Join Member Login

March 22 2021

A conversation with Karen Ball on community vibrancy and prosperity in Calgary

Karen has been a thought leader and collaborator in key cultural planning initiatives in Alberta over the last 20+ years, and currently serves as President and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations.

In January, Karen sat down with us (virtually) to discuss Calgary’s future, our community’s prosperity, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What does a vibrant Calgary look like to you? How do we get there?

There are a few key basic ingredients that make a vibrant city regardless of where you are. For me, the main ingredients are about affordability and flexibility – can someone afford to live in a city with their loved ones how they want to? A vibrant city also has the amenities people want – from public transit, to arts and culture, to schools and post-secondaries. Those are the table stakes for every big city.

A vibrant Calgary is a caring community that builds on the basic ingredients that already make up our community. For one, we’re an active, place-based city – we have massive outdoor recreational opportunity, and we’re full of weekend warriors who head out to the mountains to ski or hike, or use our city’s pathway system. This results in thinking about the environment and our connection to land differently, and allows our businesses and non-profits to pursue unique opportunities.

We’re also, importantly, a young city; the kind of place where you come to raise a family – this creates a different kind of community connection and leads to different kinds of services in the city. Our young population is a huge advantage that we need to pay attention to, particularly as we are seeing many young people leave Calgary and not come back.

We also have an educated population, with an above-average education in the sciences. This directly builds on our maker and entrepreneurial culture. Our science education leads to unique conversations, and to thinking about how Calgary functions differently compared to other cities.

Calgary is also incredibly diverse. We’re Canada’s third most diverse city, by some estimates, and most new Calgarians are actually newcomers to Canada. This is a massive advantage – people from other parts of the world bring different perspectives that hold incredible value.

And lastly, our vibrancy presents a powerful opportunity. With Calgary coming of age in a time where many are looking to address social and systemic injustice, where we are more connected globally now than we ever have been, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the chance to redefine and address equity, diversity, and what a Canadian city should look like.

What is the biggest challenge for Calgary to overcome to achieve community prosperity and vibrancy?

For Calgary to achieve community prosperity and vibrancy, we need to value our community prosperity as an outcome. Not everything that has value can be measured in dollars and cents. Price is one value, yes, but community prosperity can also be a value, diversity can be a value, equity can be a value. These outcomes can also have economic impacts, but the outcome itself has value as well.

Part of this challenge is that Calgarians often value these outcomes at an individual level, but when we think bigger – about the policies that shape our community – we limit ourselves to only thinking in dollars and cents.

There are ways to measure outcomes like community prosperity, vibrancy, equity and diversity both through description and using numbers. We know how to measure sense of belonging, or perceptions of equity, for example. At the same time, the city already measures many of these outcomes through its Triple Bottom Line approach that considers the economic, social, and environmental implications of city policies.

Turning the tide and valuing our community prosperity as an outcome means that we need to recognize the work that is already been done in this space – we need to tell that story to ourselves. Conversations like this one we’re having, that shine a light on community prosperity, help move us forward in that goal.

How can businesses contribute to community prosperity?

First and foremost, community vibrancy is everyone’s responsibility. We have specific recommendations for how businesses can engage in this work.

Start by supporting a culture of giving and volunteerism. Organizations – from large corporations to small businesses – should challenge themselves to answer these questions: “How are you helping those who work with you give time, donate or raise awareness for a cause that they care deeply about? Are you actively fostering this culture and partnering with those in the social profit sector to advance that cause?”

Beyond culture, leaders in the business community can champion social prosperity, community vibrancy, and causes that are important to them. There are also tangible solutions for companies. Skills-based volunteering adds significant value to a partnered non-profit. These sorts of initiatives also dovetail nicely into resource sharing – what you can provide to help a non-profit flourish?

This year, Calgary will have a municipal election, which we believe is an opportunity to decide the future of our city. What issues do you hope are discussed by candidates during the campaign?

The upcoming municipal election is an opportunity to think about the ways in which community prosperity contributes to the attraction of talent, and particularly young people. We should care about this because it matters for the future of our city.

We need to think about framing election issues around attracting this talent, attracting these young people. What issues does someone who is three to five years out of university care about? I think that list includes affordable housing, access to public transit, green spaces, a vibrant downtown core, access to exciting culture that is both local and international, as well as a caring city that addresses how we care for our most vulnerable. These issues are the sorts of aspirational conversations we need to be having to retain the younger people who will define Calgary’s future.

The election will also be about our response and recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the non-profit sector adapted through the pandemic? To what extent has the sector been able to move online?

The first thing to recognize is the diversity of the non-profit sector and its immense ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In Calgary, when referring to the non-profit sector you might mention the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, or you might talk about the Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership (DOAP) team. Similar to everyone else, the sector has broadly adapted to the major societal shifts we’ve seen through the pandemic. For some, this means moving services online and decreased service costs. For others, it means additional planning and new skillsets. And for some, unfortunately – libraries, front line crisis support, etc. – a shift to virtual has meant the inability to deliver some essential services that communities rely on.

I’d also point out that in adapting to the major societal shifts we’ve seen through the pandemic, it’s become apparent in the sector the extent to which many communities and people made vulnerable by social and economic systems do not have access to technology to transition to virtual service delivery. That’s a problem that has been illuminated by the pandemic, and for equity, one that requires a solution.

What challenges will we face in achieving community prosperity and vibrancy as we emerge from COVID-19?

The non-profit sector will need greater direct investment, particularly from the provincial government. Alberta has laid out its Recovery Plan which has a heavy focus on capital infrastructure investment, and little focus on social infrastructure, which can be defined as any program or service that helps society function. At CCVO, we’re calling for an increased focus on social infrastructure to support both our community, and the non-profit sector, which need support. Some estimates show 20 percent of organizations may not exist in a few years, even while demand increases.

For our community, emerging from the pandemic will also require us to confront and recognize the societal and structural vulnerabilities that have been exposed. Addressing and creating equity is how we build back better.

About Karen Ball

As a community leader, Karen’s work has involved leading multi-stakeholder consultation for the potential 2026 Olympic and Paralympic bid; the creation of the City of Calgary’s Culture Plan; and as part of the Premier’s Council for Culture to advance Alberta’s cultural prosperity and contribution to Canada 150. Her work focuses on innovative communities and systems to support healthy non-profit operations, capital development, and place-making, providing expertise to organizations wishing to build deep and meaningful connections with their communities of stakeholders and supporters.

About the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO)

CCVO promotes and strengthens the non-profit sector by developing and sharing resources and knowledge, building connections, leading collaborative work, and giving voice to critical issues affecting the sector. Since last summer, CCVO has been working on recommendations for building a multi-sectoral Community Prosperity Strategy. CCVO drafted a start to these recommendations for the nonprofit sector, private sector, provincial government, and funders – and, with feedback from many in the community, these recommendations have recently been re-worked into a discussion paper. You can learn more about their work and share your ideas around community prosperity here.