Charity work is already a noble move. Rescuing charities takes nobility up a notch. Today, Douglas Nelson talks to Paul Latour, a motivational speaker and the creator of HeroWork Society, a program that inspires people, communities, and companies to come together to help renovate charities. Paul talks about how he formed HeroWork, its benefits, actions, and values. Paul’s four Cs to a successful event and step-by-step guide for infrastructure renewal have guided them not just physically transform organizations but psychologically transform them as well. Learn how Paul and his team have helped evolved a group to a community that lifts up each other for a greater cause.
Listen to the podcast here:
HeroWork Radical Renovations With Paul Latour
In the show, I’m excited to have our guest, Paul Latour. He’s the Executive Director of HeroWork Society based in Victoria. Welcome, Paul.
Thanks for having me here. I’m excited.
For some of our readers who may not be familiar with HeroWork, tell us a little bit about what the organization is and the great work that you do.
HeroWork is a charity that renovates other charities. We mobilize the entire community to do this. It’s a modern-day fundraising or an extreme makeover where we’ll have over 100 companies and anywhere from 300 to 500 volunteers to send on a charity and over the space of a few weeks transform the organization. It’s not only a physical transformation, but there is also a psychological transformation because of how we do what we do. We make their building good for them and connected to their vision so that over the next ten years, they’re able to move forward with making it even a better difference.
I want to get into some of the specific examples as we go through our conversation. First, how does HeroWork get started? How did it come to be?
It got started on a fluke. I come from an artist background. I worked in the hospitality industry and I had a friend with MS. It’s a friend that needed some help. She had a lack of mobility, lack of gainful employment. She lived at this little co-op and she was a master gardener her whole life. Her backyard, because of her condition, had become a mass of matted grass of weeds. She would ask friends if they can come over on a Saturday afternoon to make some sense of the things. I’d go over there on Saturday and I’d spent four hours in the blazing hot sun. I’d be sweaty, tired and I’d have blisters on my hands. I’d look and I can’t even tell the difference that I made. It was after one of these that I thought, “I could get twenty friends together, have a pizza party, help my friend.” I started to put this plan together and tell them, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a mini extreme makeover?” I brought this plan to a friend. Seven days later, we are a team of six people. Seven weeks later, we had 27 companies, 65 volunteers, 10 rotating musical acts and a $25,000 renovation in a single day with $380. The short story of that is that changed my life and sent me down a trajectory that has now become HeroWork.
It sounds like it would have been a great party. A $25,000 is the work for $380, it’s a great feeling. You’ve helped your friend and you build the sense of community of people giving back and doing something in service of others. What’s the next step after that? This is to help a friend, but you’ve gone on to help important organizations in the community to do their important work. How do you move from that one event to the great work you’re doing now?
It was conscious and growth curves. The first one was maybe it’ll never work again. I’m going to do a test event. The following year was a test event. Before he did that, I decided if I’m going to do this and change my life, and I had a lot of things going or to take this on because I was a volunteer for the first four years of putting all this together. I thought, “Where can we make the biggest difference?” We looked at charities and it made common sense of charity buildings. I’ve been to a few of these and they’re in terrible condition. If we could hit the hub and transform the hub, the net would ripple all impact. That was the initial idea. We went to the Customer Emergency Housing Society and did a weekend, $100,000 renovation or two weekends, $100,000 renovation for them. It was an amazing success. It wasn’t called HeroWork at the time. The first one wasn’t a fluke. I realized that I had to learn a lot of things that I didn’t have the capacity to take it to the next step. It took a year-and-a-half off from doing these events of working my normal job. I started to learn so I took marketing, caught myself on how to build a website, do video editing.
I went to Toastmasters for a year-and-a-half to get better at speech crap because I wasn’t very good in front of people. I figured out more systems to apply. We took on The Mustard Seed Project, which was what I’ll call the Proof of Concept Project. It was a $500,000 build in about ten days. That put us on the map. At that point, it’s called HeroWork. That was the first big success that said, “This is a model, the event, and the process work.” We get great buy-in from a whole lot of different stakeholders but still, I didn’t have the financial and business model. I figured out enough. About nine months of business modeling, I figured out some key challenges at that point. Once I figured out those key challenges around how the revenue would work, then we created in the summer of 2014, the nonprofit that’s called HeroWork. We started our builds as a nonprofit in the next year. We became a charity and our growth and sophistication trajectory since that time has been pretty astronomical.
