Building a network approach for positive community impact

As a nonprofit network, Pillar’s primary focus has always been to increase the visibility, credibility, capacity, and professionalism of the nonprofit sector. We know our sector is essential to building an engaged, inclusive and vibrant community, but also believe we must work with the business and government sectors to solve problems in our community. This approach to cross-sector collaboration is a unique aspect of our network approach at Pillar. We support strong local nonprofit sector leadership, engaging the public and private sectors, and encouraging thinking from a system perspective. Here are some of the ways we’ve developed our network approach and tips for how you can build a network mindset into your nonprofit or charity.

Expanding from a local to regional network

Our local and place-based focus is another unique factor of our network approach. We believe in leveraging the knowledge and assets of our region to enable us to think and act differently and to solve big issues. We started with a mandate to serve London and then expanded to serve London and area, including the three surrounding counties. From the beginning, we have also been tapped into provincial and national networks for shared learning and partnerships including Ontario Nonprofit Network, Ontario Social Economy Roundtable, Ontario Volunteer Centre Network, Imagine Canada and Canadian Federation of Voluntary Sector Networks to name a few.

Over the years, Pillar has led various provincial projects including Community Action Forum: Creating diverse and inclusive nonprofit organizations, Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities, DiverseCity onBoard, Project Impact, Social Enterprise Southwest and Women’s Ontario Social Enterprise Network. As our work expanded to encompass social finance and impact investing, we knew that we needed a broader investment pool and there was significant need across Southwestern Ontario.

Further, our social enterprise approach to leverage entrepreneurship and business supports was recognized provincially and we had an opportunity to train and infuse social entrepreneurship within the Ontario Network for Entrepreneurs (ONE) in Southwestern Ontario. Today our board is having strategic conversations about our geographic reach and we are committed to sharing our network approach recognizing that each community will resonate with various aspects of our mission, vision and programs.

Expanding our membership

Today, the three pillars – government, business and nonprofit – are blurring in pursuit of social and economic impact. As our organization has grown from our 340 nonprofit and individual members to include our over 400 co-tenants with Innovation Works, and our network of investors and investees with VERGE Capital, we recognized that each of these groups were working in silos.

Today, the three pillars – government, business and nonprofit – are blurring in pursuit of social and economic impact. Positioning your organization within a dynamic cross-sector network expands your capacity for learning and achieving positive change in your community.

As an organization, we wanted to connect our full network so they could lean on one another. We knew there was more we could do to facilitate deeper and expanded connections between our members so that we can share what we know collectively. For these reasons, we redesigned our membership program in 2019 to expand to include individuals, organizations and social enterprises, businesses and government invested in creating positive community impact.

Using technology to connect networks

At Pillar, our vision for our network is one that is highly connected, serves to strengthen the voice and impact of the non-profit sector, and plays a leadership role in the community. We noticed that the co-tenants at Innovation Works naturally leaned on one another and that proximity and interactions that were continuous often lead to quicker collaboration and support for one another. We created our Pillar Online Community to open up the lines of communication among our members so they could connect and share ideas about creating positive community impact.

Enabling learning and development

Pillar hosts many networking and learning opportunities for our members to further their knowledge and connections. These include core organizational development functions such as finance, human resources, communications and marketing, leadership and board development, and emerging trends and shifts in collaboration, social enterprise and social innovation. In 2018, we had more than 70 networking and workshop sessions with 3117 attendees. We believe that in person learning and networking opportunities are a crucial component of building a strong network.

Mapping networks to measure impact

Pillar has embarked on an exciting partnership with CulturePlex Lab to map our network using data visualizations that will provide insight into the evolution of our network using the number of members after our membership redesign as our baseline. We are also testing this evaluation method and tool for CityStudio London to track the number and quality of the connections over time for student participants in the program.

Keys to building a network mindset 

Establishing a network mindset in your organization takes time, resources and strategic planning but is well worth the investment. Positioning your organization within a dynamic cross-sector network expands your capacity for learning and achieving positive change in your community. Here are some of the ways we’ve embedded a network mindset at Pillar.

  1. Create opportunities for connection – Ensure both in person and online opportunities for members to connect, learn and lean on one another.
  2. Facilitate cross-sector collaboration – Create connections across nonprofit organizations and with business and government.
  3. Foster both organizational development and systems change – It’s important to strengthen the capacity of individual organizations, but a strong network must also encourage members to think beyond their individual mission and consider how they can partner with other organizations to achieve systems change.
  4. Prioritize member engagement – Engage your members or stakeholders in strategy and public policy. Ensure you are capturing their needs to be in service to them.
  5. Animate the network – Have roles within the organization that support and animate the network and nurture the relationships and connections.
  6. Highlight storytelling and impact – Share stories, build awareness and support the network to measure their impact.
  7. Anticipate future needs – A good network recognizes patterns, shifting systems and emerging trends and brings this knowledge forward to its members as an opportunity for learning and collaboration.

How Pillar convenes cross-sector collaboration

At Pillar, a core component of our ethos is our belief in the need for collaboration amongst the three pillars – private, public and nonprofit – to achieve systems change. We play a neutral facilitator role in bringing community together to engage in dialogue about the issues facing our city. Whether through a conference, program, project or meeting, creating opportunities for partnerships amongst those in all three sectors is critical to building trust across industry lines. 

It’s important for us to learn about the opinions and experiences of our community so we can in turn act as a voice for change. We seek to empower community members to take ownership in contributing to action plans that will improve the future of our community. In addition to generating innovative ideas to solve our community’s problems, we believe in the power of connection to create a sense of belonging and reduce loneliness. The following initiatives showcase the various ways we continually engage our community to collaborate for good. 

Leadership London Conference

Pillar hosted a conference entitled “Building from Within” in 2004 for leaders across the three pillars. This event was the first of its kind in its efforts to facilitate cross-sector collaboration and build the profile of the nonprofit sector as an equal partner to the business and government sectors. The conference assembled local, national and international experts to help participants examine innovation, stewardship and how to use collaborative relationships as a way to engineer social change. London leaders had the opportunity to identify complex challenges facing our community and join their efforts in building an action plan for London’s future. 

Pillar Design Collective

Along with many other nonprofits and government agencies, in 2006 Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) agencies in the Southwestern Ontario region were facing budgetary challenges and looking for opportunities for efficiency. A group of 12 BBBS agencies decided to band together to evaluate how they could collaborate to make their resources go further. To take on this challenge, Pillar Design Collective (the Collective) was hired to help the various chapters of the organization to create process efficiencies and look for opportunities to share services across regions. 

The Collective brought together a group of five social innovators, community collaborators and creative catalysts who used their collective wisdom and experience with design thinking to help BBBS with their organizational transformation. In addition, the Collective leveraged their network at Innovation Works to harness their expertise and services to contribute to the problem solving process. Throughout this collaboration, the Collective ensured that all voices were taken into account thus easing fears and ensuring that the organizations were well positioned for future success. 

Collaborating for Community Impact Program

In 2012, London and communities around the world were feeling the effects of the challenging economic climate and austerity budgets from various levels of government. That year, Pillar was funded by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration to conduct a three year program called Collaborating for Community Impact (CCI) with the goal to contribute towards a healthier, more vibrant community, by increasing the impact of nonprofit organizations – through cross-sector collaboration – to better serve mutual stakeholders. The multi-stage project began with research documenting existing London collaborations. In each of the three years of the program, Pillar hosted members of all sectors in at community collaboration forums to gauge the issues that were most important to the community. 

It’s important for us to learn about the opinions and experiences of our community so we can in turn act as a voice for change. We seek to empower community members to take ownership in contributing to action plans that will improve the future of our community.

