Friday, 16 August 2019 13:57
By Dan Forbush and Kyle Ouimet, SMARTACUS Creative Group | Lifestyle
"It takes creativity to get people to think about change," says Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. 

Crowdsourcing Kindness

February 29th is the reason we have the Olympics and the Presidential Election every four years. Because the calendar is actually 365.25 days, we need it to keep the calendar aligned with the earth's rotation around the sun. 

February 29th is a quadrennial oddity that ought to be in the pantheon of great holidays but is vastly under-appreciated. So it occurred 20 years ago to Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. He filed the thought away, determined some day to do something creative with it. 

Many will remember the great Saratoga Lip Dub, a mass of Saratogians marching down  Broadway to Congress Park to a medley of songs by Train, whose drummer Scott Underwood is a native of Saratoga Springs. That was a classic Shimkus production that brought together hundreds of organizations and thousands of people and produced a YouTube video that generated 90,000 views. 

Shimkus saw in February 29th the potential for doing something similarly compelling and motivating, a catalyst for some form of collective action. 

But what? 

With 2016 approaching, Shimkus convened a small creative group in 2015 to brainstorm. It was Bo Goliber, director of community relations and philanthropy at Fingerpaint, who came up with the idea, Shimkus recalls. 

"She just blurted out, 'Leap of Kindness Day.' 

It was perfect. And so it was that the Chamber launched a campaign to imbue February 29th with new meaning, a special call every four years to perform an act of compassion, appreciation, or altruism. 

The First Leap of Kindness Day was celebrated not only in Saratoga Springs on Monday, February 29th, 2016 but in 50 communities in 30 states around the country, thanks to the support, logo, and #leapofkindnessday hashtag provided by the Saratoga Chamber to other local chambers that embraced the idea. 

"We had thousands of posts from all around the world of people that did something kind," Shimkus recalls. "Here in Saratoga, companies made breakfast for their local fire companies, crossing guards got coffee, teachers got apples, flowers were delivered to residents of nursing homes, and donations were made to local non-profits." 

The Saratoga Chamber also created Leap of Kindness cards to be mailed to those who have made a difference in your life, imparting long overdue thank you's. 

"Two months later, 'Are you going to do it again?' was the top question people would ask me," Shimkus says. 

Of course. The website for Leap of Kindness Day 2020 is already up,  an organizing committee has formed, and a potentially massive outpouring of kindness eight months from now is metabolizing. The 2016 initiative just won the National Chamber of Commerce Award at the National Association's Leadership Conference. 

"As a result, we've already doubled the number of chambers across the US and Canada expected to participate in 2020," says Shimkus. 

Bringing Together The Best and the Brightest

Shimkus has worked as a Chamber of Commerce executive in three regions over the past 23 years. 

"What I love the most about this work is that we have the opportunity as Chamber executives to bring the best and the brightest together to take action to overcome any challenges our communities are facing or to take advantage of any opportunities for improving our quality of life," he says. 

"The Chamber is uniquely positioned to convene because we have members in the private, public and nonprofit sector," he continues. "They have all joined the Chamber in keeping with our mission to ensure that the region we represent is a great place to live, work and play." 

"That connection and engagement means that we're uniquely informed as to their needs and capabilities. So when we convene a group for an event such as Leap of Kindness Day, we're typically inviting people we know can act and are passionate about doing so." 

"The fact that we are connected and engaged with leaders across these three sectors also means that we're uniquely informed as to their needs and capabilities. This means when we convene groups we are typically inviting people we know can act and are passionate about doing so. 

"We've built roads, visitor centers, parks, trails, parking garages, and helped hundreds of businesses to get started," he continues. "None of this was possible without collaboration and it was the Chamber's role as convener and expert facilitator that has made a huge difference." 

Focusing on Employment

Shimkus says he came into chamber work because of some of the advocacy he had done as a volunteer. "The local chamber in my area needed someone to do government affairs work, so they hired me." 

When Shimkus came to Saratoga nine years ago from Glens Falls, he found a large chamber with "a lot of resources and good people."

"It was an opportunity for me to use what I'd learned in my prior two roles and put it to use in a bigger community and a bigger operation. Saratoga is unique in its large proportion of locally independently stores and restaurants that make it a great year-round destination and especially prime in the summer."

"We have a few chains, but it's mostly independents who depend on local residents to patronize and support them. We need local people to be involved in the local economy, not just visiting these establishments, but buying." 

Shimkus never buys from Amazon. Instead he frequents local establishments to the max. 

"Saratoga is one of those special places where people want to live. We need to make it more of a place where people also want to work. If you're not growing, you're dying. I think we're one of the top ten most vibrant small cities in the country, but the challenge is: How do you stay here? That's what we're trying to figure out now." 

Generating Change

"Getting people to think about change in the first place requires creativity," Shimkus observes. "Saratoga is a special challenge because everyone who lives here thinks it's a great place to live, work and play just as it is now. We have to challenge people to see beyond their own self-interest and their own experiences."

When Shimkus approaches a problem, he always strives to achieve a maximum of diversity. This begins with the Chamber's Board of Directors, which recently expanded from 24 to 27 members. 

"This allowed us to have more diverse voices from our membership: small firms, large firms, and members from the private, public and nonprofit sector. Members from all over Saratoga County and from firms in a range of economic sectors. They've had different experiences and are asked to be vocal as we seek to determine the best new policies and programs to advance to improve our community."

"We've done the same with our employees. We have different spheres of influence and difference passions. We don't agree on everything and that's fine. We're invited to think creatively and to take risks. We've failed but when we do we learn from this. We've also had tremendous success and when we do we celebrate. 

"Our creativity also is based on the fact that we travel often and study what other communities across the world are doing. We've invented new initiatives but we've also adapted great ideas from other places to help our local community here. In this way, creativity is not just inventing something new but often something new here." 

Advice for Young People

Asked the single piece of advice he would give to a young person embarking on life after high school, Shimkus thinks for a moment and says, "Learn to become more resilient."

"Resilience is the ability to overcome or to adapt to any trauma or challenge. resilient people can climb any mountain or, perhaps more importantly, climb out of any hole. We can all learn to be resilient. It's a process not an outcome." 

"I'm not talking about a capacity for going at life's challenges alone," Shimkus emphasizes.  "The most resilient people tend to have support systems with at least one person who can be trusted and provides love and support. Tragedy, trauma and challenges can be large or small but they are inevitable in life. So those who can continually become more resilient, are likely to be the ones that will really change our world and make the lives of those around them better."  

The SMARTACUS Creative Group is a student-driven creative agency dedicated to supporting the economic development of Upstate New York. Dan Forbush is its publisher. 
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