The 5 e’s of co-creating communications with community

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

Pillar, in true network style, leads with collaboration and co-creation even for its communications and branding. Our Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital brands have all been co-created with our members, collaborators, network, and the community. Co-creation involves purposefully engaging those relationships in our network and sharing decision-making and power. Along the way we have learned how to co-create communications messages and branding that evolve, capture our essence, evoke energy and empathy, and embrace equity. We certainly do not always get this right, but are committed to continuing this work. Here are five key elements of co-created communications and branding.

1. Evolution

Brands evolve over time and organizations that endure understand they need to be flexible and adaptable to continue to meet their clients’ needs. When Pillar contemplated undergoing a rebrand in 2007, from a “Voluntary Sector Network” to a “Nonprofit Network”, we engaged our members to reflect on the brand equity attached to the Pillar name. Members ultimately defined the tone that led to our current conception and logo.

With the Innovation Works branding exercise, which was led by our founding partner, London Arts Council, along with a committee of community members and a depth of internal experience in the organization, we elected to develop a standalone brand because the project was driven by community. Today, Pillar is the operational backbone of this co-working space designed to foster social innovation, and also manages a Social Finance program, VERGE Capital, with the support of community partners in our region. With the expansion of our network to include nonprofits, social enterprises, co-tenants, and businesses we believe we can provide more value to our network by facilitating connections across our growing community. With this in mind, we are weaving the story of connection across our brands and sharing the broader scope of our work with members engaging with us through different avenues.

The evolution of our branding and communications strategy led Pillar to bring a Director of Impact and Storytelling onto our team, as we understand the direct and critical relationship between measuring our impact and sharing our story. Additionally, as our organization has grown to include staff clusters that operate within Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital, we have introduced a cross-cluster communications committee where each cluster (team) is represented and contributes to developing our communications strategy, plan, and schedule. Since we are a lean organization without a communications department, everyone on our team is a content creator and storyteller.

2. Essence

When you co-create with community, in order to deliver something that really fulfills a need you should be sourcing the essence of community members’ ideas. Innovation Works took 8 years to develop, and we turned to co-creation and collaboration principles for many aspects of the project. We conducted a community survey to source potential names for the shared space, but discovered that we had asked the wrong question. Branding requires reflection to figure out who you are talking to, who your primary audiences are, what you want them to feel, think, or do, and what tone you are going for. We quickly realized that without the community fully understanding these components, the names they suggested were missing this vital context. We should have solicited their help in describing the essence of the brand. So we engaged in a proper branding process led by our communications committee and a professional communications company with a creative brief that led to our current brand. Finally we landed on a name that captured the essence of a space that would foster creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, and spark collaboration.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.

Helen Keller
3. Empathy

Empathy has the power to strengthen community connection, and personal stories are one of the most effective ways to evoke emotion and empathy. Sharing stories that reveal a narrative of the journey, not just the final outcome, paints a picture and helps the audience connect to the story by eliciting moments of affinity through shared experience. The Pillar Community Innovation Awards is in its 13th year and we have shared 156 stories of local achievement with more than 7500 attendees since the program launched. Storytelling is at the core of this event; we honour individuals, organizations, and collaborations that are doing exceptional work to help create a more engaged, vibrant, and inclusive community. Storytelling is a powerful tool for change. Stories help us find the strength to continue putting in the work. They help us hear voices that might otherwise remain silent or silenced. Stories remind us that we are in service to one another and that at our core, we are resilient and strong.

4. Energy

Testing the user experience that your brand and communications messages provide for your audience will help you match your messaging to the energy you are going for. Customer journey mapping has helped Pillar and its subprograms better understand who our target audiences are so we can focus our efforts in the right places. Understanding the kind of energy your brand’s tone and vibe are evoking is essential to reaching your audiences and inspiring them to answer your call to action. Recently, we updated our communications plans to reflect the different tones and key messages Pillar, Innovation Works, and VERGE Capital deliver.

Another aspect of energy as it relates to communications is finding those bright minds who bring new ideas and resources to the organization. Pillar has harnessed the energy of many students from Western University & Fanshawe College over the years. They have conducted writing, research, media relations, communications planning, and evaluation of communications and storytelling for a number of our programs.

5. Equity

There are two main ways Pillar strives to achieve equitable representation in its communication of co-created initiatives. First, we believe that all communications materials should reflect the community. For every website or social media platform we manage, we strive to select photos, videos and language that reflect the diversity of the community. We have not always got this right and we stay open to feedback. For example, for our Be Inclusive Series, where we explored the diversity that makes up our community and the real stories that surround us, our communications were fluid in that we received so much constructive feedback that we needed to make changes multiple times. We were learning right along with the community. The second way we consider equity is by ensuring that communications reflect all partners in collaborative initiatives like VERGE Capital. This approach is about striving for equity, but is not always equal. For example, in a collaborative initiative you can suggest that media speak with all key collaborators, yet every medium will contact the players they think will bring the story to life for their audience. As a collaborative, we endeavor to have all the voices of a partnership heard but sometimes it is out of our control.

Nonprofits and social enterprises can harness the energy of community to co-create lasting and meaningful brands and communications. Without a doubt, telling stories is the single most persuasive tool that we have available to us. We can mobilize the ideas and resources we have to share the stories within our network as well as our own stories of impact.

