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January 9, 2018

Alan Mirabelli: A Career on Behalf of Canada’s Families

Dr. Robert Glossop

For more than 30 years, the Vanier Institute of the Family called upon the talents and commitment of Alan Mirabelli in order to “promote the well-being of Canada’s families.” By virtue of his contributions, the organization grew to be respected as a valued national resource of authoritative information and insight about Canada’s families.

Responsible for the overall management and administration of the Institute, Alan advised successive Boards of Directors about the challenges confronting all organizations as well as those unique to the not-for-profit and charitable sector. Consistently over the years, the Institute’s executive officers expressed confidence and trust in the information and perspective that Alan provided to them as they addressed a long list of organizational duties including: finances, budgets, accounts and investment practices; staffing and recruitment; corporate reporting to Parliament; and, last but not least, technological innovation during his tenure spanning a period of time from IBM typewriters and rotary dial phones to today’s centralized servers, organizational management software and information security systems.

As significant as these administrative duties were to those working within the Institute, Alan’s unique legacy to the Vanier Institute had much more to do with how the world beyond the front doors of its offices learned about and learned from the work of its researchers and writers. As Director of Communications, Alan insisted that the Institute would not simply seek to use the media to get its message out but would commit itself to being of use to the media. Too often, organizations with a mandate to gather and disseminate information as a public good take it for granted that the “media” would simply make space for a press release at a moment’s notice.

Alan’s unique legacy to the Vanier Institute had much more to do with how the world beyond the front doors of its offices learned about and learned from the work of its researchers and writers.

Alan knew that if your intention was to communicate meaningful content, you had to build a community of shared interest. That required an investment in building a sustained relationship of mutual respect and trust with journalists and broadcasters. To implement this communications strategy, Alan extracted from his colleagues the promise that the Institute would respond to all media requests within hours. Moreover, if the topic of the inquiry was not one that the Institute could address directly, we would invest time and energy to identify a reliable source of expertise drawn from the not-for-profit sector or from academia. In an era prior to “fake news,” the Vanier Institute succeeded in establishing itself as reliable and trustworthy and, in turn, could, in almost all circumstances, trust the media to work with us to fulfill our mandate to inform and influence a broad range of audiences, including teachers and students at all grade levels, business leaders, community associations, philanthropists, elected officials, government advisors and, last but not least, those citizens we referred to as Mr. and Ms. Smith on Elm Street.

Working closely with academic researchers and with our colleagues at Statistics Canada, the Institute was able to assemble an exceptionally strong body of evidence about the trends regarding what families looked like, what they did and how they felt. This work drew together research from a broad range of disciplines including sociology, history, economics, psychology and social psychology, education, social work, home economics, philosophy, ethics, public administration and more.

So, the Institute could legitimately claim to know a lot about the character, circumstances and prospects of Canada’s families; the challenge that Alan faced, as Director of Communications, was how it could share that information effectively with the broad range of audiences it sought to encourage to take family matters seriously as though families mattered.

In order to stimulate recognition of the private consequences of public decisions and the public consequences of private decisions, the Vanier Institute worked hard to assemble knowledge about family trends and public policies, but it worked just as hard to find the compelling stories behind the statistics, to understand the interests of the various audiences it was invited to address, to print and publish its research findings in engaging and accessible formats and to make itself available to assist Canadians in understanding why family matters really do matter.

Dr. Robert Glossop is a former Executive Director of Research and Programs at the Vanier Institute of the Family and is currently a member of the Institute’s Alumni Network.

Published on January 9, 2018