With extensive community input, Pillar developed three key initiatives to achieve the goals of its CCI Program and acted as facilitator of these cross-sectorial project teams. The initiatives, as follows, were the catalyst for other community collaboration projects such as Innovation Works and CityStudio London:

  1. Transforming London with a social innovation shared space
  2. Addressing poverty through mental health as a barrier to employment
  3. Enhancing campus community collaboration to leverage social change
CityStudio London

A key outcome of our Collaborating for Community Impact Program was to enhance campus-community collaboration. Attraction and retention of youth is also an ongoing strategic priority of the City of London. In this climate, Pillar launched CityStudio London in September 2019. CityStudio is a proven model of experiential education and civic engagement – pioneered in Vancouver and adapted across Canada – that is helping to develop tomorrow’s leaders by turning the city into the classroom. 

CityStudio London is a collaboration between the City of London, Brescia University, Fanshawe College, Huron University, King’s University College, Western University, and Pillar Nonprofit Network. By furthering connections between City Hall, academic institutions, and local community, London’s post-secondary students have more meaningful opportunities to apply their skills, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit to real-world issues and challenges facing our community, and help shape a better and brighter future for all Londoners.

Community Action Forum 

The Community Action Forum: Creating inclusive & diverse nonprofit organizations took place in London, Ontario on October 28 & 29, 2008. The Forum was a joint project of Pillar Nonprofit Network, K-W Counselling Services, and United Way of Windsor-Essex County. It brought together 90 individuals from the three communities of London-Middlesex, Windsor-Essex and Kitchener-Waterloo. 

The purpose of the forum was 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. Through this form and along with our partners, we were able to examine barriers and gaps in engaging diverse communities and increase cultural competency amongst participants showing our commitment to inclusiveness. 

Keys to effective cross-sector collaboration 

Engaging a diverse cross-section of community members from all sectors is vital for making progress towards solving persistent community issues. Collective leadership from across sectors is especially important today as trust in traditional institutions wanes. Here are a few lessons about facilitation that we’ve learned along the way.

  1. Keep diversity and inclusion top of mind – Achieving equal representation on committees should always be a priority, and there is always more that can be done. 
  2. Use collective impact theory – This theory can provide a structured framework to guide your collaboration.
  3. Establish a steady pace – Collaboration must be well paced by the backbone organization. Contributors need enough time to understand one another and set goals while feeling there is a momentum to the project. 
  4. Define guidelines and agreements – Establishing clear ways of working and team agreements at the outset make the collaboration run more smoothly. 
  5. Acknowledge power dynamics – Open conversations about the power structures in collaboration can help to break down walls. 
  6. Distribute leadership and engagement – Leadership and team involvement must be equally distributed across partners to ensure all voices are equally valued. 

Optimizing nonprofit-business partnerships

When the three pillars come together to share their knowledge, assets and skills, the intentional collision of ideas that occurs can lead to transformational change. In recent years, we have seen a growing number businesses act as a force for good and a strong collaboration partner for nonprofits. Businesses are shifting towards considering their social and environmental impacts not just their financial impact. With consumer trends shifting towards sustainability, businesses that are values driven and operate in an economically, socially and environmentally conscious manner are finding success.

Over the years, we’ve had the opportunity to engage the business community in many ways. While we have had many positive experiences working with members of the business community, partnerships are never without their challenges. Keep reading to find out what we learned and the best practices we developed along the way.

Pillar Community Innovation Awards

The Pillar Community Innovation Awards started in 2006 and was one of our first programs that embedded the notion of the three pillars coming together to make our community brighter. From the outset, we included business as those who could be recognized for their efforts in making our community brighter and better. The program and categories were co-created with various community leaders and include Innovation, Leadership, Impact, Collaboration, and more recently, Community Choice. The awards now gather more than 1000 attendees and receive close to $100,000 in support from sponsors, many of them businesses. The growth of the awards can be partially attributed to adding corporate tables as an option to purchase. This event has become a premier networking and storytelling event in our community.

Relationship with the London Chamber of Commerce

Our journey of collaborating with business started in our early days. When we were starting out, we modeled our organization after the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. We initially wanted our name to be the London Chamber of Voluntary Organizations and approached the London Chamber of Commerce about this decision. The Chamber pointed out that this could cause confusion about our mandates. This initial conversation would soon transform into a strong working relationship.

With the economic recession in 2008, the community requested more support around cross-sector collaboration and social enterprise. As we brought together the business community to explore and dig deeper in these areas, the Chamber was one of our key partners. We worked together on the Social Enterprise Advisory Committee and again on our Prince’s Seeing is Believing initiative as part of the Collaborating for Community Impact Program. The Prince’s Seeing is Believing initiative had business leaders tour local social enterprises and connect to those with lived experience of mental health challenges. Business leaders were then engaged to consider how they could play a role in addressing mental health as a barrier to employment. 

As the Chamber became more engaged with our work around social enterprise, they reached out about partnering on their new Corporate Social Responsibility Award for the London Business Achievement Awards. We had the opportunity to develop the selection criteria and lead the selection process. This partnership started in 2013 and continues today. In 2017, and again in 2018, we partnered on two highly engaging workshops about Corporate Social Responsibility where we explored why and how to embed CSR in a business and how to become catalysts for change.

Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities

When we started the Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities project in 2010 with the communities of Ottawa and Sarnia and the Ivey Business School, we initially thought we would only support nonprofits. We had many young social entrepreneurs approaching us from post-secondary organizations and we recognized that there was no one size fits all legal structure for a social enterprise and we needed to engage with our legal partners to provide supports as emerging social enterprises were determining their legal structure. 

This was a major turning point because Pillar opened up its social enterprise coaching and supports to both nonprofits and for-profits. This is when we recognized the need to support social enterprises based on their impact and not their specific legal structure. Further, we reached out to local businesses and the entrepreneurship ecosystem including Leap Junction at Fanshawe College, London Economic Development Corporation, Small Business Centre, TechAlliance, Propel Entrepreneurship Western University and UnLondon as key partners in supporting social enterprises to create a sustainable community. We also created the London BizGrid as a tool for entrepreneurs to navigate and find the business supports they need.

Social Enterprise Southwest

Pillar has recognized that to offer the most effective social enterprise support, we needed to embed our work into the entrepreneurship ecosystem in London and Southwestern Ontario. The resources and supports offered by economic development centres, small business centres, regional innovation centres and campus link accelerators are vital to augment our social enterprise coaching and supports.

Today, the three pillars – government, business and nonprofit – are blurring in pursuit of social and economic impact. Positioning your organization within a dynamic cross-sector network expands your capacity for learning and achieving positive change in your community.

In 2017, we expanded this work we had prototyped in London and area and replicated it across Southwestern Ontario to infuse social enterprise into communities and entrepreneurship support organizations. In collaboration with EpiCentre at University of Windsor, Huron Small Business Enterprise Centre, Waterloo Region Small Business Centre and Innovate Niagara, we created Social Enterprise Southwest. This partnership offered education, coaching and connections to investors for enterprises interested in achieving social or environmental outcomes and maximizing revenue. 

Shift to the Middle 

As we delved deeper into the world of social enterprise, we developed a model called “Shift to the Middle”. This continuum captured our theory of change of having nonprofits and charities become more enterprising and sustainable and for profit businesses embedding social impact into their DNA. Traditionally, nonprofits and businesses have worked in silos in our communities. Businesses use private resources to create private benefit for their customers who see value in products and services. Nonprofits use public resources to solve community challenges. As consumers become more aware and nonprofits become more innovative, society is shifting away from this traditional nonprofit/for-profit divide.  

We believe that it is important to encourage both businesses and nonprofits to “Shift To The Middle”. By recognizing that sustainable nonprofits use business principles and they can leverage business thinking and resources, like accessing private resources, nonprofits can better solve community challenges. By thinking about their social and environmental impact, businesses can create value for the entire community. While “Shifting to the Middle” may not be possible or the right decision for all organizations, the tools of business are playing a greater role in addressing community challenges and changing the way nonprofits and businesses operate.