I want you to take us back to those conversations with The Mustard Seed. You called it the Proof of Concept Project, the big dollars in ten days and not just friends getting together on the weekend, a sophisticated operation to get this done. What were those first conversations like with the people at the Mustard Seed about what their need was and how did you understand what you could do or how you could help them achieve what they were trying to achieve?
I’m still a volunteer. I paid for all of this. The Mustard Seed didn’t pay for anything at that time. Some people donated some money too, but before I made that commitment, I volunteered for a week with them. I did every job in the place from intake to warehouse to drive it around to different locations and things like that. I wanted to get to know them before I made such a large commitment. I decided, “Let’s move forward with this project.” There was a lot of consultation, bringing in different designers to have conversations, bringing in contractors and a DM bringing the right team to bear on the project is key to being able to understand what it is that they’re looking to achieve, how this renovation can lift up their mandate. It was about bringing the right team and initiating the dialogue over time. It wasn’t evolution. They didn’t quite know what they wanted at the beginning, so we had to work through all the details.
I would imagine that’s often the case with a number of the groups that you’re working and partner with that they have an idea of what they need, but they don’t have a clear concept because they do not project managers nor architects. How do you bring your partners along to see what might be possible?
Every organization is different. Some organizations are versed in infrastructure changes, know what they want. We might be adding some additional vision and some creative pieces, but they have a good concept. Other organizations don’t have a concept at all. I remember when the Rainbow Kitchen came to us and they said, “We have this bathroom and we need a new bathroom.” We went in and they have a single-use bathroom in their building. They served 150 people every lunch that line-up out the door to use this single-use bathroom. I’m like, “You need a new bathroom.”
If you’ve seen the rest of your building, “You’ve got single-pane windows. You’ve got mold on your walls. You’ve got a broomstick holding your stove close. You’ve got our residential hood over a commercial stove, and the hood doesn’t even work properly.” The list of things went on and on. It’s about saying, “What’s your vision? Where do you want to be in ten years?” Looking at the building and saying, “How can we make a comprehensive change to this building that empowers that vision?” We start to bring up ideas, “What about this? What about that? Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?”
Sometimes, we have to send them away and take a few months and figure out your vision. Unless you’ve got a vision, we can’t do the renovation because we don’t have that compass marker. There are other times that they have to go back and interview their constituents, volunteers and their clients to say what works for you. It’s about relationship building. It’s about understanding who they are, where the capacities are or are not, then filling that in with knowledge or the right different stakeholders from the community that can assist them to develop the right vision and get the right scope of work that helps to transform what it is that they do.
When you have the project conceptualize what you need, one of the things that jump out at me about your organization is the way that you bring volunteers together to accomplish that shared task. You said you were a volunteer for the first four years bringing together groups. How has that changed as you’ve formalized and become an active social profit?
There are some things that have stayed the same. The very first event that I did for my friend, I had one golden rule and that was everybody had to have a win-win relationship or a win-win situation. They were both giving and getting something at the same time. I’ll have to create a great experience for the volunteers. That meant we should bring food, we should bring entertainment, how can we make it cool? That was the win-win situation for everybody. Since then, there are a lot of systems that go into it. The successful event has four key factors. I’ll call them the four Cs. The first C is a high level of change. Even from the beginning of a single day to the end of a single day, there’s a huge amount of change in that time and you can see it, you can feel it.
From the beginning of the project to the end of the project, it’s transformative. We do about $100,000 worth of renovations per week when we’re up and running with these things. A big level of change on multiple layers. In that high level of coolest. When you get to the end of the venue, you’re like, “That was awesome. I want to do that again. We’re lucky. That was successful.” A high level of coolness and how we generate that unique experience that you can’t quite get anywhere else, whether you’re a trade or general volunteer or group. There’s a high level of connection. We’re a community coming together. We’re controlled with common vision and purpose.
