acorn isn’t just the promise of an oak tree. It’s the promise of woods – of forests. It’s the promise of thousands of oak trees.

My dear colleague Stephen Garrett who works with people around embracing death as a friend spoke to me about this when we sat at a hubs gathering I arranged in Vancouver. “Death is always there at our shoulder asking us – did you give everything you could today? If you died tomorrow would you have any regrets? Did you give your whole heart?”

“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”
William Saroyan

Marketing can be slimy – but it can also be a force for good in the world that eloquently coaxes people into taking the steps they so deeply know they need to take. Marketing can also be about making social change.

My question for you . . .

Who was an invisible giant you knew who lifted up the whole community? And what did you learn from them?


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