Keys to effective collaboration with business

With both our experience of engaging business in our work at Pillar and connecting our members and network to business to create a more engaged, inclusive and vibrant community, here is what we have learned about effective collaboration.

  1. Develop a foundation of trust – Build trust from the outset and nurture this often through honest communication.
  2. Establish a common vision – Find the alignment, shared values and common thread of connection.
  3. Seek opportunities for synergy – Leverage the skills, assets, and talents of your partners to amplify the impact of your programs and services. 
  4. Nurture long-term relationships – Provide opportunities for meaningful engagement that is beyond a one time interaction.
  5. Seek alignment in partnerships – Explore how the partnership will benefit the reputation and credibility of both the nonprofit and business.
  6. Foster reciprocal relationships – Create the opportunities for shared learning between the nonprofit and business and recognize that both bring value to the partnership.
  7. Get real – Make sure that the partnership is serving the nonprofit, often nonprofits feel they cannot say no because it may impact funding or the relationship. Be honest and be sure the partnership meets the needs of the community and the organization.
  8. Measure impact – Create a communications strategy to evaluate and measure the impact of the partnership and pivot as needed. 

Collaborating with government for community impact

Nonprofits and social enterprises are uniquely positioned to be invaluable partners of government in developing programs, services, policies and funding support that are representative of community needs. With pre-existing connections to the communities they serve, nonprofits and social enterprises can effectively contribute to human-centered design approaches that lead to systems change.

The following are examples of how different levels of government have engaged the community to build a strategy around complex issues or opportunities. Pillar Nonprofit Network was invited to sit at the advisory tables for the development of these strategies. In community driven processes, Pillar acts as a voice for the affected populations ensuring their needs and solutions are heard. 

Partnerships with Municipal Government 

City of London Community Economic Road Map 

In collaboration with the City of London, and representatives from the government, business, post-secondary and not-for-profit communities, Pillar had a seat at the table to help develop London’s Community Economic Road Map. The strategy reflects the community’s aspirations for our local economy and was developed through the principles of alignment, engagement and partnership. The roadmap identified five priorities to work towards to help build our local economy:

  1. A city for entrepreneurs;
  2. A supportive business environment;
  3. An exceptional downtown, a vibrant urban environment; 
  4. A top quality workforce; and,
  5. A national Centre of Excellence for medical innovation and commercialization.

City of London Community Diversity and Inclusion Strategy

In 2016, the City of London engaged over 600 community members to help build a Community Diversity and Inclusion Strategy (CDIS). City council identified the need to develop this strategy as a way to “build a diverse, inclusive and welcoming community” by “supporting all Londoners to feel engaged and involved in our community”. Pillar’s Director, Diversity and Governance was a member of the 200-person team of CDIS Champions who contributed to the development of the strategy. Along with a vision, statement of commitment, strategies and a glossary, the strategy includes five key diversity and inclusion priorities for the city, including: 

Nonprofits and social enterprises are uniquely positioned to be invaluable partners of government in developing programs, services, policies and funding support that are representative of community needs. Nonprofits and social enterprises can offer their experience with the diverse populations they serve to promote inclusive innovation.

  1. Take concrete steps towards healing and reconciliation;
  2. Have zero tolerance for oppression, discrimination and ignorance;
  3. Connect and engage Londoners;
  4. Remove accessibility barriers to services, information and spaces; and
  5. Remove barriers to employment.

London for All: A roadmap to end poverty

In September 2015, the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty was established to provide input on tangible solutions for addressing poverty in our city. Pillar’s Director, Diversity and Governance was asked to sit on this panel along with other local experts in the fields of health and social services. Together, the group compiled an extensive report with recommendations on how the city can take steps to end poverty within one generation. 

Partnerships with Provincial Government

Community Hubs Ontario

Community hubs bring together services, like health, social, cultural and recreational services, in one location to provide people with consolidated access to resources they need. Pillar’s Executive Director was involved as a member of the Premier’s Advisory Committee on Community Hubs. The advisory group was developed to identify provincial barriers to creating community hubs, offer recommendations for reducing these barriers and supporting their development. Through consultation with 350 organizations, including local service providers and provincial ministries, the Advisory Committee co-created a Framework and Action Plan that the government has committed to putting into effect to support the development of community hubs. 

Keys to effective collaboration with government  

Through Pillar’s ongoing involvement with various government initiatives, we have seen that intentional and collaborative relationships, where the power relationship is balanced, are necessary to effect transformative system change. These principles have been foundational in our collaborations with various levels of government. 

  1. Build trust and empathy – Establishing trust and empathy at the outset of any collaborative project is essential to an effective relationship. Open and consistent communication about vision, financial realities, and community needs helps to create an atmosphere of trust. To build empathy, we need to ensure we’re always seeking the perspective of our partners and the communities we serve. 
  2. Name power dynamics – It’s important that the power government has over nonprofits or social enterprises is acknowledged in early conversations. When both parties listen and ask questions power becomes equalized. Leveraging the common strengths of all participants and working together towards shared goals is often more effective than the format of traditional hierarchical relationships. Ensuring that concrete action steps and timelines are in place also ensures all participants are aware of their responsibilities in the partnership. 
  3. Select the right partnersSeeking the appropriate partners within government and nonprofits who are experts on the topic of the collaboration is essential to creating systems change. Throughout the course of the collaboration, it’s a best practice to assess who needs to be at the table and for what length of time as partners may need to change as projects evolve.  
  4. Establish a common goal and vision – Effective partnerships must start with the development of shared goals that are meaningful to collaborators and are representative of the community the project will serve. Having a shared vision to work towards acts as an effective guidepost for decision making throughout the project.
  5. Leverage assets and shared services – When working together towards developing new programs or services, municipalities, nonprofits and social enterprises should collectively review the assets they bring to the table. Conducting this assessment helps to create a better understanding of each sector and create efficiencies in the development process. An asset-based review can include strategic focus, values/approach, human resources, knowledge/competencies, financial resources, and technology/space infrastructure. 
  6. Foster inclusive innovation – As government develops new policies and programs, nonprofits and social enterprises can offer their experience with the diverse populations they serve to promote inclusive innovation. There are times when government may make decisions without consulting those with lived experience and nonprofits and social enterprises can be valuable partners in acting as representatives of these individuals. 
  7. Invest in community impact – In working with government, the nonprofit and social enterprise sectors must advocate for funding that goes beyond enabling transactional service delivery to support transformational systems change. In recent years, the government has shifted to short-term project funding that makes it difficult to create sustainable change. For nonprofits and social enterprises to create long-term impact, core funding and multi-year funding is required. When developing economic strategies and supports, governments should regard nonprofits and social enterprises as important economic drivers that contribute to achieving inclusive economic growth. 

How to start a support network for social enterprise

With the economic recession in 2008, London’s nonprofit community expressed a desire to explore and learn more about social enterprise and its dual potential for revenue generation and positive impact. Pillar’s journey to become a support network for social enterprise began when Pathways Skills Development provided generous support for our Executive Director to attend the Social Enterprise World Forum in San Francisco with the theme of “Realizing the Potential of Social Enterprise”. Attending this event helped to kick start Pillar’s role in supporting and building capacity for social enterprise in our community. Keep reading to learn about the stages of supporting social enterprise that evolved at Pillar including capacity building, access to capital, consulting and enabling market opportunity.

Creating a support system in midsize cities

As a next step, we hosted the Innovation & Resilience Forum to explore ways that nonprofits and charities could create resilience amidst challenging financial circumstances. The forum included sessions on social innovation and social enterprise, and attendees expressed an appetite for more learning about the potential of social enterprise for revenue generation. Later that year, we were awarded a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation along with our partner cities of Sarnia-Lambton, and Ottawa-Carlton and we worked with the United Way London & Middlesex and the Ivey School of Business to begin the three year Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities Program. The program allowed us to engage in a learning cycle to incubate and validate social enterprises as key contributors to developing sustainable communities. Throughout this project, we worked with both nonprofit and for profit social enterprises and looked for ways to embed social enterprise into the entrepreneurship ecosystem in our community. 