How to embed and embrace failure and learning in your organization

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

Throughout my time as Executive Director of Pillar Nonprofit Network, the use of the word failure has been met with eye rolls, people shifting uncomfortably in their seats and outright debates about using the “f” word. While opening up on this topic is still taboo for some, at Pillar we pair failure with learning as a principle and believe it’s closely related to developing empathy as a core competency and as a connection to deep learning. We will take you on a journey to show how this approach has served our organization, all the while reflecting on our own failures and lessons learned along the way.

Aha Moment

I recall, in 2011, reading an essay on “Collective Impact” by Mark Kramer and John Kania and having one of my most memorable aha moments. The authors explore the notion that nonprofit organizations are set up to focus on their isolated impact, and posit that this is a systemic issue that stems from the way the sector is funded, and almost set up to make organizations compete with one another. I started to dig deeper into the systemic issues that can hold us back, as a sector, from creating transformational change. One issue that emerged was that nonprofits are funded with the expectation that they meet their targets. We define metrics for a project or program at the outset, and often there are not check-in points to adjust or pivot based on our “failures”or learning. If we are to find innovative solutions to wicked problems we need to be able to try new things and to reevaluate and change course as we go.

Sharing mission moments and failure

These reflections led me to add a standing agenda item at our team meetings that would have everyone share both a “mission moment” and a “failure.” At first the team could not get their heads around sharing a failure with the whole team, and with me, on a bi-weekly basis. In the beginning, the failures were about time management and small slip-ups, but over time the failures shared began to contain more depth and reflection. Creating a safe and brave space to share our failures, and what we learned from them, significantly shifted our team culture. When teams are given permission to try new things, with the awareness and acceptance that they might fail, there is an openness to creativity and experimentation.

Developing a Team Alliance

During the development of our Team Alliance, upon reviewing our team’s strengths, it surfaced that positivity was a mindset held by many of our team members. We reflected on this and recognized that we had nurtured a bias for positivity that could potentially hinder us from raising valid concerns. To address this risk, we committed to having “get real” moments to talk about the hard stuff, knowing these conversations are essential to the healthy functioning and authenticity of our team. The Team Alliance was a turning point for us, because it fundamentally shifted our team culture to one that allowed us to be our true selves among our colleagues. We included the principle of failure as learning and the need to create and maintain a brave space in our Team Alliance. We regularly review and reflect on our commitments to each other at team meetings.

Failure art workshop and installation 

In 2018, we brought on a Director of Impact & Storytelling, who infused creativity into our exploration of failure and learning through a dynamic Failure Art Workshop developed in partnership with Social Arts with Melanie Schambach and with the Pillar staff team. The team was led through a collaborative and creative process that involved deep self-reflection, hands-on artistry and experiential learning activities. We examined failure as it relates to the self, interpersonal relationships, systems, and ideology. Our co-tenants at Innovation Works engaged with our collage pieces and added a title to the work based on their own interpretation of the art piece. The final product of this exercise was a 40-foot art mobile that now hangs in the stairwell of Innovation Works and serves as a reminder of the importance of this kind of reflective practice.

Impact and Failure reports

Pillar created an Impact and Failure report for the first time in 2017, based on examples set by Impact Hub Ottawa, and McConnell Foundation. It included the following themes and actions:

THEME

ACTIONS

Bias towards teaching rather than listening

Prioritize inclusion and explore the benefits of mutual exchange

Bias towards speed and success

Implement impact measurement, data narratives, and apply decision-making tools

Bias towards positivity

Review Team alliance agreements quarterly and create room for quiet reflection

Bias towards viewing failure as a “neck up” proposition

Use creative modalities to explore the connection between power and failure

Our 2018 Impact Report, titled, “What We’re Remembering to Forget (and learning in the process)” shared lessons including:

My failure and learning story

The biggest failure in my career came when we were building Innovation Works, a shared co-working space for social innovators in London, Ontario. This was an entrepreneurial adventure that saw more highs and lows than I had ever experienced. We were raising $2.2 million in grants and donations for this city building project and our municipality seemed like a natural fit for a leader and partner. We worked for one year with City Council and staff to create a strategy and business plan that aligned with the City’s priorities. Our timing, with a new progressive City Council sworn in, appeared to be ideal but then the budget process was dominated by a “nothing new” philosophy and the finance team recommended not supporting our request for $330,000. Our Board Chair and I were in front of City Council and were asked what we would do if we did not receive the money, or were only given $50,000. Our Board Chair said the project would go forward even if we have to sit on milk crates. I, however, stepped up to the microphone and insisted that we needed their full investment, asserting that for them to be a partner they would need to support the full request. We lost by one vote and it was devastating. It was in the media in a big way. The most challenging part was seeing the negative commentary about the nonprofit sector – the sector that we work so hard to raise the awareness and profile of in positive ways.

I recall waking up the next day with such a sense of defeat and sadness; I felt levelled as a leader. Ultimately, I was able to shift my thinking to embrace this as an entrepreneurial adventure and accept that there would be failures, and to recognize that my team and the community were watching me and my response. I told myself, “Your response will impact the momentum of this project.” It was in that moment that I decided to seize this as a learning opportunity. Fast-forward three weeks and we opened the mail to find an extraordinary donation from an anonymous donor who had read about our request to the city in the media and sent a cheque for the full $330,000. While there was a happy ending to this story of failure, the message I take from it was that we need to see entrepreneurial spirit and learning from failure as necessary elements of impact work and the building of resilient communities.

With each of these reconceived maxims, we included a key story that unpacked a narrative that was getting in our way and considered how we could rethink ways of being and doing that were not serving us in our mission. This Impact Report resulted from a process of collecting and analyzing team reflections, reviewing members’ feedback, and connecting with the board.