High-five-ing people, getting to know them, developing relationships, always working towards solutions so people feel connected, feel part of a larger community. There’s the last one, which is cohesion. When a volunteer comes in, they feel they’re well taken care of. They go to a checking process where they get checked in, get their safety orientation, get their color-coded t-shirt and color-coded name tag, which all denotes what their role is and what their strength level is. They get escorted into the site, they get introduced to the safety officer who orientates them to the sites and then introduce to the crew lead and then they get to work. They’re taken care of in a way that says that we care and that we’re organized and we got our stuff together. When I put those four Cs together and I’m successful as well as the team is successful on those four things, then we tend to pull off a great event that hopefully brings people back again and again.
I would imagine you have volunteers who have been with you for quite a few of these projects.
We do have people that come back again and again, which is awesome. We have different layers of volunteers. We have volunteer leaders, those can be crew leaders. We have professionals and designers that’ll be involved pre-project and then a little bit during the event. We get groups that are involved and they’ll come back time and again as well. Groups could be anywhere from 5 to 25 people that’ll come in as a company or as a group into the project and then all your trades and sub-trades. We have 900 individual volunteers and 9,000 hours’ worth of volunteerism, which excludes all the prep work to the project. It’s amazing to see those numbers.
[bctt tweet=”Taking care of volunteers make a charity event successful.” username=””]
You mentioned the trades and the sub-trades. Do you have people who can barely swing a hammer that is wanting to get on the site and help out?
There’s a ton of roles. I would say it depends on the project. Some projects are more trade heavy and some projects are lighter on the trades depending on nature. On average, there are about 60% non-trades and 40% trades on these projects. Non-trades are divided between people who don’t have renovation experience and that are handy people who will stay. You can do foodservice check-in, orientation, cleaning, sanding walls, painting, and trim work. We can teach people how to lay vinyl floor under supervision. We have the full range of people that are involved that aren’t good at swinging the hammer but can roll some paints. We provide training as we go.
As you evolved from that group of that community that came together to support your friend to know what is quite a sophisticated social profit organization with a great board working, how do you choose which projects you take on? I would imagine that there is a quantifiable need for the types of services that you offer because it is so unique, not just in Victoria in British Columbia, but anywhere in North America.
There are six or seven steps in the adjudication process. We’re not inundated with projects. We do large projects. Our renovations are between $400,000 and $700,000 worth of real-world value. If you’re going to go pay for this at a normal rate, what would the value be? That’s the size of the project that we do. We don’t do small projects because there’s not enough bang for the buck. A $100,000 project still requires communication protocols, charter developments, all the legal things, and consultation pieces. We’re doing a small renovation. We tend to do comprehensive, transformative builds and let other people take on the small stuff. We’re working on 2022 for projects. We’re booked through 2021 at the moment. The first thing we do is have a conversation.
There is an application process but that’s mostly for the board to have a good document to look through. The first thing we do is give us a call. Let’s have a ten-minute phone call to be sure that you’re even in the wheelhouse for what we’re looking to achieve. We do a site visit. We walk with them and understand who they are. We explain how it is that we choose these projects. The projects have to be the right size. The organization has to be fiscally sustainable. They have to have a vision and serve vulnerable populations. This vision has to empower their programs so that they can make a big difference in the community. That difference is sustainable as well. It also depends on how fast.
I have people that will call and they’re like, “Can you do this in three months?” I’m like, “We’re 24 months out.” It does take planning and we want organizations that are thinking well in advance and being strategic about what it is that they’re looking to achieve. They need to have good community buy-in because we shine a spotlight on what it is that they do. They need to have good leadership capability. When we start the process six months that lead up to a build, there are lots of things that we’re constantly calling them, having meetings, bringing people by and asking questions and getting deeper into the process. They need to be able to have the bandwidth organizationally to handle the pressure that our organization places on them because of the speed and the comprehensiveness of what we do. We’re not a regular build. This is our line. Our deadlines are not in sand or in concrete. We’re starting on this date. We are finishing on that date and we need to hit that deadline. The great thing is that we can do a six-month build in four weeks and it’s less disruption at the end of the organization.
What I’m interested in is what it’s like at the end of a project, to go back a day later, a week later or a month later and see the work in action and see the differences made with your partner organizations. Can you tell us what it’s like as the founder of this organization and the energy behind it to see the real benefit and action?
