A Sustaining Career

After nearly five decades in the non-profit world, Larry Derkach leveraged retirement to create a new endowment fund.

When Larry Derkach was a university student eyeing a career in medicine, he took a summer job in Edmonton’s inner city that changed the path of his life.

“For the first time, I was encountering people who didn’t have the same access to opportunities and services that I had in my life,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to make a real difference.”

Derkach had been hired to run youth recreation programs for the Bissell Centre over the summer, a position that involved working with kids and families in one of Edmonton’s poorest neighbourhoods. At
the time, few organizations offered similar programming for youth. It was the early 1970s and many of the city’s inner-city non-profits — like E4C and Boyle Street Community Services — were still in their

This was satisfying work for a young adult with a strong social conscience.

“Being in that environment really sparked something in me that made me want to continue doing that kind of work,” says Derkach. It was an easy switch to a career in the city’s non-profit sector.

After that summer, he ran youth recreation programs at the Bissell Centre for several years. He briefly returned to university for an after-degree in education — thinking he’d become a school teacher — but before he had a chance to begin teaching, he learned that the Bissell Centre’s executive director was dying and the organization faced big staffing challenges. He pressed pause on the after-degree to help out with public relations and volunteer co-ordination.

Once again, Derkach liked the job too much to return to his studies. Two years later, he stepped into the role of executive director, where he remained for 15 years.

As much as he loved the work, the time came when Derkach was ready to try something new. He tried consulting for a while and — briefly — politics. When the MLA in his riding, Pam Barrett — also the
leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party — suddenly retired, a good friend convinced him to run for the party nomination.

“It was a brief thing, but it was a really interesting experience,” says Derkach, who lost to Brian Mason. “I ended up being really glad I didn’t win. It would have squeezed out a lot of the other things I really love doing.”

It was fun, but Derkach realized he missed the community relationship that comes from working within an agency.

One day, he spotted an opportunity at Jewish Family Services (JFS), a secular, non-profit organization offering a range of social services to people of all faiths or none. At that time, JFS had been around for nearly five decades, but it was a far smaller organization than the Bissell Centre.

Derkach knew of the organization and was curious to explore how the inner workings of a smaller organization might compare to a larger one like Bissell.

But would they consider hiring someone who wasn’t Jewish? “I talked to them and they said, ‘We’ve never hired a non-Jewish executive director before, but we’re looking for someone with values that align
with ours,’” says Derkach, who threw his hat in the ring and got the job. Over the next 17 years, he helped JFS grow its services and extend its connection into the wider community.

It was interesting to Derkach to see how nimble the organization could be; organizational decisions could be made quickly and protocols could be adjusted to meet the needs of clients. The downside
was that JFS lacked the capacity of a larger organization due to its smaller budget.

Securing funding was an ongoing concern, with the focus on current — not future — needs. “Larger organizations tend to carve out money for fund development capacity,” he says. “Smaller organizations generally tend not to. But it’s a missed opportunity.”

As retirement approached, Derkach wanted to do all he could to ensure JFS would thrive well into the future. He signed up for Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) Endowment Sustainability Program to build JFS’s fundraising capacity via endowments.

In addition to educational sessions on planned giving, endowments, donor relationships and more, the program gives organizations $1,000 toward the creation of a new endowment fund. For Derkach, retirement presented an opportunity to build the fund.

To that end, JFS ran a mini-fundraising campaign, soliciting donations online and at Derkach’s retirement gala.

Although JFS had three years to reach the $10,000 funding threshold ECF requires, the goal was reached in just two months. “I think it was amazing that this happened so quickly,” says ECF Donor Advisor Noel Xavier.

“That’s a testament to how much Larry is respected by clients and supporters of JFS.” Derkach is now retired — at least, partially.“I’m not a golfer and I’m not one to sit in a rocking chair either,” he laughs.

He continues to contribute to Edmonton’s non-profit sector, both as a consultant and volunteer. These days, he sits on the board of a half-dozen organizations, including Our Parents’ Home, St. Stephen’s College and Tuxis Youth Parliament.

“There are lots of things that still interest me.”