Future failure and learning
Failure is about perspective.
 

When my study at the Banff Centre Foundations of Purpose program ended, I went out to be in nature and do some hiking. A few people suggested I visit Moraine Lake and when I got there the lake was low and I thought there was something wrong – climate change, maybe not enough snow this past winter. When I captured it in photos it looked bare, but when I zoomed in on the turquoise waters there was this picture perfect beauty. In asking the park staff, they informed me that it can take until the end of June for the water to fill in as the snow melts from the mountains. This example reminds me that perspective is everything; what I saw as a failure was in fact a normal nature cycle. We need to look closer, ask questions, and dig deeper to find the learning in failure.

Storytelling tools and tips to amplify your network

Storytelling is not a new tool. Our Indigenous brothers and sisters can attest to that. Stories have been told for thousands of years because of their capacity to provide a view into who we are, where we’ve been and what is possible. Stories are the connectors that give meaning, provide hope, build community, inspire and engage our hearts. Without a doubt, telling stories is the single most persuasive tool that we have available to us. 

Stories are the spark of light in moments of darkness and, if you are listening, you know that there are deep and wide pockets of darkness currently in our communities. People are facing extreme and unprecedented social injustices and system barriers. We need to tell stories that show this complexity, evoke empathy and inspire action.

For nonprofits and social enterprises, storytelling is the most valuable form of evaluation and impact work. Telling stories is a way to share about the people you are helping and the changes you are making in the world. There are many creative and cost effective ways to tell stories. Here are some of our tips on how to make the most of your storytelling along with examples of some of our more notable efforts over the years.

The truth about stories is, that's all we are.

Thomas King
Start at the very beginning

Storytelling should begin when a project begins; it is not something you should just do when a project is complete. As change happens, you need to capture the process and the micro-narratives along the way to show the impact your work is making. 

Tell stories responsibly

There are complexities involved in holding and sharing stories that do not belong to us. It is important to get consent when telling the stories of those in our network and respect the vulnerability of their experiences. When we share the stories of others, we need to reflect on important questions like: Who else will be affected by this story? In what context should this story be shared? Are we doing harm by sharing this story? How are we influencing the way the story is being told? 

Don’t oversimplify complex issues

Our work in the impact sector is often about working towards solutions to the big, complex issues in our communities. While clear, concise writing in storytelling is always important, we need to be careful to not oversimplify these challenges to make it easier for the reader. Instead, we need to find a way to help the reader understand the complexity of the challenges we are working to help members our community overcome. 

Use video to share the voices of your network

Short of in person conversation, there is no better tool than video to share the voices of your network. Videos help to humanize stories and capture the hearts and minds of the audience. At Pillar, using video helps us to increase our capacity for responsible and effective impact storytelling in our community. For example, when we launched the Pillar Community Innovation Awards, videos were and continue to be our featured storytelling tool. Using video enables us to capture award recipients sharing their stories of change in their own words. Over the years, we have created and shared over 150 videos of our award finalists. These videos serve to re-energize our sector and keep the stories alive to inspire others to create a better community for all.

The art of blogging

We have found blogging to be an effective tool to mobilize our network and gently nudge people to new ways of thinking. We rely on both our staff and volunteer teams to help us create these stories. Through a blog series called Member Moments, we highlight our members, share their stories and discuss how connecting to our community has benefited them. We also highlight our co-tenants at Innovation Works through our Co-tenant Tuesdays feature to both boost the profile of our co-tenants and share the benefits of being part of a space like Innovation Works. In addition to these tactics, our ED also captured her reflective practice and research fellowship journey and thinking through both blogs and vlogs

Capture the moment on camera

It was in preparing for an annual report that we realized we needed to take more photos of our events, programs and milestones. Today, Pillar has ingrained into our team the need to capture the moment, we are always looking for opportunities to take informal photos and we engage professional photographers for our larger events. For example, in 2011, when celebrating our 10th anniversary, we created a photo project to highlight and feature our members in a fun way that illustrated the breadth and diversity of our network. During the shoot, people used thought bubble whiteboards to share what Pillar meant to them. We then took all of these photos and made a photo quilt that we shared out with our network, on social media and we hung it in our first offices at the Central Library for years. 

Go deeper with podcasts

Podcasts can be a useful tool to delve deeper into issues affecting our sector and our communities. Our first podcast series was The Useful Evaluation Podcast. This project was a partnership with other social innovation shared spaces across the province including 10C Shared Space, Centre for Social Innovation, Impact Hub Ottawa, Innovation Works and ReThink Sudbury who were exploring what useful evaluation is. We experimented further with the digital storytelling tool of podcasts for the Social Enterprise Southwest program (SESW) when we found that a regional project required creativity in how to reach a vast and rural audience. The SESW podcast series was designed to educate and inspire new social entrepreneurs, reveal the people and assets in the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make accessible the knowledge of essential concepts, tools and resources integral to social enterprise.

Tell your ‘epic tale’

An epic tale is a process of telling the story of an organization through the experience and lens of the many people who have been part of it. It provides an opportunity to hear the “original myth” or founding story. The story co-created and told progressively by people who joined the organization at certain phases of its history including current and present staff and board and key volunteers. Pillar worked with Horizion Leadership to tell our epic tale as part of our strategic planning process in 2018. The process as helped us to identify the major milestones and achievements and share the baggage we would like to leave behind and the luggage we would like to carry forward. While this tool may or may not be something you want to share externally, we feel it’s an important exercise to help your team be able to clearly understand and share the story of the history of your organization and the collective vision going forward. 

