Brian Foster and Benny’s Restaurant enjoyed a special relationship. It’s here in this Calgary eatery that Foster imagined a plan that would shift the fortunes of a global organization.
“Benny’s was my network place and a lot of ideas were hatched there,” says Foster, 70. “I solved a lot of problems over breakfast. But better yet, I forged some lasting partners and friendships that stood by me through some pretty tough times.”
An era has ended with Foster’s recent retirement as Executive Director of Operation Eyesight, the Calgary-based international development organization which has long shone a compassionate spotlight on avoidable blindness, considered a major health crisis in Africa and Asia.
“Avoidable blindness means blinding conditions that can be treated, prevented or cured, like a cataract surgery to restore sight,” says Foster. “We take our vision for granted in many cases, because eye care is so readily available in North America. But that’s not so in developing countries — and I knew I had to change that.”
Before his eye healthcare career came into focus, Foster invested his early years as a human resources specialist.
“I eventually became a career transition expert. I was the guy who helped employees leave an organization — either through layoffs or being let go suddenly — in the most considerate and compassionate way.”
Guiding people through seismic career upheavals is hardly a job for the faint of heart. Thanks to the inspiration of others, “I’ve always wanted to help people,” adds Foster, who also credits the curveballs he’s braved in his own life for ultimately steering him towards a better place that would empower him to improve the lives of millions.
Foster’s desire to make the world a better place for people in need traces its origins to a family tragedy that struck when he was a toddler.
“When I was two, a family car accident left my baby sister Joanne, permanently brain-damaged, and my parents severely injured. I escaped injury, after spending a few hours in the vehicle before rescue workers found me. It profoundly changed me and I grew up wanting to educate people on seatbelt safety.”
While too young to realize it at the time, this life-altering event put him firmly on the path towards altruism.
Decades later, when one of his clients for career-transition services turned out to be none other than Operation Eyesight, Foster reached a fork in his road — but it would be even more years until he realized the significance of that meeting.
“When I met with Operation Eyesight’s then Executive Director Donald O’Dwyer, I was stunned to learn about all the remarkable things this small organization was doing. I knew instantly I had to be part of it,” Foster recalls. “I asked Donald if I could be on the board of directors — and he agreed — introducing me to the founder, Art Jenkyns.”
Now, anyone who’s met Foster would further agree he’s an inspiring man — with a gift of charisma and persuasion that’s served him well in his work with thousands of people over his career, as he coached, motivated and encouraged them through their dark days.
But now it was Foster’s turn to be inspired — and Jenkyns took his breath away — awakening a drive deep inside of him that runs strong to this day.
“Art had this energy and warmth about him that permeated any room he walked into. When he shook my hand, a lasting shock wave of energy went through me,” says Foster, his voice heavy with emotion. “He inspired something in me I didn’t know I had.”
Their meeting set into motion a string of events that would drive waves of change for an organization on the brink and in desperate need of reinvention.
Foster served as a director on the board from 1996 to 2000 — then as its chair until 2004. “During this time, our work was centred in India, and I had the good fortune to visit the country with some of our donors.”
“Here I was, with my man purse of first world ‘necessities’, in the middle of one of the poorest slums in India,” he says. “They had nothing, not even the smallest of luxuries, but the number of smiling faces greeting me was overwhelming. I was shell-shocked at how many people lived without the comforts I take for granted — and were happy with that. It was an eye-opener.”
India gave Foster a firm grasp of the meaning of real poverty. It also taught him survival skills and the importance of health and education. “There were so many defining moments on that trip, that it thrust me into high gear — Operation Eyesight had changes to make.”
In 2008, Foster stepped into the role of Vice President of Human Resources for the organization. During one of his many breakfast meetings at Benny’s, he realized his mission was to evolve the culture and structure of Operation Eyesight.
“The internal operations were failing. Financial difficulties were becoming apparent,” says Foster, who concluded it was time to overhaul the body, a process he began by hiring experts to review their fundraising capabilities.
“We were operating as an aid organization where we were simply an ATM machine. Where there was a need, we’d finance it, without considering our dwindling finances. It was not a happy time.”
In one dire moment, Foster even drafted a liquidation plan.
“Without proper governance or an effective fundraising strategy in place, we were doomed. I thought about looking for another job, as I suspect others were also doing because we just weren’t sustainable.”
