How to Have Impact

Lessons from Al Etmanski & Six Nova Scotian Changemakers


If necessity is the mother of invention, who is the other parent? Al Etmanski began his “book unlaunch” in North End Halifax with this unlikely question. His answer was just as unlikely. He said that when necessity comes together with love—with caring and passion—we have what it takes to have long-lasting impact. Successful changemakers are “passionate amateurs” who see a need and respond because they care, not just because it’s their job description.

Shining a Light on Passionate Amateurs 

Al shared the Company House stage with six Nova Scotian changemakers who were indeed passionate about their work. Will Martin talked about his love of the Acadian forest and his commitment to sustainable forestry. He is now President of the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association where he is helping to launch the innovative Forestry Lab. Mark Coffin is passionate about “making democracy better” and recalled coming together with friends to start the influential Springtide Collective

Rodney Small and Paige Cameron reminded us that even when we are passionate about the issues, it sometimes takes a caring hand to give us the confidence and direction we need to go the next step. Rodney, who grew up a “stone’s throw away” from the Company House, in Uniacke Square, was mentored and encouraged by many people along the way, including Andy and David at Common Good Solutions, his current employers.

Paige was a teenager in Spryfield when she met Ryan Veltmeyer, who challenged her to focus her passion, develop her skills, and turn what she loved into a source of income. Paige now runs her own successful game development business, and they both support other young people across the province through Youth Art Connection.

Reaching our Limits

Heading down the path of the social entrepreneur can be exhilarating. It’s not clear where the path will lead, what challenges are ahead, what breakthroughs are possible. But that path can sometimes take us to a dead end or chasm. Rankin MacSween related a time of feeling total defeat, when he just couldn’t see a way forward for New Dawn.


Al came to a similar chasm, but in a very different way. Outwardly his social enterprise PLAN was thriving beyond all expectation. But he and his partner were faced with the realization that they hadn’t they made any real headway within the community they most wanted to serve—adults with disabilities who outlived their parents and who suffered from poverty and social isolation.

In both cases, a door finally opened; a bridge across the chasm appeared. For Al this meant changing himself. He realized that the shadow side of being a “passionate amateur” is that you can start to carry a chip on your shoulder. You become so identified with your cause that you alienate the people and potential allies you need. You think like an activist and act like an organization instead of thinking and acting like a movement.

After that realization, Al became willing to take off his “disability activist" hat when it wasn't helpful. He started to work more closely with people who had previously opposed him. He also realized there are different types of innovators, and they all have an important role to play. Disruptors challenge the status quo and create alternatives. Bridgers translate disruptive ideas and help sell them to decision-makers and funders. They are also honest enough to advise activists and entrepreneurs on how they can get out of their own way. Receptors work quietly within institutions to help sustain new innovations and bring them into the mainstream.

Al noted that over the span of his career he had migrated from disruptor to bridger. He had to come to work closely with receptors within the federal and provincial government in order to enact a ground-breaking Registered Disabilities Savings Plan, which changed the economic reality for people with disabilities and their families.

Combining the Old and the New

Our evening at the CoHo began with Mary Jane Lamond singing a Gaelic song, and it drew to a close with her story about the challenges of trying to keep the Gaelic language, culture and stories alive in Cape Breton. Part of her story was about remembering what we already know. It was about the younger generation learning from the elders and communities coming together to share good food, music and hospitality. And the other part was about exploring new frontiers. For example, through web technology the Cape Breton Gaels could now learn about programs that were working for Australian aboriginals, and they could also connect with their counterparts in Scotland.

This theme of combining the old and the new ran through the evening. Al noted that far beyond Nova Scotia, people continue to
learn from the success of the Antigonish Movement. Our communities have a long and rich history of rising above adversity. At the same time, we are finding innovative ways to work together to solve problems and create new, more vibrant and sustainable communities and economies. Good examples are Will’s Forestry Lab, which is bringing industry, environmentalists and foresters to the same table; Mark’s social media campaigns, which are engaging citizens in political awareness and democratic reform; and Paige’s Youth Art Connections, which is crossing boundaries between the arts, the tech sector and entrepreneurship.

Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation

The next day, Al led a three-hour workshop at the Halifax Central Library, met with the Engage team, and joined a recorded conversation with Dan O'Rourke. He clearly enjoyed his visit to Nova Scotia, and we are are grateful for the many insights and warm friendship he shared with all of us. Many thanks to the story-tellers (listed above) and musicians (Greg Woolner, Jacques Mindreau and Jordan Stephens) who helped make it happen. 

Watch this video clip of the Book Unlaunch.

Listen to the whole event here.

Listen to an Engage conversation with Al Etmanski.

Find out more about Al’s book, download the intro, and subscribe to his blog. 

We also have copies of the book for sale at the Engage office. Contact us for more information. 




get updates