Isobel Mackenzie, Beacon Community Services

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While everything else was turning sour in 2009, Beacon Community Services doubled its annual revenues to $54 million.

They went up by another $4 million this year. It’s an astounding achievement for any business, and downright dazzling for a charitable organization like Beacon. What used to be a quiet little Peninsula family agency is now a not-for-profit superstar with 10 times the budget, a vast community presence, and a string of seven successful thrift shops.

Look no further for answers than Isobel Mackenzie, the woman who has headed up Beacon for the past 15 years. She laughs at the idea that she and Beacon’s board of directors planned this much growth. But its success at a time of cuts to social spending suggests an organization that “saw the writing on the wall” and adapted accordingly.

“The term I’d use for our agency is ‘opportunistic,’ but in polite company we prefer to say ‘responsive,’” jokes Mackenzie, a former Victoria school trustee who spent her first year as executive director having a baby, wrapping up trustee duties, and finishing a master’s degree.

Until a name change in 2005, Beacon was Peninsula Community Services, operating in the Sidney area since 1974. The organization has a reputation for fiscal prudence — important in an agency that relies on government for 82 per cent of its revenues — and a willingness to take risks.

{advertisement} Sometimes that risk is about taking on programs other non-profits can no longer afford. Efficiencies of scale make it easier to do that, she says. Laurel House, FASD Community Circle, a crossing guard program, and the Out of the Rain youth shelter have all been absorbed by Beacon in recent years.

Sometimes it’s about seizing the moment. When the Vancouver Island Health Authority asked Beacon in 2008 about taking on all home-care services on the south Island, the answer was an enthusiastic yes. Revenues jumped by close to $24 million as a result.

Beacon now has more than 1,300 staff and delivers services to 6,000 people of all ages, with needs ranging from employment and daycare to housing, counselling, mental health support, respite, and more. It spends just three per cent on administration and generates almost $9 million annually through its thrift stores, rental agreements, and fees for services.

Married to Victoria Councillor Geoff Young for the past 20 years, Mackenzie has two teenagers at home and an overachiever’s taste for sitting at policy tables and on boards. She’s juggling four at the moment: The Centre for Non-Profit Management, the Canadian HomeCare Association, a United Way impact council, and a brand-new appointment to the Medical Services Commission.

What skills do you need to run a non-profit the size of Beacon?

You need a huge dose of common sense. The old mantras you used to hear from your mother and your high school teachers about not overreacting, thinking before you speak, remembering that you can’t please everyone — well, they’re all true. You also have to understand how to motivate people to do good work and be responsible. None of the hard skills matter if a person doesn’t have a strong sense of responsibility.

Had you expected all this growth?

The core vision for Beacon has never changed: it’s a charitable organization that helps people to help themselves and serves the people who can’t. We don’t go branching off where private industry could do a better job, but we know what we do well. By virtue of being efficient, we have more freedom to pull things together and cross-subsidize where we need to. Plus we have our thrift shops. We have the ability to be the master of our own fate.

Is Beacon the new model for non-profit services?

Beacon is one model. We’re experts in generalization, but there are other times when specialty is important, or when it’s better to have something managed at the provincial level. Certainly the focus on administrative savings is not going to go away — you won’t necessarily be an “uber” non-profit like us, but you’ll be looking at things like shared payroll services for savings.

What’s the difference between running a business and running a non-profit?

If a not-for-profit is running well, it’s running like a business. The basic rules of business apply no matter what. The difference is in the focus of what you do and the distribution of the dividends. I’ve seen much more private-sector involvement in social services, but the challenge is in quantifying the “success” of the product, because that’s more difficult when you’re talking people. But not-for-profits have to face that public-policy makers want facts, they want stats, and the private sector is better at that.

Why do women often have the top jobs in the non-profit sector, but not in the private sector?

It’s one of those questions: Does business choose men, or do men choose business? Do social services choose women, or do women choose social services? There are a few realities that make a difference. One advantage of balancing my job with family life is that I don’t have to travel; a lot of jobs this size in the private sector would require that. There’s a lot of validation to this work that you may find lacking in the private sector, where you either hit your quota or you don’t. You’re not measured in the private sector on a heartwarming story about how good it felt to help somebody that day.

High turnover is the norm in social services. What keeps you going?

I’m what experts would call “psychologically resilient.” I’m detailed when it matters but not obsessively. I’ve always been able to deal with multiple issues at the same time. And you have to learn how to let go. I’ve also been very fortunate to have a supportive board and staff.

What’s your take on the national discussion about capping the salaries of not-for-profit CEOs at $250,000?

First, let me say, I’m personally not worried at all about that cap. But it’s a difficult issue. We’ve had to face recruiting issues as a non-profit. I do think the marketplace sets the remuneration — if you don’t need to pay more to get the person you want, then don’t. But part of me thinks that if it’s about the money, then probably you shouldn’t be here. These kinds of jobs shouldn’t be seen as a stepping stone for a career.

What’s a typical day when you’re not working?

It doesn’t matter what day it is — I want coffee, strong. I want a newspaper, probably two. I like physical activity — biking, running — and if I’ve got nothing else to do, I like cooking. Geoff’s a big train guy, so this summer we flew to New Orleans and took the train to New York city, then Toronto.

You were a politician once — any interest in a return?

You know that saying about how all the world’s a stage — well, all of life is politics. I have a lot of respect for politicians, because there’s a fundamental honesty to putting your positions out there. But I think I can put my small-p political skills to use in all kinds of ways as it is and find this level of activity very satisfying. Besides, one politician in the family is enough.