Experiment with new tools

With the rapid pace of change in communications technologies, it’s important to stay current by experimenting with new technology and platforms for sharing your stories. Stay on top of research about which platforms your audiences are using and make sure you go where the people are. Trying new platforms may involve a degree of trial and error for your organization but learning from failure and adapting is a valuable way to learn.  

Create an engagement strategy 

With each project that you take on, it’s important to develop a plan about how you will share your stories so they have maximum reach and impact. For example, define how often you will share on which social media platform, how often to mention the topic in your newsletter, whether you have a budget for advertising, and how you will reach out to media to garner coverage for your project. 

Build relationships with media 

Creating positive relationships with the media based on trust is a critical component of storytelling for any organization. There are a few key elements to consider when working with the media. First, get to know your local media landscape, follow reporters on social media and comment on their stories so they get to know you. It’s important to do this research up front so you can make sure you are contacting the right person who covers the type of stories you are pitching. With this information in mind, tailor your pitch to each journalist’s beat and interests. Once you have sent your pitch and media release, make sure you or your designated media contact is available to respond to emails or phone calls at all times. With these tips in mind, you’ll be well on your way to ensuring your story reaches the widest audience possible.

The art of communications and storytelling with a small team

In smaller nonprofits like Pillar, having a marketing and communications team or even one dedicated person may not be realistic. Over the years, we have relied on our entire staff team to contribute to our newsletter, social media and other marketing materials and some of us were learning as we went. As our team and scope has grown, bringing more structure and coordination to communications activities across the organization has become essential.

At the core of our communications and marketing efforts is a desire and commitment to share stories about our network and the positive impact our members are having in their communities. Through trial and error, we have developed a set of practices outlined below that help us to ensure that our internal and external communication will create and drive opportunities for an engaged, inclusive and vibrant community. 

Leaning on the experts

The Pillar team has worked closely with various local communication and media partners who have willingly shared their expertise and provided immense in-kind support to our organization. For example, ON Communication based in London, Ontario, supported our brand and website refresh in 2007. They have also done all of the communications and marketing for the Pillar Community Innovation Awards and led a highly talented volunteer committee through the branding of Innovation Works. Additionally, Geoff Evans, of Social Media Coach and now The Animation Studio, has led workshops for our network and provided team coaching for our staff around social media and animation. rTraction also based in London, Ontario has shared their digital storytelling and website development talents with our network and our staff. The incredible level of support we have received from these and other partners has exceeded our expectations and helped us to create a solid brand reputation. 

Maintaining brand consistency

When Pillar had a staff of three to five people, it was easy to stay on top of our branding and communications guidelines and ensure the consistency of our messaging and the look and feel of our marketing materials. When we grew to become the backbone organization for Innovation Works, we had a constellation of organizations and individuals who were involved in envisioning this program and co-creating the brand, tone and key messaging. This was an important step to ensuring that Innovation Works remained a community owned asset; however, it soon became evident that in our effort to create a new distinctive brand, the Pillar and Innovation Works brands appeared to be competing with one another and confusing our community. 

For staff, adding another brand to the mix became challenging as we were managing double the communications and marketing and navigating the overlap of timing, channels and audience. Pillar then also became the backbone organization for VERGE Capital, a collaborative program with its own distinct brand and website. This left us with many staff contributing to our collective communications and marketing efforts and no point person who held it all. We held a staff retreat to create a plan for our multiple brands, how they aligned, how we would integrate them and what our collective brand strategy would be going forward. It was then we realized that companies that have multiple brands had bigger budgets to support creating strong brands and we had to answer the question if we wanted these brands to be separate or interconnected. We decided Pillar would be the parent brand and that Innovation Works and VERGE Capital were referred to “as a program of Pillar Nonprofit Network” to show the interconnectivity.

Hiring communications staff 

While having in house communications positions may not be possible for all social impact organizations, we are fortunate to have a few in-house staff members who have helped us to better plan and interconnect our communications across the organization. First, we had the opportunity to bring on a role that provided some event and communications support to Innovation Works and the Pillar Community Innovation Awards and also shared their graphic design talents. Then, through an impact measurement and evaluation project, we had a budget for some communications activities and videos. Instead of contracting out these services we took the opportunity to create a Director, Storytelling and Impact role. 

At the core of our communications and marketing efforts is a desire and commitment to share stories about our network and the positive impact our members are having in their communities. What we have learned is to iterate and change course and needed, to not be afraid to experiment and get creative, and that while it's important to try new approaches, we can't do it all.

These two roles were significant for Pillar because they offered ongoing consistency, support and guidance to the team. While they could not possibly lead and execute on all the communications for the organization, they are able to provide strategy, ideas, social media planning, and monitor graphic and brand standards. Using funding from a regional project, we were also able to hire a Digital Community Animator to support digital storytelling and implement an online community to connect our network. The goals for this role are to leverage technology solutions to bring our community and its ideas to life and to enhance connections and collaboration to develop the social capital of our community. 

Forming a cross-cluster communications committee  

At Pillar, our team is organized into clusters of team members who work on similar projects and are led by a director. One of our staff members suggested that we create a cross-cluster communications committee that had representation from each of our team clusters. This committee keeps our communications calendar up to date and provides ongoing support and planning. Thanks to the committee, we are now able to ensure that each of our teams are being represented in our storytelling efforts. They have also helped us to maintain better brand consistency and pacing of communications to our network. Just one example of how the committee has helped to meet the needs of our network and save staff resources was taking the three newsletters that were being produced across the organization and consolidating them down to one newsletter.