It’s a little surreal. Even though I know every nuance that’s going into, I’m always stunned at how beautiful it is. I’m like, “I knew it was going to look like this.” Still, the resonance of it is amazing. It’s all about the people and their ability to serve. What we do affects staff, volunteers, and clients. Our most recent build for peers as an organization in Esquimalt that serves people in the sex industry. That whole group is stigmatized on a daily basis. They’ve dealt with that for many years to come. The fact that 115 different companies and 525 volunteers to send it to transform their building for them and that they get to operate, learn, teach, cook and help each other in the community has been transformative for them. Tears from people of gratitude, passion from volunteers, staff and more dedication. To see that roll-out time and time again, it’s what we’re all here for.
One of the things that we did in the past was what we call the Legacy Tour where we brought a bunch of about 40 different stakeholders, put them out of Boston and went from building to building. We did a tour of six different renovation sites and the EDs from each organization would come onto the bus and talk about it before we did our tour. I had never done that before personally. I was like, “We are transforming the landscape of social infrastructure across this beautiful city of ours.” When you start to connect all of the different builds, I was a bit overwhelmed by it. In the end, you’re both tired, exhausted and exhilarated that time that you’ve made this legacy that will continue to have that impact for many years to come.
I can hear the emotion in your voice when you’re recounting that. That’s important to hear. I love the phrase that you used there. You’re transforming the social landscape of the community. You found a unique need in the social profit sector and in the community. I’m curious how do you work with those partners, the companies and the individuals who are contributing dollars to support these projects? How do you introduce them to your work?
Lots of suppliers, lots of different trades and things like that. First of all, we get clear and being able to tell our stories. The story of HeroWork and what it is that we do because it’s very unusual. We use video work to tell that story. When I first started, people were like, “You want to do what? You want to do how?” I’m like, “Just watch the video.” They see it and they believe it. Storytelling having the right assets whether there are flares of telling the story of the organization that we’re working with as well. Talking about impact, we are blessed with amazing buy-in to so many people. It’s the impact that we’re generating both on the building and the organization. Therefore, that vulnerable population that they’re serving but also the strengthening of our community and the experience that the people who get involved will get. Utilizing those four Cs that I talked about earlier, which is often a way that we describe our events. By using all of those things to inspire these people to get involved and that’s how we do it.
Do good work, tell people about it and keep doing it.
Keep in touch. One of our values is people first and that contractor is more important than the project. The person and the volunteer are more important than the project. We are very conscious of putting people first. If we feel that somebody is giving too much, we’re like, “Are you sure you want to do that? Are you sure you want to put this extra weekend in? You’ve got to take care of your company and your family as well.” We want to check in with them to make sure that they’re taking care of themselves too. It’s coming back to that win-win situation for everybody. If somebody has got challenges, we want to make sure that the project will get done one way or another. We find that when we do put people first, people step off, somebody has to step away and somebody else steps up. Culturally, that’s an important piece in terms of the way we operate. It’s so easy when you’re under the pressure that these projects have to flip that the other way and focus on, we got to get it done one way or another. It’s important to keep in mind and in our hearts that the people that are there are the most important asset that we have.
That’s an essential part of building an organization is keeping that focuses on the individuals that make it possible. You mentioned people first is one of your values. Across the sector, there are many organizations that say our people are our greatest asset. Lots of companies say that too. When push comes to shove, it’s hard to live that idea and value. How do you make sure that happens on a daily basis or on an event or project basis?
In all of our training to our volunteer leaders, we continue to instill that. We talk about different situations. We make those calls on the site and we keep practicing and practicing that. One of the things that we’re back working on is putting our internal people first. We haven’t always the part of the learning curve around us and we’re learning every single time. We do build every year. We have long lists of lessons learned that we try to implement and making the small staff that we have sustainable. We’re putting them first so that they’re also getting a win-win situation. In the past, just because we’re young and very tight physically that you don’t have enough people to do it. I worked 40 days straight, twelve hours a day. I’m not at a sustainable rate but slowly, over time building the organization, so you have the right people and the right number of people and the right seats. Everybody is working hard but they’re also able to keep that work-life balance. We found it easier to do it externally because we’re all here to serve and a little harder to do it internally. That’s one of our focuses. It is a constant growth curve on multiple layers of which this is one of them.