Establishing funding and investment opportunities

To enable social enterprises to thrive in our community, we needed to go beyond coaching and capacity building supports and consider funding and investment opportunities for those in the start up and growth phases. The need for grants and investments for social enterprises was evident and recognized as a key success factor for social enterprise to flourish in the community. United Way London & Middlesex had the foresight to offer social enterprise grants but at the time, the emerging social enterprises did not align with their funding criteria and impact areas. Today, deploying these grants would not be as difficult.

In 2012, Pillar began working together with many community organizations to explore how to create a social finance framework for London and region. Under the name of Social Finance London, we hosted our first community social finance roundtable event in 2013. At this time, the community agreed that the creation of a formal joint-leadership model for social finance in London was needed to keep expanding local knowledge of the opportunities presented by community investing. Social Finance London volunteers completed an environmental scan that identified that our region accounted for $40 billion of investable assets (sourced by Investor Economics in 2016), and that redirecting even a fraction of these funds toward local impact investments could have significant social impact in our community. What began as Social Finance London has now become VERGE Capital. VERGE Capital now has both a Start Up Fund and a Breakthrough Fund to support the start up and growth phases of social enterprises. As the field has expanded and gained awareness and traction, more grants are now available from foundations and funders for social enterprises. 

Developing a coaching and consulting program

A key deliverable of the Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities program was for us to develop a social enterprise coaching program. With continued funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for a local strategy, we were able to scale our social enterprise coaching program and work to support both nonprofit and for profit social entrepreneurs. Over the course of eight years we have had three different coaches in the role. Each one has come with a slightly different background – some slightly more nonprofit focused, or business focused – with a common thread of dedication to maximizing community impact. Interestingly, these differences parallel the journey of many of the social enterprises we have coached. 

Our experience in developing a support system for social enterprise in London highlighted the importance of the coaching component in the exploration of business model generation, through wrapping a team of advisors around the new enterprise and connecting it to other potential partners. We also expanded our consulting offerings through Impact Consulting to include social enterprise business planning, recognizing a gap in the development of a social enterprise. Conducting assessments, marketing research, business modelling, financial modelling, partnership identification and developing business strategy are some of the areas we have supported social enterprises through our consulting team.

Forming community partnerships to expand support offerings

We recognized that while one to one coaching was effective, it was not sustainable for Pillar as the only means to support the ideation and business model stages of development. When Innovation Works opened, we worked with Libro Credit Union to provide space for emerging social entrepreneurs for up to six months of integrated, supported learning. Through the Libro Social Enterprise Incubator program, we provide ongoing coaching, mentorship, learning opportunities and resources to deepen the sustainability and impact of these social enterprises. Libro also offers their team as coaches for these social enterprises and for our co-tenants. 

Today, we have integrated social enterprise support across a large number of our programs and services. Rather than social enterprise support being a stand alone program, we have integrated our approach across our strategy, communications, and organizational structure. We will continue to evolve our programming to support the changing needs of social enterprises in our community and region.

We also began to host ‘Socialpreneur Chats’ to create a peer learning environment for social entrepreneurs to share their ideas and challenges in order to move their ventures forward. It started as a weekly opportunity and shifted to once a month for staff and volunteer capacity reasons.

Through our social enterprise coaching program, we established a partnership with Flourishing Business Model Canvas to support our social entrepreneurs in their efforts to design flourishing enterprises; businesses and organizations that are socially beneficial, environmentally regenerative and financially viable. This tool and approach advanced the business model methodology we had been using to support social enterprises.

Another offering for social entrepreneurs that we offered was a matching service where we connected entrepreneurs to an advisor who could offer business support based on their needs.  We looked to formalize this advising service with a program called “Project Rolodex”, a joint project with Great-West Life Project Managers. Involving business in the creation of mentoring social entrepreneurs was promising – businesses were now sensing that social enterprise was a real contributor to our economy and our social fabric. The idea behind “Project Rolodex” was that we would develop a database to do the matching. It became clear quite quickly that curation – by a human – was required. Project Rolodex was revamped into Advisor Connect, which opened up mentoring opportunities for community members specializing in business, nonprofit management, and evaluation. However, we continued to find challenges in managing the relationships between entrepreneur and Advisor. 

Our attempt to formalize the mentor/mentee relationship was time consuming and ultimately not greatly beneficial to either party. Instead, we shifted away from this formal program to connect social enterprises into our network as a whole; ensuring one to one connections with nonprofits, mentors, social enterprises and others from the Pillar network who support their growth. Rather than a formal mentee/mentor relationship we facilitate network building and shared learning opportunities. 

While volunteer mentors and advisors continue to be vital and immensely helpful to our model of offering supports to social enterprises, now ensure that we match mentors with a very specific role. We engage approximately 15 business professionals as review panel members for VERGE Capital’s loan programs, which has been very successful as we are able to engage the advisors with a specific task and timeframe. We could not run our loan programs without their expertise.   

Connecting social enterprises with market opportunities 

When consumers, businesses, nonprofits and government make conscious choices about their purchases this creates social and economic impact in local communities. We seek to promote local socially responsible consumer goods and services whenever possible. We have acted as  a partner and contributor in creating the Social Enterprise Ontario Holiday Gift Guide. In 2017, we hosted our first Meaningful Market to provide an opportunity to showcase both new and existing social enterprises in London. This also provided the opportunity for our startup social enterprises to pitch their emerging innovations to the community for prize money. We had over $5,000 in vendor sales, from our 18 vendors and over 200 attendees at the event. 

Evolving to meet the needs of social enterprise 

Today, we have integrated social enterprise support across a large number of our programs and services including our learning and development program, Impact Consulting, shared space at Innovation Works, public policy advocacy, storytelling and awareness building. Our organizations mission shifted in 2018 from “strengthening the impact of the nonprofit sector” to “strengthening individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact” which encompasses social enterprises. Rather than social enterprise support being a stand alone program, we have integrated our approach across our strategy, communications, and organizational structure. We will continue to evolve our programming to support the changing needs of social enterprises in our community and region. 

Helpful hints for supporting the development of social enterprise 
  1. Look for opportunities to provide access to capital – Social enterprises need opportunities for grants and social finance investments for start up, growth and scale.
  2. Integrate into the entrepreneurship ecosystem – Create partnerships with the entrepreneurship ecosystem to leverage their assets and services and create opportunities for shared learning.
  3. Engage coaches and advisors – Develop collaborative relationships with experts in fields such as legal, accounting, and marketing who can provide consultations or be advisors. 
  4. Develop a wrap around support system – It’s important to bring multiple views to the table when providing coaching and mentoring for social entrepreneurs. A local and place-based approach of intermediary supports, entrepreneurship ecosystem support, advisor support and peer support creates a wrap around approach.
  5. Support business models and plans – Social enterprises can benefit from expert support in both business modelling and business planning to ensure a successful business launch.
  6. Encourage focus on the triple bottom line – Equal weight should be placed on the social, environmental and financial impacts of the social enterprise. All elements need to be considered from idea generation to development, implementation and growth. 
  7. Generate sales opportunities – When corporations, academic institutions, public sector institutions, and government buy contracts for goods and services from social enterprises it is a critical lever in creating economies of scale. Looking for opportunities to encourage this social procurement helps organizations to flourish, be sustainable, create jobs and generate social, environmental and financial impact.
  8. Develop a three-pronged approach – Providing a support system for a social enterprise is like a three legged stool that needs to be balanced. There must be equal support systems in place for capacity building, access to capital and market opportunity.
  9. Ensure business development is well-paced – Nonprofits and charities that want to develop a social enterprise need to ensure that they allocate enough time to bring along multiple stakeholder groups that need to learn and understand social enterprise including the opportunities, risk, social and financial impact. This process takes time and needs to be intentional, inclusive and ongoing.
  10. Develop campus community partnerships – Partnering with academic institutions and researchers to evaluate and capture data can aid in evidence-informed decision making when developing business models.
  11. Be open to shifts and trends – Your network will guide and nudge you towards shifts and trends, be sure to listen and adapt as required.
  12. Walk the talk – A support network for social enterprise should ideally be walking the talk by having their own social enterprise models. Having an entrepreneurial spirit or earned revenue strategy for your organization will help you better understand how to support the other social enterprises.

