Speech to the Northern Alberta Insurance Institute of Canada, for Nov. 17 commencement exercises, at the Shaw Conference Centre. "Community Involvement: What's in it for you."

Thank you so much for this opportunity to be your keynote speaker. It's a pleasure and a privilege to congratulate the latest graduating class of the Northern Alberta Insurance Institute of Canada, adding more letters after their names!

My name is Graham Hicks. As a five times a week columnist in the Edmonton Sun, I really have no area of expertise. As a journalist I am one of the last generalists. I know a little about a lot, not a great deal about anything, especially insurance! An inch deep, and a mile wide.

But I have had the immense privilege of being paid, for the last 30 years, to be an observer of Edmonton and Edmontonians. And I'd like to think I've gained a few insights into how this town works, what makes it tick.

And maybe, just maybe, I can persuade you of the self-interest in my cause.

It's my goal to have half of you rush out of here ready to take on leadership positions with the charity of non-profit group of your choice.

As much for your selfish, egotisical, get-rich, Januarys-in-Hawaii celebration of yourself, as for the community at large.

Years ago, when I sat on my first non-profit board, I walked by another board member's open day-timer.

Being an inquisitive type, OK a noisy journalist, I couldn't help but see a note this fellow had made to himself.

"Join three more boards in the next three months," it read, "to increase my public profile."

I was shocked.

How crass!

I was on this small theatre's board because I loved theatre, loved the work that the artistic director was doing and wanted to do whatever I could to support him.

A labour of love!

How dare this weasly lawyer be there strictly to "increase his own profile."

Years later, I am not so offended.

In fact, I am here today to make almost that very suggestion.

When you survey the literature around volunteerism, it's filled with well-written pleasant platitudes.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.

In today's society we are so filled but unfulfilled, the best way to fulfillment is to help others."

Which, ya, ya, ya, is all fine and good.

But I'm here to tell what's in it for you.

Community involvement can be, should be, an enormous asset to your career.

Sorry if I pop a few balloons.

But folks, this insurance business is really like cell phones and cars and laptops.

You're selling a commodity.

Car insurance is car insurance, and the difference in premiums between reputable insurance companies for the same driver, nine times out of ten, will be just a point or two.

As a customer you pay the premium. And you hope the follow-up service desk doesn't operate out of the Philippines or Pakistan.

So how are you going to build your clientele, your portfolio, your "book"?

You know your stuff. You studied really hard. Good for you!

But so did the other eight folks sitting around your table.

They are going to compete with you for the same business.

And every day you will be pitched by people who have a better idea than you on how to market your product, who can, for merely giving them a few thousand bucks, double your client base with your nary lifting a finger.

That's for the gullible and naive.

Delete, delete, delete.

Well here's my tip. It ain't going to cost you a cent.

See and be seen.

Get on some boards. Get on some gala organizing committees.

Be a social giant. Attend as many fund-raising galas as you can possibly manage.

And when you're there, stick out your hand, make excellent small talk and before you leave, give'em your card.

We all know insurance agents by the score. Until we need one.

Then we remember that person we met a couple of months ago, who seemed quite jovial and intelligent. And maybe I still have his business card in the pocket of my vest.

It's really not rocket science.

If you want to build your customer base, you have to go and meet them first.

You sit beside them at the Snowflake Gala, you chat, you don't talk business. But you build a relationship. And building relationships is the biggest key to success in any retail business.

Where's the best place to meet people - at an event where you are expected to stick out your hand and meet people!

Joining a non-profit board could be the best learning experience of your career.

Let's not forget the sheer size of the charitable movement. It generates $87 billion annually. It accounts for 7% of Canada's Gross Domestic Product. In Alberta alone there are over 6,000 registered non-profit organizations.

If you want an instant education, join a non-profit board and watch these CEOs at work. They are expert money managers, superb people managers. They have status in the community. They are at the forefront of social innovation. They are on the cutting edge of new partnerships, working as teams, networking, building capacity.

You will learn so much more about governance than you ever thought possible.

Consider too, the fact that boards have to make critical decisions.

There's nothing like a board crisis for a crash course in diplomatic negotiation.

Your non-profit board is self-destructing. You think you see a way through. You become the skilled negotiator between board meetings, taking the disgruntled board members out for coffee one-on-one, calming them down, helping them to see the big picture ...

You go to the next board meeting, a month later. The issue comes up. Tempers don't flare. Good old Charley actually keeps his mouth shut. As set up with the CEO, just at the right time, you put forward a compromise motion. And as you had so carefully teed up beforehand, it passes with nary a dissenting vote.

Along the same vein, you stay with your board for a number of years. Inevitably, you end up as chair.

