Launching deep woods expeditions from remote wilderness bases has been the core of Outward Bound Canada’s (OB) program for 40 years. But shifting demographics, busier work schedules and rising costs have hit the non-profit hard. Kids are happier online than in the woods, professionals don’t have time for weeks of wilderness travel, and the $500 to $2,800 trips are pricey in a bad economy. So change is coming to Outward Bound. “As time has passed, the risk of becoming irrelevant increases for any organization,” says Dave Wolfenden, OB’s executive director. “If we stayed as a purely wilderness tripping organization, we wouldn’t have survived.”
In a twist, Outward Bound is hitting the cities. A new community centre is under construction in Toronto—it’ll be a launching point for trips and a place where people can receive wilderness education right in the city. There are plans to lead hikes through Toronto’s ravines, for sailing on Lake Ontario, and for community service in the city’s hospices. There are also plans to build a second centre in Vancouver. But while OB tries to reach out to all Canadians, its main mission has always been teaching youth adaptability, leadership and life skills. So OB is also concentrating on meeting kids in the classroom. “The program shifts from bringing the students to Outward Bound to Outward Bound bringing itself to the schools,” says Wolfenden.
Oilfields High School, located in Black Diamond, Alta., is one of a handful of Canadian schools to partner with OB, and the first to hire a full-time Outward Bound teacher. “Anybody can do outdoor education. We were looking for somebody that philosophically uses the outdoors as a vehicle to build resiliency and teamwork and discipline and self-acceptance,” says Cynthia Glaicar, Oilfields’s vice-principal. “It’s not just about going out and being environmentally aware and learning how to rock climb. That’s just a vehicle we’re using to build inner strength.”
Outward Bound’s partnership with Oilfields includes custom-tailored programs for students in every grade. Kids in Grade 7 go on hikes, and students in Grade 9 canoe. Senior students have longer trips, such as winter hiking through mountains. Excursions happen once a year and usually last a week. The school raises $20,000 to $30,000 at an annual community event that includes speakers like Laurie Skreslet, the first Canadian to climb Mount Everest. The rest of the costs are covered through government funding. Glaicar says hundreds of students have had their lives changed thanks to OB. “They give them tools. They don’t give them answers. So the kids have to figure it out,” she says. “It’s an unbelievable experience.”
For its general clientele, Outward Bound has cut most trips from 28 days down to 17 or 21. It has created week-long and weekend excursions in an attempt to cater to busy professionals. Once-a-week programs are offered throughout the year and are now targeted toward specific groups like women and First Nations. And most importantly, says Wolfenden, OB has changed from a charity that essentially set its own agenda to a collaborative organization—working not only with schools but also communities, and partnering with Parks Canada and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship to launch the New Canadians Program.
These changes couldn’t come soon enough. Over the past five years OB has lost almost $800,000 per year, a 25 per cent dip in its revenue, and has closed base camps in Thunder Bay and Pemberton, B.C. And although Outward Bound held on to all of its 25 full-time staff and most of its contractors, there were some temporary layoffs and voluntary wage rollbacks. “We’re starting to ask ourselves different kinds of questions,” says Wolfenden. “We’ve had to adjust our thinking about how big we need to be to deliver on our mission.”
The answer, according to Wolfenden, is collaboration and staying lean. The company is starting to recoup its revenues—primarily through lowering costs by shrinking operations and teaming up with other organizations. Shutting down the two base camps will save $250,000 a year, and launching trips closer to urban centres increases interest in excursions while cutting travel costs. Partnering with Parks Canada allows the use of national park infrastructure for base camps, meaning further cost reductions. OB is also getting some funding from its partnership with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
But despite all the change, Wolfenden says the philosophy and core mission of OB have stayed the same. “Outward Bound is leaner, it’s more focused, it’s delivering more on its mission,” he says. “We’re kind of rising to our own challenge of being in an unpredictable landscape. It’s a very different way for Outward Bound to think about itself.”