Keenan Wellar

MA in Applied Language Studies (2001)

  1. What field of work are you in, and what duties are required in your position?

Since 1997, I have been in a full-time leadership position with LiveWorkPlay, a charitable organization that I co-founded in Ottawa in 1995 to help the community welcome people with intellectual disabilities to live, work, and play as valued citizens. The organization now has about 25 full-time staff and over 150 volunteers. I serve as the co-leader (reporting to our elected volunteer board) and my main focus is marketing, communications, and public relations. I am also co-owner of Wellstone Leadership Services, a private consulting company that specializes in governance and leadership support to the nonprofit community. I also write for Nonprofit Quarterly, with stories to their website about once per week, and occasionally to their print magazine.

  1. What challenges did you face when looking for work after graduating?

I completed my MA at Carleton part-time and I was already working, but in a very different sector (Information Technology) and although I enjoy using and being creative with digital technology, as a career this was never my chosen field. My challenge was figuring out how I could to do the type of social change work that interested me, knowing that I am very unconventional (not well oriented to 9-5) and do my best work when I feel I am making an important contribution to my community. In the end, I took the risk of leaving behind a steady paycheque to invest full-time in establishing and developing LiveWorkPlay. All start-ups in any field are risky, but nonprofit organizations, particularly those with a focus on marginalized populations, typically face serious issues with growth and sustainability. This is not a path for the faint of heart, but for those who do achieve a sustainable status, there is an opportunity for a very high degree of job satisfaction.

  1. How did you arrive at your current position?

My ability to focus on communications began in earnest after more than 5 years of the organization being in survival mode, where I was doing front-line engagement with individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families, as well as partnerships development, fundraising, and many other activities. This shift was nearing current levels in 2008, with a significant expansion of funding as well as re-organization of staff. By 2011 we had adopted a very assertive human rights perspective around the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities in homes, jobs, and community venues, and since that time my primary role and identity has been developing our messages and communicating them to internal and external audiences. This has also meant a more direct connection to my MA in Linguistics and Discourse studies (see

  1. What advice would you give to a graduate student looking to follow a career path similar to yours?

Ignoring for the moment that a nonprofit startup is not going to be a career path very many will follow, I would say a more general and applicable lesson from my journey is that now more than ever there are opportunities to be creative about how your skills, talents, and gifts might contribute to any organization in any field. Be great at what moves you, and others will find you, or you will find them. It is a very competitive marketplace and I believe this means that what sets you apart is most important for your future success. There are now many new ways to demonstrate your value other than a traditional career path that involves incremental moves over 20 years with the same company or organization. You might start with your own small business, get discovered, and move more directly into a position or opportunity that best utilizes your strengths.

Note: Keenan Wellar has been involved with Carleton’s Alumni Mentoring program. The Alumni Mentors program pairs motivated upper-year students and recent graduates with an alumni mentor. Mentors are established professionals who help students and recent graduates develop skills for the workplace and expand their professional networks.