Connecting to the entrepreneurship ecosystem to fuel social enterprise growth

At Pillar, we embed our network approach in the way we leverage the local, regional, national and global ecosystem for entrepreneurship and social enterprise to expand our social enterprise program. Connecting to these various networks has been a critical success factor in helping to support the development of social enterprises in our region and beyond. The connections we have formed across geographic locations have also helped to elevate the profile of social enterprise and illustrate the benefits of social purpose businesses as a key economic contributor. Read more to see how we developed these connections and learn about the social enterprise and entrepreneurship ecosystems you can connect to if you are part of a social enterprise or support network.

London Ontario’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

From the outset of our first social enterprise project at Pillar – Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities – our advisory committee included representatives from the existing entrepreneurship ecosystem in London including, Community Futures Development Corporation, Ivey School of Business, London Chamber of Commerce, London Economic Development Corporation, Small Business Centre, and TechAlliance. Through these partnerships, we recognized that mainstream business supports are well equipped to deliver services to entrepreneurs at all stages of business creation. We leverage the specific business and industry expertise of our partners as we recognize we don’t have to be all things to all entrepreneurs, we can specialize in embedding social and community into business.

Another opportunity for collaboration with local support networks was BizGrid – an at a glance business support guide. In our work we often borrow ideas from other communities and this was a model developed in Windsor. The project was developed with the guiding questions “who am I”, “where should I go” and “what do I need” to help entrepreneurs connect to the right local business support organizations. This tool has been highly used and continues to be a valuable resource for entrepreneurs.

Through our work to support social enterprises in our community, a goal for us has been that nonprofits and social enterprises become recognized for their role in economic development. With time and effort, the recognition of nonprofits and social enterprise as economic drivers has become easier. When Pillar was invited to London’s Entrepreneur Support Network table and the Economic Road Map Advisory Group, we knew we had turned a corner. As an outcome of London’s Economic Roadmap, we were involved in the creation of and the #LondonCan campaign. This website promotes local entrepreneurs though videos and a social media campaign, and connects prospective business owners to local resources.

Another pivotal moment that confirmed a shift in understanding of the impact and potential of social enterprise in London was illustrated in an article written by Gerry MacCartney, CEO, London Chamber of Commerce after he attended a breakfast hosted by Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU). In the article, he referenced that the Chamber’s partnership with Pillar to develop the London Business Achievement Award for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and to host two CSR workshops had shifted his thinking. He also shared that attending the YOU breakfast event and hearing the youth speak of the impact of social enterprise on their lives opened his eyes. 

Southwestern Ontario’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

As part of Ontario’s Social Enterprise Strategy for 2006-2021, the provincial government launched the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) Social Enterprise Partnerships program. The program includes four regional hubs in partnership with the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) to embed social enterprise components in their organizations and programs, and ensure that social enterprise support organizations are part of their entrepreneur support model. Pillar was a contributor in developing this partnership strategy and we were enthusiastic to see this approach that built on our experience of embedding social enterprise in our local entrepreneurship ecosystem being adopted around the province.

As part of the ONE Social Enterprise Partnerships program, we collaborated with Windsor University’s EPICentre, Innovate Niagara, Huron Small Business Enterprise Centre, and Waterloo Region Small Business Centre to launch Social Enterprise Southwest (SESW). SESW supports both social entrepreneurs and network organizations through education, funding and programing. The project demonstrated a capacity to leverage existing resources and partnerships to collaborate with non-traditional stakeholders, and a desire to support a strong, innovative economy that can provide jobs, opportunities and prosperity for their respective communities.

One successful outcome of the project was the way that Pillar’s Network Animator worked collaboratively with SESW partners to animate social enterprise in Southwestern Ontario through digital storytelling. A key element of Network Animation was transforming aspects of SESW programming into educational and inspiring media, such as videos produced in digital storytelling workshops, and blog entries spotlighting social enterprises and related events around the region. Additionally, we successfully collaborated with our partner organizations to develop a comprehensive program evaluation. Using data from multiple sources, the evaluation explored SESW’s impact for social enterprises, ONE members, and the social enterprise ecosystem and reported on what the partners have learned about supporting social enterprise in the course of their partnership.

Through our work to support social enterprises in our community, a goal for us has been that nonprofits and social enterprises become recognized for their role in economic development. With time and effort, the recognition of nonprofits and social enterprise as economic drivers has become easier.

In addition to these projects, we partnered with the other three regional hub projects for the Ontario Network for Entrepreneurs Social Enterprise Program and pooled some of our grant monies to create a Social Enterprise Network. We also worked with our partners and developed the Social Enterprise Coach Program to train traditional business coaches on the additional tools and resources available to support social enterprises. We developed the program with the recognition of the vast knowledge held by local entrepreneurship ecosystems and our desire for social enterprises to seek support through their local centres. Through this program, we set our to share our expertise so that it is housed locally in each community with the hope that each community is able to grow their knowledge and share their learnings back with us.

Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

When Pillar had the opportunity to co-host the Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise with the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, this elevated our work to a national stage and connected us to the national social enterprise ecosystem. The three day conference with the theme of ‘Telling Your Story’ had more than 350 delegates, 40 speakers, and 20 exhibitors. All levels of government were in attendance and the event garnered extensive media coverage.

Our team has also attended and presented at other national conferences maintaining our relationships and connections for shared learning. We maintain national partnerships with CEDnet, Buy Social, Common Good Solutions and Social Enterprise Institute.

The global entrepreneurship ecosystem

Members of our team have also attended the World Social Enterprise Forum hosted by the Social Enterprise Alliance in San Francisco, California; Calgary, Alberta; and Edinburgh, Scotland. At the World Social Enterprise Forum in Calgary, we participated in a pitch competition for our social innovation shared space. While we were not selected as the award recipient, the learning and coaching was invaluable to our development particularly around ensuring that our model met the needs of a mid-sized cities because so many of the existing models were developed for large urban centres.

In 2017, our team headed to Ukraine to share our models for social enterprise and social innovation with local elected officials and city staff from municipalities in Ukraine. This project was initiated by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and was called Partnership for Local Economic Development and Democratic Governance. There was a growing appetite in Ukraine to explore social enterprise as a model of growth and community development. When we were invited initially, the team in Ukraine felt they were looking to grow social enterprise and by the time we got there they had done a research study that showed they already had more than 700 social enterprises, many of them women-led.

The next year, a delegation from Ukraine came to Ontario to explore how municipalities can set up programs and/or organizations to support social enterprise with a focus on programs that support and encourage women’s participation in business. We presented to the delegation along with Innovation Works, the Centre for Social Innovation, Artscape and the Waterloo Regional Small Business Centre about their experiences and learnings as intermediaries providing capacity building, shared space and access to capital to support social enterprises and women entrepreneurs. 

Future opportunities

Building on our previous work, along with our partners Centre for Social Innovation (Central Ontario), Okwaho Innov8 Centre (Eastern Ontario) and NORDIK Institute (Northern Ontario) we are leading the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) that will connect siloed networks of diverse women with established entrepreneurship ecosystems and Ontario’s social enterprise assets. This program is just getting started and will offer accelerators for women social entrepreneurs, training for those in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and gender lens investing.

