Sara is a passionate champion for the rights of women and children, with nearly 20 years of experience as a senior leader in the non-profit sector. She is the founder and President/CEO of Children First Canada, a new national non-profit organization working to make this the best place in the world for kids to grow up.
By Sara L. Austin, Founder and President/CEO, Children First Canada
I began my career in the late 90’s, with a passion to change the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. Starting out on the streets of Bangkok helping child labourers and victims of trafficking, my work has since taken me around the world and into the top circles of power—from the United Nations, to government corridors, and to corporate boardrooms. In the Spring of 2015, after spending 17 years with one of Canada’s largest charitable organizations, I resigned from my job.
I had recently relocated with my family from Toronto to Calgary, and was ready to embrace a new chapter of life. Making the decision to move and to leave my job was difficult. I had to face my own fears, as well as all of the external noise from concerned colleagues or friends. I was at a career peak when all of this happened—I’d recently won a Top 25 Women of Influence award, and various other accolades—but I knew in my bones that it was time for change, even if I didn’t know exactly what it would be. Some have called it crazy, others called it courageous.
In my moments of fear, I’ve leaned on my experience of the flying trapeze, where the hardest part is climbing the ladder and standing on the platform. Once you take the leap, you’re flying. All of the fear is in your head, there’s always a safety net below you. The worst you can do is fall and get back up again.
So I resigned from my job, and gave myself a couple of months to figure things out. I was itching to do something different, but rather than jumping immediately into a new full-time job, I deliberately pressed the “pause” button. I began meeting with leaders across the country, seeking advice on what the biggest needs were for kids in our country, and how I could use my skills and experience to have the greatest impact.
I knew I wanted to focus on improving the lives of kids in Canada.
While most Canadians tend to think of this as being one of the best places in the world for children to grow up, that simply isn’t true. Canada ranks as the 5th most prosperous nation, but when it comes to the wellbeing of children, we drop to 17th place. On key measures for child health and safety we rank 27th. As an advocate for children and as the mother of a 6-year-old boy, it makes me angry that a country as wealthy as ours is letting kids fall through the cracks. We can and must do better.
There are lots of great charities delivering programs to kids, but we haven’t seen progress on Canada’s child wellbeing ranking for over a decade. So I sought advice from the major children’s charities, formed an advisory board, developed a plan of action, and launched Children First Canada, a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up.
I’ve learned a lot on my journey so far. If you’re interested in a similar path—whether that means starting a non-profit, or making a major life change—these five lessons could help you along the way:
Be bold and unique. It’s hard to set yourself apart in a very crowded and competitive landscape. Rather than compete with existing children’s charities, I’m working in partnership with them to build awareness and mobilize Canadians to get involved in making a difference for kids. Working together, we can achieve so much more for children. I’ve focused on building a brand that is bold and unique, and which adds value to the broader sector. Picture the children’s charities as the lifeboats that are keeping kids afloat, and Children First Canada as the tide that will lift all boats.
Embrace the mindset of a social entrepreneur. Rather than using traditional approaches, I’ve created a new social enterprise, Children First Canada, which is small, nimble, and able to take more risks. It has been a major adjustment going from working in a very large, well established charity to running this new enterprise on my own. I’m on a steep learning curve, and am learning to operate at a strategic level to set the vision and strategy, whilst being tactical and doing the hands-on work of fundraising, research, media and PR, and so on.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not alone—I’ve got an incredible advisory board, I’ve got great partners to work with, and there is no shortage of people willing to step up and help.
Understand the nature of the journey. The task ahead is monumental and it will take years before we see widespread change, but this needs to be balanced with creating a sense of urgency to affect change for children today. I have to set short- and long-term milestones and persistently driving change day by day. Children’s lives are at stake, and we can’t afford to be incremental in our approach.
Don’t let fear stop you. I’ve come to embrace the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
If you had asked me a few years ago whether I’d be leading my own organization, I would have laughed – it simply wasn’t on my horizon. There are days when this role is incredibly daunting—tackling this big, hairy, audacious goal with a very small start-up organization—but it’s also incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. It’s much more than a job, it’s become my life’s mission.
Children First Canada is a new national non-profit with the vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up. We are partnering with some of Canada’s leading children’s charities, corporations, and community leaders, with the aim of getting these issues on the public’s radar, and building a national movement that will drive change for children. To learn more about Children First Canada and get involved, go to: www.childrenfirstcanada.com