Again, is there a better education in how the business world really works?

You are in charge of a bunch of volunteers, all with their own axes to grind. You can't fire them. You have to coax, cajole, threaten, learn Robert's Rules of Order, learn about governance in all its fine details.

You are receiving the better training for promotion within your own company than you'd get any where else.

Board experience helps you understand how the boards of your own companies - the ultimate decision makers - work. You've been there. What happens at the non-profit community level happens in the boardrooms at the pinnacle of Corporate Canada. Nothing can train you so well to take on higher leadership positions within your company.

Respect is one of the great intangibles of community leadership.

Respect is a wonderful thing. People listen to you carefully. They return your phone calls promptly.

They want to do business with you. Because they respect you.

Respect has to be earned.

Yesterday Craig Simpson and Jamie Sale won the CBC's Battle of the Blades. Their prize of $100,000 to the charity of their choice went straight to spinal cord injury research at the University of Alberta.

Craig Simpson is not only admired as an NHL player, coach and sports broadcaster.

But Mr. Bad Back - and he always has had back problems - is respected for his long-term commitment to helping those with spinal cord injuries.

He has taken his profile, and used it to both raise money and awareness for spinal cord injury.

For as long as I can remember, Craig Simpson has hosted golf tournaments, been a spokesman, made the pitch for his cause to CEOs and presidents and premiers.

Do you think he's put in thousands of extra hours to help?

You bet.

Do you think he's all the more respected, his reputation greatly enhanced, for that volunteer work?

You bet.

Rick LeLacheur, president and CEO of the Edmonton Eskimos, is under the gun these days.

Since he took over from the legendary Hugh Campbell, the former dynasty of the CFL has finished fourth, fourth, fourth, and third in the western conference of the Canadian Football League.

Be that as it may, the community may cut Rick a little slack.

Because he thinks community first. The steel's going up beside Commonwealth Stadium for the joint Eskimo/city northeast recreation centre, a unique partnership in which the Eskimos are putting millions of dollars. They get indoor practice space, but the contribution the team is making is way beyond its self-interest. And this is because of Rick LeLacheur, community leader.

Here's another interesting pay-off from volunteer leadership.

Rick has built up a bank account, if you will, of communal good will. Because of the dozens of initatives he's been involved in to make Edmonton a better place, other commmunity leaders won't be so quick as to call for his head ... unless the Eskies have another lousy season in 2010.

So the relationships formed from leadership can sometimes carry you through bad times in much better shape than if you'd hid from the community and done nothing.

In 2003, I chaired the Catholic Social Services Sign of Hope campaign.

It was my first go-round as a chair.

I was nervous. All my life, I'd been the guy in the corner, arms crossed, watching the show, and then, without every being involved, reporting and commenting on said show in the newspaper.

I'd never grown up.

Now, gulp, I was in charge. On my shoulders was the responsiblity for raising about $2 million in four months. And the constant reminder that, over some 30 years, no leader of the Sign of Hope campaign had not made the fund-raising goal. Mayor Bill Smith even suggested I could raise $20 million. Thanks Bill.

We made it. I grew up. We came through some minor crises.

I discovered that indeed, I could lead.

A funny thing happened to my reputation as a columnist within the upper ranks of the city's leaders.

I had respect! Wow - a columnist ... with respect.

Because I was seen not only as a columnist, but a community leader.

Here's how the thought process might have worked, inside the brain of a community leader: This guy might take potshots at my friends, but he's also got his hands dirty alongside us, raising money for a good cause. I respect that, he'll think to himself. I'll return his phone call. I might even give him a little scoop.

He's proven his heart is in the right place. I think I trust him. I think I'll tell him things I wouldn't tell another journalist, because he's proven to me by his public charity leadership that he has judgement, and discernment.

Has my business profited from my community work? At least 10-fold.

Will business come your way? You bet.

My friend Doug Goss, one of the "Mr. Charities" in this town, has the busiest corporate practice within his rather large law firm.

Bob Westbury, former TransAlta VP for northern alberta, now chair of the Telus Edmonton Community Board, has raised about $100 million for charity over his career.

He got the TransAlta job, he tells me, because of the non-profit sector. He was president of a non-profit association that took him into every major head office in town, pitching an educational tool. The Canadian Petroleum Association took an interest, which in turn led to TransAlta.

Another little secret. As you start to move in those circles, you improve the quality of your "team." You'll become a friendly acquaintance of some of the best lawyers, financial advisors, accountants, car dealers and bankers in town.

Because those who can do so much for the community ... are usually very good at what they do. That's why they're wanted on boards!

Let's move on to power ... the political power to get things done.

This is volunteerism, leadership, of a different sort.