Connect to the entrepreneurship and social enterprise ecosystem 
Whether you’re part of an organization that supports social enterprises, are looking to start your business, or are just interested in learning more about social enterprise and entrepreneurship, explore the links below to see how you can find support and expand your professional network.
London and area
  • Pillar Nonprofit Network – Check out the social enterprise supports we offer at Pillar including, workshops, coaching, consulting services, funding, and the Libro Social Enterprise Incubator. 
  • Innovation Works – Innovation Works is London’s first co-working space for social innovators. There are many ways to join our community such as becoming a cotenant, or dropping in for our Socialpreneur Chats.
  • Findyouranswers.bizFind your answers aims to be a first step in making connections between entrepreneurs and service providers in London. Join the conversation and share your entrepreneurship story by using the #LondonCan hashtag. 
  • TechAlliance – If you’re looking to launch or grow your tech business, want education opportunities or to attend networking events, be sure to familiarize yourself with Tech Alliance. 
  • Small Business Centre – Connect with the Small Business Centre if you’re part of a new or growing business for education, networking, mentorship and funding opportunities. Experienced professionals are welcomed as mentors. 
  • The Business Help Centre of Middlesex County – The Business Help Centre provides business consulting, financing, workshops and economic development for eight municipalities in Middlesex County. 
  • London Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) –  LEDC is the lead economic development agency for London, Canada. The organization works with business, government and community partners to attract business investment and develop a connected and supportive business climate in London. 
  • Propel – Propel is a start-up accelerator located at Western University. The centre provides co-working space, seed funding, mentorship, training programs, events and workshops for startups at all stages of growth. 
  • Leap Junction  – Leap Junction is a student entrepreneurial support organization offered through Fanshawe college. The program offers mentorship, workshops, in-class learning, pitch training and competitions, networking events and campus marketplace opportunities.
Southwestern Ontario
  • Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs – The Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs brings together a group of business support centres across the province who provide support whether you’re looking to start, grow or finance your business. 
  • Social Enterprise Southwest (SESW) – SESW supports both social entrepreneurs and network organizations through education, coaching and connections.
  • University of Windsor Epicentre – EPICentre provides programs and services that are intended to help students and recent graduates start and grow their businesses.
  • Innovate Niagara – Connect with Innovate Niagara for networking, collaboration, prototyping, and business development. 
  • Huron County Small Business Centre – Supporting small business owners in Huron County, the Small Business Centre offers professional consultations, free business plan reviews, seminars, and networking opportunities.  
  • Waterloo Region Small Business Centre – Entrepreneurs in the Waterloo region can find all the support they need through the Small Business Centre including programming, networking and the option to join a Business Club providing access to exclusive online content. 
  • Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) – CSI is a coworking space for social entrepreneurs in Toronto that provides access to promotional opportunities, networking and community, free consultations with experts, access to capital, exclusive programming and more.
  • The Social Enterprise Council of Canada – The Social Enterprise Council of Canada is a membership organization for social entrepreneurs and supporters. They aim to link social entrepreneurs to resources and to develop a policy environment to support the growth of social enterprise in the county. 
  • Common Good Solutions – Located in Halifax, Common Good Solutions helps governments, community organizations and entrepreneurs achieve impact through consulting, training, a business incubator, and their co-working space – The Good Hub. 
  • The Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet) – CEDNET is a national member association for organizations and people who are committed to strengthening communities by creating economic opportunities that enhance social and environmental conditions. 
  • Social Enterprise Institute – Check out this online learning platform for courses on everything you need to know about running a social enterprise including investment readiness and marketing. You can also sign up for one-on-one or group coaching through the Institute. 
  • Okwaho NetworkOkwaho Network is a dedicated social network for Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and serves the greater global Indigenous community. It was designed to act as an alternative or complementary social media outlet for Indigenous peoples to connect and share news and information.
  • Northern Ontario, Research, Development, Ideas and Knowledge InstituteNORDIK Institute partners with communities to solve practical issues that are important to municipalities, First Nations and community organizations in Northern Ontario offering business, organizational and community development support.
  • Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) – A member organization that acts as a champion for the development of the social enterprise in the United States. SEA works to foster a thriving social enterprise ecosystem and provides social enterprises and entrepreneurs with tools and resources they need. 
  • Impact Hub – Impact Hub is one of the world’s largest networks with over 100 hub locations in 50 countries focused on building entrepreneurial communities for impact at scale. Impact Hubs across the globe offer community and workspace, startup support and educational programming. 

From dream to reality: The start-up of Innovation Works

In 2008, London had been experiencing significant growth and change and was yearning for an innovative approach to explore solutions to the accompanying economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges. This type of social change doesn’t usually happen by doing the same old thing the same old way. Change occurs when we introduce something different; a different idea, perspective, or approach that stimulates new ways of thinking.

In this climate, the idea for Innovation Works was born in a living room amid a small gathering of great minds. Together they imagined London’s very own co-working space, where change-makers and innovators could intersect and cross-pollinate. A space dedicated to social innovation. This small living room gathering hatched an idea that would soon be embraced by a community of champions eager to make it happen.

Exploring feasibility and our business model

Community interest in a social innovation shared space for London continued to build over the next several years. Then in 2010, Pillar Nonprofit Network partnered with Downtown London, Emerging Leaders, London Arts Council, London Heritage Council and other community groups to explore the possibilities for a shared space in our community. Pillar also engaged the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) to support the development of the coworking space for London. CSI was Canada’s first co-working space and has been a globally recognized leader in the field of collaborative communities and innovation since its inception in Toronto in 2004. Working from CSI’s models and best practices, the project was propelled forward. 

In 2013, Pillar and Emerging Leaders conducted a detailed feasibility study and created a business plan thanks to a grant from the London Community Foundation. The grant also allowed London to bring in social innovation experts, Purpose Capital and CSI, to share significant real life experience that helped the partners hone the financial plans and operating model.  Our partnership with CSI continues today and has been an invaluable resource that has helped to shape our community in many ways, from our values to our volunteer program. 

Getting the community on board

To create a roadmap of what Londoners were looking for in a shared space, we hosted four Design Jams with more than 300 community members in attendance. Participants provided input on the values and principles they wanted to have at the heart of the project along with ideas on the requirements and functionality for the space. We partnered with on this project who generously captured these sessions for us.  

We hosted “Get on the Bus” Tours to Toronto for our partners, potential tenants, and potential funders to see and hear from other social innovation shared spaces including Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape. This shifted people from hearing about the potential to seeing the potential for London and literally and figuratively ‘getting on the bus.’

Pillar steps up as backbone

The feasibility and business plan and community engagement opportunities helped the project gain considerable momentum, but it was clear that a leader was needed to move the project forward. According to the collective impact theory of achieving social change, there must be a backbone organization that is dedicated to organizing the work of the group. When asked to step up as the backbone, Pillar was well positioned to take on this role and bring our work in community impact and cross-sector collaboration to the next level.  Today, Pillar programing, staff and resources support the space but at its heart, Innovation Works is a community-driven initiative, made by and for London.

Spreading the word 

As the project progressed, we did a roadshow and spoke to groups, service clubs, nonprofit boards, businesses, partners and anyone who wanted to hear more about the idea of a social innovation shared space for London. We shared our vision and the journey through videos, photos, social media, mainstream media and created a first-phase website. We looked at our communications and marketing as an engagement strategy. The end result we were striving for was not only a physical space, but also to inspire people to a vision of nonprofits, social enterprises and businesses coming together to spark social innovation and change.

Our community engagement efforts also failed along the way when we tried to crowdsource the name of the space. We learned that there is a branding journey that must be followed with the help of communications professionals, and that you must capture the essence, feel and intention of the brand before jumping to the name.

