When Erick Ambtman became the executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers (EMCN) in 2011, he was determined to make some changes.
“Things were not going well when I started. We were spread too thin,” says Erick Ambtman, who served as EMCN’s executive director from 2011-2020. “Our leases were back-end heavy, meaning we were paying way above market value for our offices. That needed to change if we were going to survive.”
Although he didn’t have much experience in leadership roles in the non-profit sector, Ambtman had spent several years working in political and administrative settings. Those early experiences gave him an eye for efficiency and fueled his motivation to drive change.
Ambtman’s youthful perspective was somewhat in contrast to the longstanding organization he’d just joined. EMCN had been a fixture in Edmonton’s charitable sector since the early 1980s. It began with a handful of staff and volunteers offering basic ESL classes to newcomers to the city, but by 2011 had expanded to offer supports ranging from ESL to employment services, community involvement and everything in between. It was a critical community support centre; without EMCN, thousands of newcomers to Edmonton would be left to fend for themselves. Its failure was not an option.
Almost immediately, Ambtman saw an opportunity to streamline EMCN’s services, save money and encourage collaboration with other like-minded agencies. Doing so would ensure the organization’s long-term sustainability. Righting the course would certainly be difficult, but Ambtman had a plan.
“From day one on the job, I knew I wanted us to own a building. If we could consolidate and actually own the space we were in, we could clear up a lot of the difficulties we were facing,” he says. “First though, the priority was turning the ship around to make it financially viable.”
In his first year on the job, Ambtman worked hard to prove he was up to the task, often clocking in 100-hour work weeks. It paid off; thanks to his perseverance, EMCN’s course was corrected and the ship began to right itself.
In the years that followed, Ambtman also began forming relationships with other agencies in the city, looking to build trust and create partnerships that would ultimately benefit the community.
“I wanted EMCN to focus on the things that were important, of course, but I also wanted us to focus on the things we were actually good at. I wanted to create connections so that if there were other organizations that we could work together with, we could do so,” he says.
At first, this collaborative attitude was met with unease. Other, more seasoned executive directors and members of the charitable community weren’t sure what to make of this ambitious upstart who was looking to reshape the way settlement services were delivered to newcomers in Edmonton.
In time, however, Ambtman once again proved himself. He took on roles with the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies, the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance and the National Settlement Council. In each, he advocated for the sector while creating greater alignment and collaboration among like-minded organizations.
Through these efforts, EMCN became one of the founding members of C5—a collaborative of five agencies serving vulnerable populations in Edmonton, all of which share the goal of creating a stronger community.
“With C5, the thought was that whoever is best suited to do the work, should be doing the work. We came together with the understanding that we’re aligned in what we want to accomplish. It was about collaborating to better serve the people who needed us,” he says.
Over time, under Ambtman’s leadership, EMCN grew. When he started in 2011, there were around 100 staff on EMCN’s payroll. By the time he left in 2020, that number had expanded to more than 250. Along with this growth in personnel, grew the need for EMCN to consolidate its services in its own building. So when a 50,000-square-foot space in the heart of the city became available, Ambtman jumped at the opportunity. Renovations began almost immediately to make the space suitable for their offices. Then things hit a snag.
“We had started construction but we didn’t have the financing completely lined up, which I recognize now was a problem. If I could go back, I would’ve definitely done that differently,” he says. “Without SEF, we wouldn’t have been able to continue the construction because banks didn’t really understand us.”
In December 2019, after more than 8 years at the helm, Ambtman’s dreams of building ownership were finally realized. The new offices opened at 10170 112 St., offering three stories of space for programming including classrooms, meeting rooms, a daycare, and an employment resource centre.
“I was beyond thrilled. Finally seeing it all come together was almost surreal. I know our staff and clients, everyone was just so happy with it,” he says.
Mere weeks after the building opened, Ambtman announced he would be stepping down as executive director. He’d achieved what he set out to do, and after 8.5 years, was ready for a new challenge.
“I felt like I’d accomplished what needed to happen at EMCN. It was time for someone else to take it to the next level,” he says. But leaving wasn’t easy. “It’s a bit like watching your child grow up and seeing them grow into someone independent. It’s hard, but really EMCN is in someone else’s hands now.”
After leaving, Ambtman accepted a position with EndPovertyEdmonton, a community initiative working to end homelessness within a generation. Now, through this role, Ambtman focuses on the advocacy, lobbying and policy work he is most passionate about. He’s proud of EMCN’s growth and progress, but equally grateful for the perspective he gained out of his time there.
“EMCN helped me understand myself, helped me build my managerial philosophy, and helped me understand the difference between being thoughtful and indifferent,” he says.