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Writing a cheque to a non-profit is a relatively easy task for a busy executive. Getting involved and giving back is another story entirely. Yet it is a commitment Tim Jackson is more than willing to make. Tim, a former venture capitalist and CEO of the Accelerator Centre, and now Vice-President of University Relations at the University of Waterloo, is a man one would assume has few spare cycles in his jam-packed schedule. And yet, Jackson still finds time to give a substantial portion of his time back to the community. His resume lists a long list of community-based roles, including: Chair, board of Centre in the Square; chair, steering committee, Capacity Waterloo; chair, Waterloo Region Barnraiser Council, co-founder, Social Venture Partners; member of the advisory board, Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, and member of the audit and finance committee, Food Banks Canada.
Within at least three of these organizations, Capacity Waterloo, Social Venture Partners and the Food Bank, Jackson's has played a formative role, spearheading transformative initiatives designed to make a real impact on the lives of people in the community.
It's a spirit of giving back that is simply a natural outcome of his upbringing, Jackson explains. "I was raised to believe that it was our job to make a difference in our community. As a youngster, I grew up watching my parents be involved in community work, and in high school I got involved myself with charities. I think that's the beauty in kids. They inherently see that things aren't fair, and they don't come at problems that need solving with a ton of bias. They see the world simply and will actively seek to make things better. I do this with my own kids. When they come to me and say 'hey that's not right!' I'll ask them what they plan to do about it."
Jackson's involvement in the non-profit sector is focused around providing support to executive directors in this field who have chosen to make charitable work their career. "Many of the people running non-profits today are highly accomplished, and just as qualified as the CEOs running businesses in the private sector," says Jackson. "I feel very strongly they deserve more support than they are currently receiving."
He sees parallels between the kind of support non-profit leaders need, and the start-ups he funded as a venture capitalist. - but with one fundamental difference "When my partners and I were running Tech Capital (a venture capital firm) , a start up would come to us looking for a million dollars. And odds are, if we decided to fund them, we'd give them two. Because we understood that innovation requires risk taking. We need to give people room to fail, and the budget to experiment. Non-profits don't get that latitude. Typically when they approach a granting agency, asking for $500,000, the agency will say 'great, we want to fund you but we'll give you $350,000 instead.' What I try to do in an executive or board capacity is to give executive directors of non-profits the same opportunities I gave my start-ups. I want them to be fearless. To take risks, and from that will flow tremendous innovation that will make a real difference in the lives of people."
Jackson tells a story about the Food Bank of Waterloo Region to drive home his point . "When I go out to talk to people about Waterloo Region, I point to our innovation success stories. I talk about Blackberry, and Christie Digital, and then I talk about the Food Bank - which tends to raise a few eyebrows. But the Food Bank has spearheaded a highly innovative program to reclaim food from food manufacturers in Southwestern Ontario that normally would have been destined for landfill or for pig farmers, and redirect it into the mouths of the hungry. Since the program began, we have collected 17 million pounds of food and diverted it to food banks. Elements of the program are being rolled out across Ontario, and it is nearly self-sufficient. But it is also a program that required innovative thinking and bravery to execute. It needed the Food Bank team to try something that could make a real difference. It needed a board that was willing to say, "go try that out." And it needed a funding partner - in this case the Trillium Foundation - that was willing to fund a new idea. And just look what that outside the box thinking was able to accomplish."
In his role as Vice-President of University Relations, Tim Jackson is excited about the opportunity to blend his personal beliefs about giving back with UWaterloo's culture of research, entrepreneurship and innovation.
"Folks will ask me how I ended up as a university administrator, after being a venture capitalist, a CEO and a CFO. And I can safely say that no other university would have hired someone with my background. But then again, there's no other university where I'd want to go. I saw in UWaterloo and in its President, Dr. Feridun Hamdullahpur, the same kind of belief in building a bold, empowered environment where students can excel and where staff and faculty can make a difference."
Jackson points to Dr. Hamdullahpur's focus on the student experience, student access and student space, his commitment to achieving work-life balance for staff and faculty, and his vision for making UWaterloo a collaborative community partner.
"We are actively encouraging staff, faculty and students to get involved with the community and we're working hard to celebrate their community involvement when it happens. They and the University benefit massively from their involvement."
As an illustration of it's increased community efforts, in 2012 UWaterloo was awarded the Leadership Giving Award by the United Way of Kitchener Waterloo. The award "recognizes an organization that most successfully organized an exceptional Leadership Giving Campaign through motivation and encouragement of giving personal gifts of $1,000 or more."
Jackson is also quick to point out that many solutions to global problems - poverty, disease, hunger - can also flow from the UWaterloo's research agenda.
"At the heart of who we are, UWaterloo is a world-leading scientific and research institution, and our people lead the world in innovation. There's no requirement that our innovation benefit only the for-profit sector. Look at George Roter, a UWaterloo graduate and CEO of Engineers Without Borders, or Commander Chris Hadfield, who did post doc work at the university and who took a UWaterloo banner up with him to the International Space Station. These are just two examples among the thousands of faculty, staff and students who are leveraging their education and knowledge gained here at UWaterloo to make a real, positive difference. These are our people - and they are out there giving back; making the world a better place."