Show us the money

With CSI’s template and model, we developed a financial model to demonstrate the viability of the project. As we searched for possible spaces, we were able to test the model based on the size, cost of the building and opportunity for rentable space and shared amenities. 

London had been experiencing significant growth and change and was yearning for an innovative approach to explore solutions to the accompanying economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges. In this climate, the idea for Innovation Works was born in a living room amid a small gathering of great minds. The end result we were striving for was not only a physical space, but also to inspire people to a vision of nonprofits, social enterprises and businesses coming together to spark social innovation and change.

Early on we had three impact investments come forward totalling $1.2 million that demonstrated the community and financial support for this innovative model in London. We then started to meet with possible mortgage holders to share our business plan and financial model. We learned that the process of meeting with credit unions and banks was more than a mortgage for a building it was about sharing a vision of social innovation and what was possible in London.

When we started our fundraising efforts, McCormick Canada provided a $50,000 grant to support the McCormick Kitchen and the Ontario Trillium Foundation provided a $275,000 grant for the Solutions Lab. These grants created momentum and credibility to the idea and kick started a $2.2 million campaign of donations and grants from individuals, corporations, foundations and government. We also had a crowdfunding campaign that raised $27,000 where our community could donate $10 or more as a community engagement strategy. 

Pillar worked with VERGE Capital to offer London’s first ever community bond which was sold out well ahead of schedule. Innovators across all sectors were rallying behind the project and it wasn’t long before future co-tenants were signing on the dotted line. Our finance and fundraising model infused social innovation integrating new finance models and approaches and most importantly engaging the community to create a sense of ownership and co-creation.

Our final fundraising strategy was the the IN Crowd campaign which used crowdfunding to raise $27,000. This was firstly a community engagement strategy where people could be a supporter for as little as $10. To recognize our donors, we created a word cloud with their names that was updated online and put on reusable bags as a token of our appreciation for each of the IN Crowd donors. 

Finding our home

After an extensive search looking at more than 25 buildings and spaces, Pillar announced the purchase the Garvey Building at 201 King Street in downtown London. Innovation Works finally had a home. Located in London’s core, the building was a perfect fit both in terms of amenities and being part of the downtown revitalization initiative. 

Before you could say “innovation”, committees with more than 40 dedicated volunteers and partners were formed including a Project Manager, Communications, Finance & Fundraising, Design & Construction, IT, and Tenant Cultivation. Having these skills-based volunteers leading and co-creating this project made it truly community based. The expertise and influence these volunteers brought forward generated credibility and buy in from the community.

Read Building our community: Innovation Works from implementation to scale to find out more about how we designed our space and brought our community to life.

Lessons learned from the startup of Innovation Works 
  1. Determine backbone organization – According to the collective impact theory of achieving social change, there must be a backbone organization dedicated to organizing the work of the group. We learned early on that our project would need one of the partner organizations to play this role and coordinate the efforts of the group and were eager to step up to the task. 
  2. Create a strong project team – Take time to choose those you want to help create.  Choose a variety of backgrounds and skills – something that could represent the types of tenants you want in the space. A strong project manager with a proven project management background and a lens to impact will be key.
  3. Establish continuous communication – To co-create with community requires constant communication to keep them in the loop even when you are doing the behind the scenes work.
  4. Borrow from others – Look for inspiration and instruction from those who have gone before you. We developed a consulting relationship with Centre for Social Innovation where they shared their best practices with us including their financials, policies, programming, and community bond model. 
  5. Determine economies of scale – When creating a shared space you must have room for enough rentable space and shared amenities. Having too small of a space puts pressure on the financial model.  
  6. Show and tell – Take interested community members, such as possible co-tenants or investors, to see and learn from similar models. Seeing similar spaces first hand creates energy and excitement and they share it across the community. 
  7. Engage branding experts – We do not advise crowdsourcing your brand and name from the community. Your brand will be one of the most important things you build so it’s important to work with experienced communications professionals from your community. 
  8. Implement innovative finance models – When creating a shared space that has innovation as its core, having an innovative fundraising and finance model that includes elements like social finance or a community bond is necessary to demonstrate social innovation.
  9. Be patient in finding the right home – We looked at over 25 buildings in our search. While it was intense and time consuming, it was important not to settle. Doing financial modelling and valuations about each building helped us make solid decisions.
  10. Walk the talk – Be able to call yourself a social enterprise with a model of both revenue and social impact. 
  11. Develop a welcoming atmosphere – Invest in a welcoming culture and appealing design. Start planning early for ways to make tenants and the community feel at home in your space; don’t skimp on design elements that give your space soul. 
  12. Finding the right fit takes time –  Your first co-tenants may not be exactly the right fit but i it will eventually level out to the right mix.  As your brand and community presence builds over time, word will get out to the right people. 

Building our community: Innovation Works from implementation to scale

This article is a continuation of From dream to reality: The start-up of Innovation Works, start there for more context on how it all began. 

Getting the keys to 201 King Street brought us one giant step closer to realizing our dream to bring a social innovation shared space to London; but first we had to make sure the physical space would foster social innovation. We needed the space to have standard resources like desk space, meeting space, and shared office amenities, and also  comfortable open spaces that promote both focused work or an impromptu chat. After all, diversity in your perspectives or in your environment is what stimulates new ways of thinking. A dynamic space is an innovative space.

Moving on up 

On June 15, 2016, our first co-tenants moved in to the second floor, our first renovated floor of Innovation Works. During this time, GoodLife, the previous owners of the building, co-existed with us in the building as we renovated our new space and they built their new home. This was ideal for both partners and a great example of collaboration between nonprofit and business as we were able to scale up rather than owning a large empty building in our start-up phase. GoodLife also donated all their furniture and shared their vast knowledge of this beautiful historic building including its soon-to-be-known to us ‘special attributes’. The building has old lungs and strong bones, while adding to the character, the age of the building brought its own set of challenges. GoodLife’s knowledge, connection to existing contracts and availability to help problem solve was priceless. 

During the Design Jams, we heard loud and clear that neighbourhood revitalization was a core value to this project. Soon after we opened our doors, we hosted a block party where we invited our neighbours, business owners and all those involved in the journey to create Innovation Works. We had more than 500 people come to join us to celebrate the milestone of opening. Creating opportunities to bring community together is what we’re all about and this event was just the beginning.

Co-tenant cultivation committee 

In our early days, we were fortunate to have an energetic co-tenant cultivation committee that started with those who attended the design jams, donors, investors and other dedicated volunteers who were engaged in the Innovation Works journey to date. We had to re-invigorate the committee with new people, new ideas and new processes along the way to keep momentum and ensure we had solid tracking processes. We also had an ‘I’m IN’ social media campaign that profiled our new co-tenants, donors, investors and team members to create excitement and a sense of belonging. Johnny Fansher who seeded the idea of a shared space for social innovation and was our first signed co-tenant. We also had a ‘Are you IN?’ video that featured our early adopters and tenants that created buzz and showed the diversity of people and organizations signing up to be part of Innovation Works. We opened with more than 50 co-tenants and quickly continued to grow our flex desk users, permanent desks and offices. What originally began as a committee effort to actively mine co-tenants has shifted to individuals now seeking us out to join our space.

Animating our community

While the design of a space can spark collisions and encourage collaboration bringing a social innovation shared space to life requires community animation. Community animation involves a variety of activities that encourage connections between co-tenants and to the community at large. Community animation has included our Block Party building kick off party with more than 500 people, hosting workshops, weekly salad clubs, monthly mixers, holiday parties, summer barbeques, participating in the Pride London parade, hosting International Women’s Day events, and more. Community animation creates a culture of participation. It is an offering, not a requirement, allowing co-tenants to dip in and out of the community in a way that feels comfortable and natural to them. It has quickly became the key differentiator for Innovation Works and other existing co-working spaces.