Building a stellar communications plan

After developing our cross-cluster communications committee, the group came together to create a communications plan for Pillar. Along with the help of some highly committed students, the committee was able to create a comprehensive plan that was aligned with our current organizational strategic priorities. The plan was informed by a human centered leadership approach and has helped us to establish consistent processes, brand clarity and key messages for our organization. The strategy prioritizes the integration of activities that position Pillar as the parent brand, which has offered clarity to the team and our community. The plan also included an environmental scan, target audiences, program descriptions, positioning statements, social media guidelines and common language. Identifying the key audiences in our network and ensuring our communications align with their needs and their ability to interact with the information has helped us move to a more networked approach in our communications.

Experimenting with new approaches 

At Pillar, we have experimented with many different marketing and communications tools including videos, podcasts, photo journals, social media campaigns, zines, failure reports, blogs, vlogs and the list goes on. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we have failed and had to pivot. One example of how we have improved over the years is with social media. We were early adopters in this area, and before it became as common as it is today, we held social media training and tried to convince the nonprofit sector about the value it could bring. Our whole team jumped in with two feet when it came to social media, but eventually, we realized we could improve our coordination and not just push out our own messages but also amplify our members and our network. What we have learned is to iterate and change course and needed, to not be afraid to experiment and get creative, and that while it’s important to try new approaches, we can’t do it all.

Tips for improving storytelling with a small team
  1. Form a communications committee – Creating a communications committee with people from different teams in your organization will improve the coordination and planning of your storytelling and ensure each team has a voice in what is being shared. 
  2. Keep your audience top of mind – Consider the needs of your audience and network in all of your communications and marketing and make sure that your messaging is accessible. 
  3. Develop a communications plan – Having a communications plan is foundational to the success of storytelling initiatives in any organization and even more critical when it is a shared responsibility so that all team members have an understanding of your goals and use consistent messaging. 
  4. Create graphic and brand standards – All organizations should have graphic and brand standards to ensure that logos, fonts and colours are being used correctly. Ensure someone on your team is monitoring for consistency.
  5. Be clear on your brand strategy – Pause and consider building new brands and websites. It is important to have a clear strategy on how you will minimize brand confusion especially when you have multiple brands within your organization. 
  6. Focus on impact – Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool for persuasion. Focusing on the impact of your programs or projects will help to win hearts and minds. 
  7. Make communication a shared responsibility – Staff members have the potential to be your greatest brand ambassadors. Create an expectation that every person has a responsibility to be communicators and storytellers for your organization.
  8. Mix things up – Be sure to continually evaluate the best method or to reach your audience and don’t focus all your efforts on one platform. Offering variety in how your network can interact with you keeps things interesting.
  9. Partner with experts – Working with professional marketing and communications firms when possible will help you to punch above your weight. Some organizations may be willing to offer in-kind services as part of their annual giving strategy. 

Tools for measuring network impact

Useful evaluation can deepen connection to community, establish sustainable change processes, and help to identify opportunities to better leverage human and financial resources. At Pillar, we take care to embed evaluation into the majority of our programs and initiatives. We have adopted a systems change mindset for our evaluation work. A systems mindset recognizes that our organizations are connected to a vast network of human and natural systems, and our evaluation efforts measure our contributions to these systems.

Recognizing our interconnectedness has helped us to make strategic decisions that serve our community. As a network organization, it is critical for us to evaluate our impact, failures, and connections to ensure we are meeting the needs of our members and stakeholders. We use the tools listed below measure our effectiveness and identify areas of improvement. Through sharing our evaluation processes we aim to inspire and enable our community to conduct their own useful evaluation practices and improve their organizational impact.

Measuring impact in our network and membership base 

Impact and failure reports

What began as a traditional annual report reflecting on our programs and services has transitioned to be an impact and failure report highlighting our learning, failure and impact as a network. Take a look at our past impact and failure reports

Membership surveys  

We survey our members bi-annually to gather their feedback on their overall satisfaction, member benefits and what else we can be doing to support them. More recently, we began asking our members questions on the Innovation Works chalkboard, shown below, and on our online community to encourage more ongoing feedback. These questions are intended to be more philosophical and thought provoking for those who answer and those who read them.

Network mapping

Pillar has recently engaged in a partnership with The CutlurePlex Lab at Western University to map our network using data visualizations. Network mapping has helped us to establish a baseline so we can monitor our network evolution to compare network pre- and post- our membership redesign and inform our strategy. We will be continuing to examine our overall network transformations. We are testing this model with a new program CityStudio London to track the strength of the relationships and the increase in the relationships for students, faculty and partners from the outset of the program to evaluate the change and impact in relationships. See an example of network visualization analysis in this overview of annual Pillar events from 2011 to 2018. 

Setting a baseline for understanding board and staff impact 

With our strategic focus to increase the understanding and use of impact measurement, our board and staff completed an impact measurement baseline survey that we could use to monitor over the three years of this as a priority area for our organization.

Measuring the impact of our board 

Strategic plan

Every three years Pillar does a strategic plan that engages our network including members, board, staff and partners to set our direction and meet community needs. This process is a combination of design jams with our members and the community, surveys, staff input sessions, board and staff planning days and reflecting on the past so we can move forward. To see how Pillar used our network approach to build our most recent strategic plan watch the video below. 

