Up Close: Volunteer fundraiser Sandy Foote makes happiness his new business model

Sandy Foote
Community volunteer Sandy Foote inside La Fab Sur Mill, a former church in Chelsea, Que. that's being restored and renovated as a new space for visual and performing artists from the region. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Organizers won’t need a cane to pull Sandy Foote off the stage when he’s delivering his acceptance speech at a special awards dinner hosted next month by the Ottawa chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).

The retired high-tech entrepreneur is neither self-indulgent nor long-winded. He is, however, full of unfeigned aw-shucks gratitude over being named 2023 Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser for his longtime support of Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival.

Foote and his team, Fleet of Foote, have cumulatively raised more than half a million dollars for charities benefiting from the annual four-day summer event held at Mooney’s Bay. He’s also former board chair of the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival and Foundation.

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“It’s an honour to be recognized,” said Foote during an interview. “I never expected to be recognized for what I’m doing.”

Foote’s remarkable leadership and volunteer fundraising extend far beyond the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, though. He’s been volunteering on non-profit boards for years and is currently helping to build a stronger and more vibrant community in the Quebec village of nearby Chelsea, where he’s lived for more than 30 years. The picturesque area, with its easy access to Gatineau Park, is known for its year-round outdoorsy lifestyle.

Foote is vice-chair of a volunteer board of directors that recently created the first arts centre for the municipality and its growing population of more than 8,000 residents. 

In 2021, community members purchased a nearly 150-year-old church, called Grace United, with the vision of turning the space into a permanent venue for visual and performing artists in the region. The sound quality in the church sanctuary is particularly good, according to a feasibility study done on the building prior to its sale. The group paid $350,000, with Foote and his wife, Roberta Walker, securing the mortgage. They also got it declared a heritage site.

The group qualified for more than $1 million in provincial and federal grant money, including funds provided by Quebec for projects that preserve and restore buildings with religious value.

The building is called La Fab Sur Mill, named after its anchor tenant, visual artist co-op La Fab, and its proximity to the former Gilmours’ Mills — once a bustling source of industry in the 1800s. That was before hydroelectric development came along and flooded the area.

Sandy Foote
Community volunteer Sandy Foote outside La Fab Sur Mill, a former church in Chelsea, Que. that’s been stripped down to its bare bones as part of a project to restore the new space for visual and performing artists in the region. Photo by Caroline Phillips

For the past 24 months, the former church has been undergoing renovations, with Foote serving as volunteer project manager. 

“I work a lot of hours but I enjoy working a lot of hours; I like to solve problems,” said Foote at La Fab Sur Mill, located at 8 Rue Mill. “It can be very tiring, at times, but I love the experience.”

Foote was born and raised in Ottawa, graduating from Broadview Public School and Nepean High School before earning a degree from Carleton University in integrated sciences, with a double major in math and English. 

He gravitated toward a career in the rapidly growing field of computers. He worked for a company out of California for a few years before starting his own software development company, Systems Interface. It was a mid-size high-tech company that evolved into software development and systems integration, supplying to Fortune 500 companies in North America and Europe.

In 1999, Foote sold his 19-year-old company to Vancouver-based Sierra Systems, which has since been acquired by NTT Data. He continued as vice-president and branch manager of the Ottawa office for another two years before shifting to consulting work.

It was also around this time that the married father of two transitioned his time and effort toward volunteer leadership roles with non-profit organizations, including the Ottawa Art Gallery, Ottawa-based arts organization MASC, Toronto-based ArtsSmarts, the Victoria-based Robert Bateman Foundation, Hospice Care Ottawa and, of course, the Ottawa Dragon Boat Foundation.

“I’m lucky to be at a place in my life where I could do this,” said Foote of his decades of charity work. “It’s about having an ability to give back and participate and create community. I just like doing it.”

Foote leads by example and inspires others to match his dedication through his kind and calm demeanour.

He’s been able to draw on his extensive successful business practices, including strategic planning, business transformation, board governance and technology planning.

“It’s about taking an entrepreneurial spirit and using it in a charitable way to motivate people,” he explained. “If something needs to be fixed, I’ll fix it. Gradually, other people also step in.”

The restoration of the church has involved foundation repairs and replacing exterior siding and soffits. The group is also removing the existing windows and replacing them with Romanesque Methodist-style windows that reflect the original look of the church.

La Fab Sur Mill has plans to make the building more accessible and eventually expand the 4,500-square-foot space. The downstairs, which is surprisingly bright and well-lit, holds studios that artists rent out, a boutique and classroom, and space for pottery kilns to be added.

On the main floor is the performance space, which, at the time of the interview, was having new standing choral risers being built for the benefit of choir concerts. Down the hallway is the art gallery, which exhibits works from artists across the region.

Currently, La Fab has a part-time coordinator. It will eventually need two or three staff members to take care of space rentals, activities, programming and grant applications, said Foote.

Sandy Foote
La Fab Sur Mill volunteer vice chair Sandy Foote examines the art exhibit Ascension Lumineuse of thirty murals made of illuminated porcelain and depicting local plant motifs, created by artists Marie Drolet and Oleksandr Polishchuk, and Emily Rose Michaud. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The volunteer board, which consists of nine members, has just launched a $200,000 fundraising campaign. The board members have collectively donated $30,000 to the cause. 

On top of his work with La Fab Sur Mill, Foote is also president of the non-profit group Les Amis de la Voie Verte Chelsea. “We did a lot of fundraising,” said Foote of the $1.5 million it raised, together with the municipality, in grants and direct funding from the community toward the development and maintenance of the new multi-use Chelsea Community Trail. The total investment in the trail was about $3.5 million.

The trail was formerly a heritage railway that took tourists along a scenic route to Wakefield, until a 2011 storm washed out the tracks and sealed the railroad’s fate. The group is now adding signage along the trail to mark distances and road intersections and to promote the area’s history.

The amount of work Foote voluntarily puts into community projects might sound exhausting, but it’s a pace he’s familiar with; he put in long hours as a businessman. “I was used to working 80 hours a week. I was always working, always strategizing.

“After years of focusing on profit margins, it’s so great to be in the business of making happiness.”

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