Donald Simpson

Nigeria, 1960

By Kate Wilson

Donald Simpson was a young high school history teacher looking for a project for his students when he attended a lecture about Africa’s move toward independence. The lecture was the beginning of Simpson’s lifelong relationship with the continent and would soon inspire him to launch CCI along with other founding members.

The initial project Simpson came up with was to raise enough money to bring an African university student to Canada, but his students continued raising money. The African Students’ Federation was born, and 350 African students ended up coming to Canada. It was through this project that Simpson met Crossroads’ founder Dr. James Robinson and the decisive moment when the Canadian division of Crossroads was born.

Simpson, along with fellow CCI founders Alan Lane, Jack Sibley and Robert Hartog, attended a United Church conference where Dr. Robinson was speaking about his project Operation Crossroads Africa.

Simpson and the others decided to take up a collection for Dr. Robinson’s organization and were “proud as punch” when they raised nearly $5,000. They went up to present the cheque, but the charismatic speaker turned around and surprised them with a powerful gesture.

Simpson cites the “sly brilliance” of Dr. Robinson as he recalls the moment:

“He thanked us and said ‘Well, if you’re so excited about what I am trying to do, you ought to do this in Canada. And so, let me be the first contributor to Canadian Crossroads.’ That’s how it started. He gave us the cheque back.”

In that moment, Simpson and his colleagues took up the challenge of founding CCI. Simpson became the executive director and ran the organization out of his house while his next-door neighbour became the secretary, and a woman who lived around the corner offered to get all printing done at no cost because her husband worked with The London Free Press.

In 1960, Simpson went to Africa for the first time as a Crossroader. He went to Nigeria with the first group of Crossroaders to go overseas with the Canadian organization.

“I had just gotten married and just had my first child and of course back then going to Africa was like going to the moon,” Simpson recalls. “So even in 1960 when I was going to Africa, I had people saying prayers for me.”

Following this first trip to Nigeria, Simpson has not looked back. He has worked in more than 70 countries and has helped establish organizations such as CUSO, International Development Research Centre. He has also launched his own company Innovation Expedition, which links leaders of organizations all over the world and fosters innovation.