Robert McFarlane is the chief financial officer and executive vice president of TELUS Communications Inc. and TELUS Corporation. He has a bachelor of commerce degree from Queen’s University and a master of business administration degree from the University of Western Ontario. He serves as a member of The Salvation Army’s National Advisory Board and the Vancouver Advisory Board. McFarlane speaks with John McAlister, senior editor.
What initially attracted you to The Salvation Army?
A few years ago, I began thinking about ways in which I could contribute back to the community. In addition to my role on corporate boards, I decided to participate on an external charitable board. I wanted to work with an organization that I respected and that was open to input and advice. I had a good impression of The Salvation Army as it is very active in British Columbia and makes a tremendous difference to those in need. After speaking with Army representatives, I joined the Vancouver Advisory Board. Then, two years ago, I was also invited to join the Army’s National Advisory Board.
Having worked alongside us for a number of years, what you do perceive as our strengths?
I think one strength comes from your consistent understanding of your organizational values and ethics. Often in the business world we struggle to figure out what our overall mission or long-term purpose is. I don’t think The Salvation Army has any difficulty in knowing what it’s trying to do, which is to provide dignity and hope to those in need.
Another strength is that you are very effective and efficient. People know that if they turn to the Army for help, you will provide the assistance they need. That’s a tremendous reputation to have.
Do you see any areas of weakness?
Every organization has challenges, so it’s nothing to shy away from. While it has long been immediately recognizable, the Army’s branding, such as the Red Shield and uniforms, has the potential to be irrelevant to younger generations or to those new to Canada. Given the Army’s reliance on public support, it’s important that you market yourselves in a way that connects with new generations or cultures so that you remain just as relevant in the future as you have been in the past.
Another issue is officership. While a source of incredible strength for the organization, it may also prove challenging as the numbers of officers continue to decrease. Given that the demand for social services continues to grow, the Army will need to explore the role of officers in these ministries. Will they continue to manage and direct this work, or be reassigned to other areas in the organization? As well, if the number of Army representatives in your social centres diminish, will you still continue to be the same organization?
What does the future of technology look like?
Technology is shrinking the distance between people like never before. People now can communicate simultaneously with thousands of others around the world through social media. We can see the impact of this with some of the recent uprisings in the Middle East. People are using tools such as Facebook on a daily basis, so organizations must use these resources in order to remain relevant to society. The adoption of social media is essential for communicating your message. I believe The Salvation Army is doing that and should be congratulated for its efforts, but there is much more to be done.
Technology is also changing the way people work. At TELUS, we’re working with large organizations, such as the Ottawa General Hospital, to discover ways to improve their effectiveness. Doctors are now using electronic tablets with health applications to assist them with diagnosing patients, which helps eliminate errors, increase timeliness and decrease health costs.
TELUS was also a proponent in modifying technology so that people could use their phones to text donations. Through this technology, the Army was able to receive donations for Haiti and Japan disaster relief from people who likely wouldn’t have donated through more traditional fundraising means.
Communication is changing rapidly. How can we help our clients keep up?
The Army doesn’t serve a uniform group of people in need, as you work with different segments of the population, such as the elderly, daycares, health and social services and the homeless. If homeless people do not have a cellphone or Internet connectivity, they probably do not communicate that way, so having a blog, chat line or being accessible on Twitter may be less relevant to them than having a traditional physical presence that they can interact with. But for other segments of the population, it may be more appropriate for them to connect by e-mail or phone for counselling. The Salvation Army needs to ask itself, “How do the people we serve communicate? And are we positioned to connect with them in the most relevant manner and to serve them when they need our help?”
What role do large companies such as TELUS have in supporting the vulnerable in society?
The only reason that companies like TELUS have funds that they can consider donating or sponsoring with is because they make a profit. So, it all starts with the services we have and the first priority as a company is to effectively generate a profit. However, there is a virtuous feedback loop in our belief in doing good in the communities in which we live, work and serve. Our employees are increasingly looking for opportunities to give back. When we facilitate those opportunities, we have happier and more fulfilled team members.
Last year, TELUS was named the most philanthropic company in the world, so we believe giving is the right thing to do and linked to employee engagement. We also recognize that there are people who want to buy products and services from local companies that help the social fabric of their communities.
A more recent trend is cause marketing, in which a donation to a specific charity is explicitly linked to the purchase of a product. For example, in some areas of B.C., if you buy a new subscription to our television service, we will donate $100 to a local hospital. Another example is the pink BlackBerrys we sold in support of the Breast Cancer Foundation. We have been very successful with this and it is a neat opportunity for The Salvation Army to reflect on.
TELUS has been a great supporter of the Army, receiving a Life Giver Award from the B.C. Division.
We received the award in recognition of the considerable donations and contributions we’ve made in particular toward the Vancouver Harbour Light. For a number of years, we’ve funded the provision of an enhanced meal on Tuesdays. Teams of our employees rotate to help serve that meal and it has become known on the streets as “TELUS Tuesdays.” Another interesting initiative that started in B.C. and has now gone national is Socks for SOX. Someone who works in our financial department asked, “Why don’t we raise money to purchase socks for the homeless?” What started out as a simple idea to ask for donations has taken off nationally. Ten thousand pairs of socks were purchased this year from the funds raised by our finance people.
What can our organizations learn from each other?
An organization like TELUS excels in terms of adopting new innovations and being accountable to high performance as we operate in a very competitive market. I think The Salvation Army can learn to improve its accountability for results in its own activities and develop ways to measure that. What is success, how can it be measured and how can you continually improve on that? These business concepts are very relevant to the Army.
There’s a sense of a higher calling when it comes to the work of the Army. For an organization such as TELUS, it’s important that we also identify a greater purpose for our employees and stakeholders than just making money. I think we do this well, but we can certainly learn more from the commitment and sense of fulfilment found in the Army.