Part of me wants to say welcome to the social profit sector. Being in service to others often can mean not being very nice to the people that work in the organization or having a difficult work environment for people, an intense work environment. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things to balance that out as you grow. Speaking of that, you have a unique organization that is doing something very special. Have you given much thought to how you take this and expand it beyond Victoria and offer this service across the province, across the country and North America?
We have. Right from the beginning, when I did the project for my friend and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do more of this and do it for organizations?” I had a vision at that moment, at the very end of that project when we did our big reveal, we had to move that truck moment. My friend came in and it was all tears, laughter, and applause. In the end, all of these people kept coming up to me, all these volunteers and saying the same thing and thanking me for giving them the opportunity to make a difference. In the space of one of those hugs, I had this vision of a spider web of light with all these little pockets of light everywhere.
I thought to myself, “If I could do this, no money, no experience, no contacts, other people could do it too.” From the beginning, I thought, “Can we replicate this magic?” That’s always been in the back of my mind and always something that I’ve been striving towards. You got to figure out there are a billion things to do between where I was then and where we’re about to branch off to. Over the last several years, we’ve been preparing our program, developing manuals, trying to systematize things, get step-by-step processes. We’ve done the research, a study on the infrastructure in greater Victoria. We’ve developed a step-by-step guide for charities to be ready for infrastructure renewal.
We’ve developed what we believe is a replication model that we want to bring put to different communities. We’re calling it the Corporate Social Franchise Model, which is taking all the powerful business tools of a franchise where everything is systematized for them. Empowering a local group to do that. It’s a social franchise because the for-profit mechanisms are removed from it. It’s a corporate social franchise because each chapter is under the HeroWork banner and using our charity number to issue tax receipts and things like that. Each of these small groups within a specific geographical boundary is a team of five plus a part-time admin person.
Each of them is doing the same thing over and over again and is still delivering projects. This year in 2020, we are transitioning our organization and our board from a local board to a national board from HeroWork Victoria to HeroWork Canada with HeroWork Victoria as a chapter. We’re looking to implement phase one, which is a new chapter a year for the first five years. Phase two, two chapters a year for five years after that. We believe that that will help to transform many charities in many communities, hopefully across the country. It’s a big vision and we’re excited and pumped to do our best to make it happen.
[bctt tweet=”Naivety sometimes allows you to move forward with more bravery than you might have otherwise had.” username=””]
There is no doubt in my mind that there is a great need for the work that you’re doing and the work that you and your colleagues are doing right across the country. It’s a privilege to get to speak with you about the important work that HeroWork is doing. Before we wrap up, I want to ask one final question. I ask every founder that comes on the show this question. If you had to do it over again, would you do it?
There are times when I might have said no because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but where I am now is a blessing to be on this path. My life fell apart when I was 30. I made a promise to myself that I would continue to follow my heart, follow that intuitive voice for the rest of this life. This has sent me down this path. My personal journey and job are to walk that path to the best of my ability with as much courage and enthusiasm as I can. This has led me with a team of amazing people and volunteers to a place where we get to have a significant impact on the world. I only work with good people. Only good people show up. That’s a blessing to be able to have that and to be able to have a depend on creating them with a lot of other people. I don’t think there’s any question that I take it on again. Even though at the beginning I was fairly naive about what I was getting myself into, but naivety sometimes allows you to move forward with more bravery than you might have otherwise had.
The great success in the social profit sector often comes from people not knowing what they don’t know and doing it anyway. I have no problem imagining hearing why people are following you on your journey to build something special and needed for the social profit sector. Thank you for sharing the HeroWork story. For the audience who are interested in learning more, they can go to HeroWork.com to see some of those videos that Paul was speaking about. Paul, thank you for being a guest on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Doug.
About Paul Latour
Paul is a motivational speaker and the creator of HeroWork, a program that inspires people, communities, and companies to come together and complete modern-day versions of old fashioned barn-raisings.
Paul has produced and directed two one-hour TV broadcast specials on HeroWork projects. He has given keynotes and seminars on community building, leadership, and storytelling for such organizations as Alberta Culture, the Project Management Institute, the BC Ombudsman, Rotary, and Administrators of Volunteer Resources of BC, plus others.
He has also been featured on Global National News, on the front page of the Times Colonist, and the Victoria News, as well as featured in the Globe & Mail.