Board action plan

As part of our strategic planning process, a unique approach Pillar has adopted is creating an annual board action plan that outlines their actions, timeline and who will be responsible to hold the board accountable to the actions they outline. 

Our executive director provides a report to the board at each board meeting summarizing human resources, financial management, government relations/advocacy, partnerships/collaborations, fund development, communications/public relations, program/project highlights, staff action plan progress, monitoring updates related to staff complaints, member complaints and receiver general submissions, and reflections/learning from the ED.

Executive director evaluation

A key responsibility of a board is the hiring and evaluating of its executive director. The Pillar board conducts a full 360 ED evaluation bi-annually where it reaches out to board, staff and community members. The process also includes a self-evaluation by the ED. Our board works with DecisionWise, a tool that evaluates a leader on leadership competencies that are shared across different industries and shares the comparison to other leaders across North America. The years in between the 360 evaluation, the board completes a performance evaluation that is shared with the ED. Each year the feedback from the evaluation is used to create a performance summary that outlines annual development goals.

Board evaluation

An annual board evaluation is a promising practice that enables boards to reflect on their performance, engagement and impact. Together the board creates a summary  of the key themes that emerged throughout the year and they discuss the next steps and actions to address the opportunities and challenges that emerge from the survey results. 

Prompting questions

At the end of each meeting we have a generative question “Have we integrated an equity lens into our discussions? Into our community discussions?” to increase the understanding and practice related to equity and inclusion for our board.

Measuring our staff impact 

Staff evaluation

Each staff member receives an evaluation that includes a self-evaluation, co-worker evaluation and an evaluation and discussion with their direct supervisor. The results of a staff evaluation should not come as a surprise to the staff member as continuous feedback, recognition and get real conversations happen on a regular basis.

Staff action plan

An annual staff action plan that aligns with the strategic plan and has the objectives, tactics and actions for each team member is the guide for our employees throughout the year. We use the RACI method to identify who is responsible, accountable, consulted and informed for each action. We can also sort the plan according to which team cluster is responsible. This has become a foundational tool that is used to track activities and then report to the board.

Staff impact report

The staff impact report is completed by staff monthly and is used to update the board in the ED Report. In the impact report we have cluster reports, cross-cluster reports and action plan reporting.

Indicators tracking

We have an impact indicators tracking sheet that our team completes monthly with impact stories, inclusion moments, learning and development, media, testimonials, volunteer hours and specific indicators for each team cluster. These are rolled up and shared in the impact report and ED report.

Risk management matrix

As our organization has grown, and taken on ownership of a building and additional risk, we adopted a risk management matrix that is provided to the board quarterly. The matrix flags risks according to program and project areas and identifies the risk with green for low, yellow for medium and red for high risk.

Adaptive cycle

The adaptive cycle is a model that Pillar has modified to use as part of our strategic planning process. It is based on the concept of an ecosystem and how it goes through a natural pattern of change from birth to growth, and from maturation to creative construction. The model can also show how resilient an ecosystem, organization, program or project is. In our most recent strategic planning process, we identified that we had many programs that were in birth and growth and that our focus would be to move those to maturation as we get ready for the next stage of growth.

Decision making tool

Another tool that we developed as a result of our most recent strategic plan was a decision making tool. We have a team that is always eager to embrace opportunity and we recognized that we had a need for a tool to guide us through decision making in a time when one of our strategic priorities is “Be Focused”. In a world, and work culture, which values innovation and growth, the word ‘no’ had become almost taboo. Turning down an opportunity or request can be viewed as a hindrance to progress and cooperation. Yet, counterintuitively, we have come to learn that saying ‘no’ is often necessary and can be one of the best ways to provide support.

Prompting questions

As Pillar started to embrace failure within the organization, the ED added an agenda item at the team meetings for staff to share a mission moment and a failure they had experienced. After we had done that for a few years, we decided to shift that to a prompted question on our Basecamp, our shared project management platform. Each Friday, the team is prompted with a question to share any mission moments or failures from the week. 

Additionally, during our executive directors’ reflective practice and research fellowship, there were weekly prompting questions and the answers were shared with the full staff team to have them be part of the learning and experience. The questions included:

  1. Have you noticed themes emerging in your analysis, interactions, research?
  2. Are you blocked on anything?
  3. Has anything surprised you so far?

Program and services evaluation

In our early days, Pillar would evaluate the results of a program at the end of that program and assume that the goals and objectives set out when we started would remain  the same. Today, we believe in developmental evaluation that recognizes complexity and shifts that will emerge and allows for exploration, development and innovation. We now see that the path and destination for each of our programs and projects evolves over time and we need to monitor and sometimes shift  goals. Additionally, the evaluation model for each program or service must usually vary from one to the next as each initiative will have different goals and criteria. Take a look at the links below as a sample of some of the tools we have used to measure the impact of our diverse programs and services.

Bringing diversity to volunteerism at leadership levels

Typically a network responds to the needs and priorities of its members. In the case of Pillar’s work related to board diversity and volunteering for newcomers, visible minorities and under-represented groups, we were responding to research that showed a gap in representation in nonprofits. As London was increasingly becoming more diverse, our nonprofit sector leadership was not reflective of our demographic reality. Board governance is where oversight, strategic direction, and policy are determined for nonprofits and charities. A lack of diversity at this level has significant implications at the decision-making table. 

When we first brought these issues forward, we found ourselves needing to gently nudge the sector to keep people open to the discussion and to encourage them to be bold enough to communicate the evidence of the lack of diversity in our organizations and network. Over the years, Pillar has had 10 funded projects related to this topic and we now weave diversity and equity into our governance, learning and development programs, and consulting programs. Today, we demonstrate a bolder approach to naming the oppression, power and privilege in the nonprofit sector and our communities.

