In 2004, Michael McKnight was appointed President and CEO of the United Way of The Lower Mainland. Today, he is President and CEO of the United Way of British Columbia. Under his 19-year stewardship, millions in this province have benefitted from his work.
This magic — this synergy of the right man at the right time with the right organization — might never have happened had Ryerson Polytechnic University offered a football program in the early 1980s.
Michael grew up in Mississauga, Ontario. He never excelled academically but had a prodigious passion for sports.
“All except hockey,” he says with a laugh.
Football was the game he wanted to play at a post-secondary level. When he learned Ryerson (now called the Toronto Metropolitan University) didn’t have a team, he scrubbed his plans for a journalism career there and instead entered the communications department of Carleton University in Ottawa.
After graduating and working as a child welfare worker and then in the private sector for 10 years, he pursued a degree in social work. He needed a practicum to finish the degree and found one with the federal government. That practicum led to a full-time job.
“But the timing wasn’t great,” he says. “The Liberal government was just elected on a promise to reduce the number of public service employees.”
With two young children, a mortgage and unemployment a distinct possibility, Michael went career hunting. At the young age of 32, he left public service to take on the challenging work of CEO for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, a position he held for nine years.
“I knew nothing about being a CEO; nothing about running a charity; nothing about anything, actually. It was just by a weird circumstance that I got the job.”
Even though Michael loved his position with Big Brothers Big Sisters, he always wanted to move to Vancouver. After a couple of failed search processes, the United Way CEO position opened; the rest is history.
“Since I was new to the province there were some concerns about my ability to build a strong network of donors, supporters and volunteers, but I always enjoyed doing that work and I believe I am good at it.”
During Michael’s tenure, the United Way has changed in dramatic and positive ways.
“When I started, most people thought of it as only a workplace fundraiser that gave out grants. But the world was changing, and that approach was losing its value proposition. Workplaces were becoming more democratized and the days of the company CEO impacting staff donations were disappearing. Our campaigns were declining. We were cutting everywhere. It was exhausting.”
It was then the UW decided to pivot and change its focus to working in neighborhoods reconnecting people. Social isolation was a growing problem and the United Way stepped up and stepped in.
“We started a bunch of small programs like little libraries, and community gardens. Our network was growing in ways it had never grown before, and when the pandemic hit, we were able to use that network to springboard into providing crucial services at a time of greatest need.”
That model of community outreach next worked its magic when fires and floods devastated the towns of Lytton and Merritt, and again when Ukrainian refugees arrived in British Columbia with little more than the clothes they were wearing.
“We changed our brand and our culture. Staff and volunteers suddenly went from being down about our vision and our work, to now being super energized every day. It became a completely different place.”
Of the many life lessons learned through the journey of a remarkable career, he says “always do the right thing” is the most valuable. “No matter what the books say, or the advisers say, lead with your conscience. I learned that at Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I have used it throughout my work life.”
At 61, Michael is starting to warm to the idea of retirement. “When I think about retirement, I think about the opportunities the extra time will afford me. I want to be able to ride my bike more, go to Whistler on weekdays, travel when it is cheaper and quieter, become a better cook.”
Michael joined the TCC when he first started at the United Way. It was a convenient and central location to meet donors, to network. “Peter Jackman’s leadership and the hard work of the dedicated TCC staff has really rejuvenated the club in recent years.” Kind words from a CEO who clearly understands the value of rejuvenation.