You'll find many of our top community leaders are also political power brokers, back-room boys who run political campaigns, or are the top bag-men.

Because that volunteer work reaps huge dividends for both career and one's other charity causes.

You start in a political party constituency association. Just show up, you'll be conscripted. One thing leads to another. You may support one candidate, but you also prove you're a loyal foot soldier to the party. If you're an idealist, maybe it's the Liberals or NDP, and hey, you'll still make some connections, but they will be far from the cabinet minister that dispenses the funds.

You'll move up in the party hierarchy. And within five to 10 years, you too will be rather well connected politically.

Now from a cynical point of view, political power is all about divvying up a big pot of money. So ... you might as well be in there, helping your cause get that illusive grant or having its funding proposal accepted. Helping drive ... maybe ... just a little government business to your firm.

Another interesting paradox. If you enter political volunteerism with the right frame of mind, you will not sink into obscurity because your guy lost the leadership race. Good women or good men are hard to find. The fella that puts party first, no matter how his candidate does, is usually accepted back into the corridors of power. Because he or she has earned respect.

Persistence: If you are going to get in this game, with all the great pay-offs as referenced in this speech, you must not be a quitter. You can never, never, give up. Your cause may seem impossible, funding will never come. But adversity builds character! Stick with it, my child.

Everybody who gives out money, be they corporations, foundations, rich people, government, has to be courted. Your cause starts at the bottom of the priority list, but it does work its way up with time, as long as you are politely persistent. "Get 100 people with a cause," a provincial cabinet minister once told me after a few drinks, "and nine times out of 10 they will be victorious."

And you, as their champion, will earn great brownie points in the corridors of power. Now everybody with the ability to write a big cheque may cross the road when they see you coming ... but you'll be highly respected.

Something I hear time and time again.

I haven't time to be involved in the community. Or my family would suffer too much from my absence

Sometimes time is a valid excuse ... if you're a single mother raising kids, or if one of you has an out-of-town job that forces the other to be with young children every evening.

But I'll let you in on another secret. The folks in town who put in the 20 to 30 hours a week leading non-profit causes, their marriages seem to be very healthy, their children healthier still. Their spouses, I realize, are saints. holding down the home front while the other is out saving the world.

And you'll find their kids, from 16 on, throw themselves into the community. Surprise, surprise, they are actually inspired by your actions. They'll never admit it, but they are proud of what you've done. They want to be like you.

Other rewards: It feels pretty good to give.Since 2003, because of several other charitable efforts I head up on an annual basis, I have been fortunate enough to be honoured with 10 awards for community service - the coolest being a Queen's Jubilee medal from the late lt-gov. Lois Hole.

It's not very fair. Others have worked far harder than I in the voluntary sector, and it's merely high-profile that has sent these awards my way.

But I do hang them proudly in my office. When the publisher comes to visit, he always takes a few seconds to survey those awards ... that makes me feel very, very good.

I wish I received an award or two for being a great writer and journalist, but hey, I'll take what I can get!

Everything I've been talking about reflects the unholy trinity of me, myself and I.

But here's the biggest paradox of all.

You cannot profit from being a community leader ... unless it's in your heart.

You are taking up great gobs of time.

You are going out four evenings a week.

You are constantly juggling 20 balls in the air, wondering how the heck you'll get that report done for the boss, and the review you promised your board for Tuesday's meeting.

You just can't do it unless you care.

By the way, you'll develop intense self discipline as there's only so much time in the day and you can't waste any. You can rest in the Hereafter.

If you're indifferent to the community around you, then you lack the heart for leadership.

This is not a dress rehearsal. This is all we have, somewhere from 60 to 90 years of this life. You're a long time dead after that.

So you've only got one shot to make a difference. How can you possibly pass this opportunity up?

Making a difference is what being human is all about.

There is true joy in giving.

Let me end with a quip from that great quipster Sir Winston Churchill, who should be turned to whenever you are in need of the right quote for the right occasion, such as his memorable response to Mrs. Braddock.

“'You are drunk Sir Winston, you are disgustingly drunk," she said.

'Yes, Mrs. Braddock, I am drunk," he replied. "But you, Mrs. Braddock are ugly, and disgustingly fat. But, tomorrow morning, I, Winston Churchill will be sober."

Which is not the quote I wanted to leave you with: Here it is.

"Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb."

It is all about giving.

As Yogi the Bear says, always leave your campsite cleaner than you found it.

And if but 10 or 20 or 30 of you get involved because of this speech, I will be very pleased, feel very good, that I've once again contributed to this fantastic community that we call home.

Thank you, as Ralph Klein would say, so very, very much.

And to that lawyer who probably did join three more boards ... thanks for the inspiration!