Our current strategic plan theme of “Be Inclusive” and the way we provoke discussion and action around equity and emerging cross-sector community issues are just two of the ways we demonstrate our commitment to championing diversity and inclusion in our own organization and our network. In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the research we have conducted on these topics and how it has guided the projects and programs we have offered and continue to offer at Pillar. Read more if you want to learn about why the principles of diversity and inclusion have been integral to building our network, and how you can leverage our learnings to guide your own organizational practices.  

Laying the foundation with research 

Pillar conducted research in 2004 related to participation and inclusion levels of racialized communities and new Canadians – immigrants to Canada within the last ten years – in nonprofit organizations. The study, London’s Voluntary Sector Employment and Training Needs Study, showed that only “one in five organizations recruited visible minority volunteers on their board (20.9 percent) and fewer than 10 percent of organizations recruited at least one newcomer to their board of directors”. The survey went on to reveal that some organizations choose not to hire newcomers to their board since they feel these individuals do not bring with them the experience and contacts that other candidates provide.

Building on the labour market survey, Pillar led another research study “A New Canadian’s First Decade of Volunteering: Examining Ways to Involve New Canadians in Community Organizations” about how organizations need to reflect on the ways they could assist new Canadians as they struggle in this new environment. For example, it is equally important to include new Canadians amongst an organization’s staff, volunteers and clients. Many new Canadians are seeking paid employment in Canada and have learned that volunteering is a way to not only give back to society and help others, but also to improve job opportunities. 

Given that organizations are looking for volunteers to fill shortages, and new Canadians are looking to volunteer to improve job opportunities, it seems like a logical fit for organizations to recruit new Canadians. New Canadians can offer a wealth of skills to an organization, and in turn, the organization can help new Canadians as they learn more about Canadian culture and try to improve their English skills and job opportunities. The results of our study showed that cultural differences, language barriers and discrimination make this solution complex. The challenge lies in finding organizations to recruit them as volunteers in order for them to develop language skills, make contacts, gain Canadian experience and references. 

In 2005, Pillar wanted to determine how new Canadians have experienced volunteering in their country of origin and how that might shape their view of volunteering in Canada with a research study called “The Meaning of Volunteering – Examining the Meaning of Volunteering to New Canadians”. The results revealed that understanding the concept of volunteering was connected to the new Canadians country of origin, religion, economic reality, gender stereotypes and length of time in Canada. With the findings of both of these studies in mind, we have carried out a variety of projects to shift the culture around volunteering for new Canadians, visible minorities and under-represented groups. 

Moving from research to action

Given the demographic reality and increasing interest from nonprofit organizations to address diversity issues at a governance level, we embarked on “The Board Diversity Project” in September 2006. This project was funded by a grant from Canadian Heritage through its Multiculturalism & Aboriginal Peoples’ Programs. The main objectives of this project were:

  • To help nonprofit boards of directors become more inclusive and reflective of the community by providing training, tools, support and resources that will enable them to implement organizational change.
  • To increase the capacity, knowledge and confidence of individuals from ethno-racial communities who are interested in serving in leadership positions, thereby creating a new pool of skilled board candidates.
  • To raise awareness in the nonprofit sector and beyond about the importance of creating inclusive, responsive and accessible organizations and institutions.

As our work with the organizations began, it became clear that many of the boards desired to become more diverse but lacked the necessary tools to do so in an equitable way. Comments such as “we want to increase our board diversity, but we don’t know how” or “our board members are to bring money and influence” were very common. The project addressed these issues and supported 18 nonprofit organizations with tools including cultural competency self-assessments, professional development workshops at a group and individual level, and board orientation sessions to prospective board members from ethno-racial communities. With the help of skilled diversity consultants and facilitators, training materials and action planning tools were created with each participating organization. 

While we had some success with the program, it did face some resistance and there was more participation from smaller organizations and those who already had a mandate to support diverse individuals in the community. As a summary of the learnings and materials from the project, we developed two toolkits on board diversity and volunteering at leadership tables

Getting clear on the needs of new Canadians

Both the 2005 research study about the “Meaning of Volunteering” and our early experience with the Board Diversity Project revealed that priorities for new Canadians needed to be language skills, housing, schooling and employment – essentially their basic needs. Engaging as board members and at leadership tables was typically not a first priority and our target for the board diversity program expanded to encompass visible minorities and under-represented groups. 

From 2007-2008, we were funded to create City of London brochures on “Volunteering and New Canadians” in English and translated into Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish and a board orientation program. From these projects we realized that if you offer tools in different languages there will be an expectation that you have those languages being spoken among your team. At this time, we also received funding to offer sessions about how to get started volunteering, rather than just board orientations, to support new Canadians and immigrants with understanding the Canadian context for volunteering and how to access opportunities that fit with their needs and interests.

Advancing cultural diversity in volunteer management 

In 2008, Pillar was a partner for the “Advancing Cultural Diversity in Volunteer Management” project. Both volunteer management and diversity management are often under-valued within organizations and, therefore, under-resourced. This project sought to effectively integrate cultural diversity in volunteer management. The goal was to develop the organizational and community capacity of non-profit organizations in the 519 and 905 area code regions of the province to recruit and support a more culturally diverse volunteer base. One of the learnings for Pillar was that the screening process for volunteers has inherent barriers for newcomers including immunization records and police records checks. Access to immunization records and past experience with the police in some of the countries of origin for those newer to Canada impact inclusion and access to volunteering. While screening processes are necessary, the requirements need to be considered against the probability of risk. 