But blessed with a stick-to-it attitude, Foster hung in there — only to find himself the new Executive Director of Operation Eyesight in 2012.
“I decided I was going to turn the organization around and make us thrive. I didn’t want to erase us, and I certainly couldn’t tell those people in extreme poverty that we couldn’t help them anymore,” says Foster. “I had commitments to those people, and our partners, and I was going to keep them.”
Drawing on skills that dated back to his roots, Foster put on his sales hat as he enacted some tough changes. “I put bylaws, processes and procedures in place to create a strong ‘decision tree’. We had to move from reactionary funding to being proactive, and that meant putting some sustainable practices in place. We built the house, now we had to live in it.”
But living in their new reality didn’t come easy.
Foster evolved the structure of the board of directors to governance from operational, hired their first ever major gifts officer, a dedicated communications expert and a fundraising consultant.
“I created the organization’s first strategic plan — and started the evolution of an aid organization into an international development organization,” he adds.
Refocusing the mission on international development meant proactively funding education, prevention and treatment programs — and adopting fresh, strategic-funding practices. “I became a fundraiser, and to create some breathing room, I sold the building, that today, the organization leases.”
In Foster’s mind, the biggest change was “the slow and sometimes painful organizational culture shift to one of collaboration between Calgary and our overseas teams in the countries where we were working.
Building trust between the board and their operational teams mightily tested his resolve.
“As the board chair, some of the board members disagreed with what I was doing. But I saw an organization that makes a difference in people’s lives. Over many breakfast meetings, I began to see the light go on as the board started to understand that these changes were necessary — that without them Operation Eyesight wasn’t going to last.
“I made difficult decisions — but they were the right ones. And we did it!”
With Operation Eyesight now firmly on the road to recovery, the relationship-building continued. “I remember being struck by the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness’ sincerity when they said: ‘I’m glad you’re back’. That one phrase spoke volumes to me and validated my efforts.”
To Foster’s delight, Operation Eyesight’s success continues to snowball as new partnerships emerge throughout Africa and South Asia. While the global team couldn’t all gather to enjoy breakfast at Benny’s — they were together in spirit and goal.
Foster ushered in the new era, and when asked what kept him going through the bleak times, his answer takes only seven words: “It wasn’t in me to give up.”
Foster credits all the great people he had in his corner. “I couldn’t have done this myself without the collaboration, concern, and ‘bleeding’ of many wonderful staff, partners and board of directors. People need to know that if you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go further you go together. We went together, thank you.”
Brian specifically wanted to thank the following people for making the work accomplished during his time as Executive Director possible:
- Art & Una Jenkyns and their family;
- All of our donors, without whom we would not exist;
- All our incredible partners;
- All of the present and former Operation Eyesight Board Members in Canada, India, Kenya, Zambia, United Kingdom & Australia;
- All of our present and former staff;
- All of our volunteers;
- The Gullison family;
- LVPEI, Dr. Nag Rao, Dr. TP Das, Dr. GC, Dr. Swathi Kaliki & Sam Balasundaram, IAPB Peter Ackland (former CEO)
- World Health Organization
- Kashinath Bhoosnurmath, Dr. Bo Wiafe, Linda Dent, Dr. Paul Dubord, Tony Myers, Kate McBrearty, Madame Johnson Sirleaf (former President of Liberia), Stephen Lewis (Stephen Lewis Foundation);
- His family.
Although now a grandfather of five, he’s always up for a fresh challenge.
“I’m not retiring, I’m just transitioning myself,” he says with a smile.
“I’ve taken on the role of board chair for Gems for Gems, a Calgary non-profit whose mission is to end the cycle of the global epidemic of domestic abuse.”
Allowing himself a brief flashback, Foster wonders aloud how his life might have unfolded, had he and his sister been wearing their seatbelts on that fateful day.
“My sister is still alive, having lived in assisted care all her life. When I see her, I wonder how different it might have been if we’d all escaped injury, or if the accident hadn’t happened…. Would I have taken a different path in life?”
It’s a question with no sure or easy answer. But one fact is indisputable — the world looks better today for millions of people because Foster stepped up to the plate with resolve and determination to make Operation Eyesight thrive.