The 1990s: A new generation of agency employees, and a new set of challenges

After launching in 1983, and finding its footing through the rest of the decade, the 1990s would bring a host of new challenges and opportunities for nabs, as it found itself working with  a new generation of industry employees grappling with new issues, all of them exacerbated by a rapidly changing business climate.

Since its inception, the charity garnered a reputation for catering to older agency employees who suddenly found themselves out of work and unable to pay their bills, or those facing substance abuse issues or terminal illness.

They were—and are—evergreen challenges. But at the same time nabs’ senior leaders realized that the charity needed to be updated if it wanted to remain relevant for a new generation of employees.

That led to a major shift in the charity’s approach, with new services added that transformed it from being an organization that simply reacted to calls for assistance, allocating money on a case-by-case basis, to proactively providing solutions for the industry before they became full-blown crises.

“The good thing about nabs is that it has evolved, because if it didn’t and it was just allocations for those people who were out of work, it wouldn’t have the same traction,” said Jani Yates, a longtime nabs volunteer had a front-row seat for its evolution from the late 1980s through to the early 2000s. “They brought in other services, and kept pace.”

Yates had been recruited into the organization by Bob White, who held multiple roles with the organization between 1988 and 2003, and was the 2012 recipient of the Paul Mulvihill/NABS Heart Award, given to those who have made a significant contribution to the lives of others through nabs.

Yates spent her early years with the charity working on the committee for its annual fundraising gala, and would go on to work closely alongside nabs co-founder Rupert Brendon. “We were very much a team, and it was wonderful to be part of nabs at that time,” said Yates. “I look back fondly on those days.”

She stepped aside from the organization in 2005, and was added to the nabs Honour Roll—celebrating people and organizations who have provided exceptional support to the organization—in 2006. “The whole point of it is that we cycle in, help, and then get out of the way because it’s time for someone else to take over,” said Yates.

But during her tenure, nabs came to represent a lifeline of sorts for a younger generation of people grappling with a complex and seemingly inexhaustible array of challenges— everything from the stresses of the job, to elder care, and more personal issues such as divorce.

“There were different things starting to come into play,” said Yates. “Life grew more complicated than it [had been] a couple of generations earlier, when you had perhaps one person at home and one person working.”

Not that the changes at nabs happened without some challenges. Yates can still remember when the idea for an anonymous support line was proposed. Because it represented such a stark departure from the allocation approach that had become a nabs hallmark since 1983, it was initially met with skepticism.

“People said ‘Why is someone going to call a line that they don’t know who’s [on the other end] and what are they going to ask?'” she said. “It was a huge shift to go from only giving money to people who were needing a hand up, versus proactively helping in areas like stress.”

The support line was a slow build, facing what Yates called an “automatic and natural concern” about privacy. But at the same time, it was ultimately embraced by a new wave of industry employees.

Like Yates, Joe Mulvihill also had a front-row seat to the next chapter of nabs’ evolution. When it came to charity work, Joe had a perfect role model in his father Paul, who had been among the charity’s founding partners (although, in typical fashion, Paul was prone to downplaying his involvement).

“My dad spent many hours and days helping people without anyone even knowing it, so I came from some great charitable roots,” said Joe. “I don’t normally pat myself on the back and say, ‘Isn’t this a good thing to do,’” he said. “We’re here to help people.”

Mulvihill would enjoy a four-decade association with nabs that ended just as the pandemic was beginning. Now happily retired in Muskoka, Mulvihill was among the hundreds of people who have given so generously to nabs during its 40-year history.

As the owner and EVP of Paul Mulvihill Ltd., a rep house for media companies including Standard Broadcasting and Maclean Hunter, he was witness to a wave of consolidation that swept through both the agency and media worlds in the 1990s, predictably leading to layoffs across the industry.

“It put a lot of people out of work, it put a lot of stress on a lot of people, and there were a lot of people feeling mental stress,” he said. “As we know, depression and those types of thing can happen through job joss.”

And while the charity continued to evolve, there were still continued examples of it providing invaluable assistance to people dealing with almost unimaginable difficulty. Mulvihill remembers one in particular: A woman with three children, two of whom were born with a rare autoimmune disease, and a third with Down syndrome. “She just needed everything,” he said.

Nabs was able to get a vehicle manufacturer to provide a state-of-the-art vehicle capable of accommodating the three children and their around-the-clock caregiver. They also installed a new state-of-the art HVAC system in her Toronto home.

“She was thrilled beyond belief,” said Mulvihill, who remembers the HVAC professional who installed the system being moved to tears by the immensity of the challenge she faced and his ability to provide some form of assistance. He stood in her front yard and thanked Mulvihill profusely over and over for the chance to contribute.

And in yet another instance of the charity’s ability to provide invaluable assistance, it helped get ramps, guardrails and a wheelchair for an industry professional struggling with ALS. “That’s the type of stuff we did,” said Mulvihill. “My biggest joy was helping people like that.

“I just hope they keep up the great work, and they’re around for another 40 years.”

Chris Powell