Board governance is where oversight, strategic direction, and policy are determined for nonprofits and charities. A lack of diversity at this level has significant implications at the decision-making table. It is imperative for us to continue to examine power and privilege in the pursuit of a world that is equitable and inclusive for all. 

Calling our community to action

Along with our partners K-W Counselling Services and United Way of Windsor-Essex County, we hosted the “Community Action Forum: Creating inclusive and diverse nonprofit organizations” in 2008 in an effort to build ecosystems of learning and support. The event brought together ninety individuals from the three communities of London-Middlesex, Windsor-Essex and Kitchener-Waterloo with to encourage dialogue and learning about the changing face of communities; board diversity; the benefits of cultural competency models; making a plan for organizational change; engagement strategies for ethno-cultural communities; implementing diversity in a unionized environment; building equitable leadership and partnerships; and recruitment and retention strategies. From this forum, a strong underpinning emerged that we cannot address cultural diversity without addressing racism. We also produced a report to share the rich learnings from the event with a wider audience. 

Developing training for the sector

After the Community Action Forum, it was clear to us that this work needed to continue in our community. In 2009, we lead a project “Diversity & Anti-Racism Training for Nonprofits” funded by London Community Foundation to increase the capacity, knowledge and confidence of nonprofit organizations to create more culturally competent organizations and ultimately increase representation of board members from diverse communities. The learning from this project was that while many organizations go to great lengths to make their workplaces more equitable at the front-line level, at the leadership and governance level, work still needs to be done to recognize the importance of diversity and equity work. Boards of directors need a constant reminder that these issues should be a part of everything the organization does. It takes time to walk people through the process of understanding the importance of the work and to agree to take the time to do the work.

Working with settlement organizations

Over the years, we have had some staff in settlement organizations sending new Canadians to Pillar to find a volunteer position related to their career path. While this is possible for some careers, quite often we had to clarify that the roles in nonprofits and charities can be very different than other industries. As a result of the pattern we were seeing and the disappointment that often resulted, we decided to train the staff at settlement organizations about volunteering and our role at Pillar. In 2010, we launched a one year project  “The Art of Volunteering for New Canadians,” funded by Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The project was a collaborative comprised of London Cross Cultural Learner Centre, London Public Library, LUSO Community Services, South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre and Pillar that brought together the settlement organizations in London to facilitate full and active participation of ethno-racial/cultural communities in volunteer roles. Through learning opportunities, volunteer referral and staff training, this project alleviated confusion and provided better service support to new Canadians about volunteering.

Taking board diversity to the next level

When DiverseCity onBoard – a board matching program that originated in Toronto – was expanding its programs through partnerships across Canada, our commitment to board diversity positioned us as a natural partner. Pillar was invited to participate in a planning session in Berlin, Germany where Accenture facilitated a business planning process to look at how to sustain and support this program in various cities. The organization was able to develop a social enterprise model that included revenue sharing for the training fees for both the participants and nonprofits accessing diverse board members. 

We then went on to become the lead partner for a three-year funding program for DiverseCity onBoard with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the partner cities Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto. This collaborative was formed to address the under-representation of visible minorities and immigrant communities in leadership positions in governance bodies of nonprofit and public sector organizations (including agencies, boards, and commissions). The dedicated staff and financial resources available for this project, along with the ability to share learning across the organizations, amplified the reach and awareness of this work. In tandem to our work, there was also deep community conversation emerging about racism and oppression and we found that nonprofits no longer needed to be convinced about why this was important in the same way as we experienced during our early work. 

As an outcome of this project, we recognized that representation on boards was not enough and that what we needed to shift the needle on was whether the voices at the table were being heard and valued. In the end, we experienced some setbacks on the project. The social enterprise model did not work because the revenue share was not significant enough to sustain the program. Further, candidates were not keen to pay for the online training and we sourced funding for bursaries. Today, we continue to work as a partner of the organization to help local organizations with board matching and governance training to ensure qualified candidates from visible minorities are not excluded from positions of influence.

Confirming the realities of representation

While we knew our boards lacked representation of visible minorities and women, we recognized that formal research to confirm this was needed to legitimize any future work in this area and to set a baseline to measure the impact of our board diversity efforts. Western University Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Studies and Pathways to Prosperity partnered on a research study to examine the level of visible minority representation in leadership positions in the municipal public and nonprofit sectors in the cities of London, Hamilton and Ottawa. In addition, the project examined the representation of female visible minorities and of women overall in these positions. In London, only 7.9 percent of senior leaders in the nonprofit and municipal public sectors were identified as visible minorities compared to 13.1 percent of the general London population and only 3.1 percent of senior leaders in the nonprofit and municipal public sectors were visible minority women compared to 6.5 percent of the London population. 

Ongoing programs and commitments  

Today, Pillar has a Director, Diversity and Governance who is deeply involved in community engagement, provides learning and development as well as consulting services that have embedded diversity and equity into the curriculum and approach. Despite not having ongoing funding, we still offer the board diversity matching. Our public policy strategy at the municipal, provincial and federal levels is based on our network principle of equity and inclusion. Our communities have significant levels of oppression and racism and there is collective work that needs to happen at an individual, organizational and network level to shift this. It is imperative for us to continue to examine power and privilege in the pursuit of a world that is equitable and inclusive for all.