Creating our culture (club)

A culture club made up of a committee of co-tenants was started to spark community animation ideas and to live out the values of the space. This group led the co-creation of the Innovation Works values that guide us daily.


■ Put people and planet first
■ We are innovators
■ Together we are better
■ Keep it real
■ Make social change and have fun doing it
■ Anything is possible
■ Community is our culture
■ Blow people’s minds
■ It’s up to us​

What started as a vision amongst a small group of dreamers has become the physical representation of the three pillars of our community coming together and all of the beautiful collisions that result.

This committee also facilitated an environmental audit and birthed Wellness Works, a program to diffuse stress and encourage mental well-being for co-tenants and members of the downtown community. The Wellness Works program includes complimentary yoga and meditation sessions contributing to an inclusive space that welcomes the community. Wellness Works has now hosted two annual “Wellness Day” events during Mental Health Awareness Week in May where over 100 community members join in a conference style day with yoga, meditation, art, music therapy and mental health workshops.

Valuing co-tenant input

Annually, we do a survey to check in with co-tenants about how well we are meeting their needs. We ask questions about the physical space, shared amenities, responsiveness, interactions with the staff team, connections between the co-tenants, the quality of service from volunteers, our communications, and the best thing about Innovation Works. The results are shared out along with how we plan to improve going forward.

We also host a town hall annually to get in-person feedback from co-tenants and do some collective planning together for the future. Providing the best customer service to our community is our primary focus, and we can tell that our efforts are appreciated in the response rate of both the survey and the attendance of the town hall.

Growth and scale

Over time our co-tenancy has grown substantially and today we have more than 200 co-tenants and 400 people at Innovation Works. With our new membership re-design where and all co-tenants being members of Pillar, we are working to create connections across our network both inside and outside Innovation Works. The growth we have experienced and the volume of people through the space has brought us to a point where it is time to have a dedicated staff for the building and customer service. 

As we have grown, we have also had to assess some of the programs of our cafe partners, Edgar & Joe’s of Goodwill Industries. The café was offering “Community Coffee”, inviting those less fortunate to have a free coffee when others top up their own orders. Recently, we have had to evaluate how we can continue to offer support to this population and be inclusive while balancing the safety of our co-tenants, and we’re continuing to explore solutions. 

Today, we are well on-track to achieve sustainability through our social enterprise model and are now consulted by other communities as they venture into the co-working movement. The integral connection of Innovation Works and Pillar Nonprofit Network continues to evolve as we leverage and weave programming, space, members in a shared network. What started as a vision amongst a small group of dreamers has become the physical representation of the three pillars of our community coming together and all of the beautiful collisions that result. 

Lessons learned from the implementation of Innovation Works 
  1. Engage your community – By engaging the right partners and community members at every stage in our development process, we were able to raise awareness about social innovation and build connections between individuals and community organizations. 
  2. Adapt space continuously  – We are always looking for ways to update our space to better meet the needs of our co-tenants and the community. Changes we have made include a yoga studio, new meeting rooms, flexible workstations, and a new elevator.
  3. Balance community animation and building needs – We have learned that the needs of the building trump all other day to day tasks. When a contractor shows up or a toilet needs fixing these immediate needs must be addressed. While we always try to keep a balance between building needs and community animation, sometimes maintenance requirements can take away from activities fostering intentional connecting between our co-tenants, and the comfort of our co-tenants is the priority.
  4. Co-create values – One of our co-tenants led the process to co-create our shared values at Innovation Works along with input from others. Today we are looking at how we keep these alive with check ins and tweaks to make sure they are more than just words.
  5. Pace your scale up – Having a business model that allows you to scale up into a space over time eases the pressure on the financial model and allows the organization to adapt to as growth happens. We had a good pace when we opened up and more recently the growth outpaced our resources and capacity and we are adding more staff to recalibrate.
  6. Act on feedback – When conducting any surveys or gathering feedback from co-tenants, we have learned that we need to share what actions we will be taking to address the feedback when sharing the results. 
  7. Build your network beyond the walls – Having our networks both inside the walls and outside the walls interact and create connections is our next focus. We want to ensure that there is not an exclusivity that comes from being part of the space and want to have a hub and spoke model of connecting in and outside the space to spark impact.
  8. Evolve operations over time – Be prepared to stop boot-strapping as a start-up and evolve into a full fledged business. There will be a tipping point, likely around the three year mark, where the excitement of newness wears off and operations need to be sound.
  9. Mind the bottom line – The Innovation Works budget was broken out on a line by line item basis and monitored carefully with attention to space revenue, meeting room and event revenue, and the costs associated with running a heritage building as a co-working space.

Mobilizing community and capital to build a social finance program

VERGE Capital was created to mobilize capital – simply said, money – to help support organizations who aim to solve complex problems in our community. We began as a collective to find ways for local investors to make investments that have both a financial return and a positive social and environmental impact. So how did we do it and what was the impact? Here’s how we got started, found the money and we have engaged our community in the social finance movement.

Cultivating community interest

We started the process to build a social finance program for London with an understanding of who we wanted to serve and who in the community could help us. Our very first activity was to host a half-day social finance roundtable conversation with key organizations that were interested in exploring how we might create a community-based social finance framework to leverage community capital for social enterprise investment. Out of this gathering, the members formed Social Finance London, the precursor to VERGE Capital. 

Engaging our community to develop a sense of awareness around new economic models, while rallying a renewed generation of asset activators has been an important part of building VERGE. A lot of our work has been presenting, teaching and discussing social finance and impact investment. We have held events that engage community members to to see social finance in action like London’s Social Economy. The list of audiences includes angel investors, nonprofit leaders, investment professionals, students, economic development corporations, and collaborator board members, our teams and even our families and friends.  We have seen that once people learn about the possibilities of impact investing they see how it aligns with their values and how it is a fit for them.

Building a network of support 

After a few years of sharing education on social finance in London, we received seed funding from the Government of Ontario. This funding launched our Startup Fund in 2015 allowing us to expand our work supporting social enterprises to include access to capital. While this funding enabled our Startup Fund, the conditions to setup that fund were created before this strategy. We received support from Goodwill Impact Loan who provided a template on how we could collaborate with our local credit union, Libro Credit Union, to start a community loan fund. In addition, we had support from our VERGE collaborators, including Sisters of St. Joseph and London Community Foundation, matching our operational dollars, and catalytic donation from Ursuline Sisters of Chatham matching lending dollars. We can’t say that this is a replicable template, as the context was unique and the relationships were developed before VERGE or Social Finance London had ever been dreamed of, yet we know it is possible. You can read even more about how we worked with multiple partners to develop community support for social finance here.


VERGE Capital was created to mobilize capital - simply said, money - to help support organizations who aim to solve complex problems in our community. Engaging our community to develop a sense of awareness around new economic models, while rallying a renewed generation of asset activators has been an important part of building VERGE.

It wouldn’t have been possible for us to build VERGE without the support of our partners. Having a credit union willing to lend their expertise for loan administration and sharing in the risk is key for us. Without Libro Credit Union we would not have been able to offer the funds we did. Additionally,  the government funding we received for operational funding and risk capital enabled us to get other donations, grants and investments. 

All of the above organizations, and the people in the roles for supporting and making decisions, all shared in a collective vision that resulted in a national leading place-based social finance intermediary – a notion we only dreamed of prior to our public launch. Also being connected to the local, provincial, national and global social entrepreneurship ecosystems contributed to our success.

Establishing new investment models

Impact investing is not like traditional investments since the market and financial products don’t exist. Our work at VERGE was to figure out how to make it possible for people to invest. A key component of this process was understanding the regulatory environment. Early in our social finance learning journey, we were able to test a community bond structure, that helped Pillar borrow money from the community that we needed to develop and launch Innovation Works, a social innovation shared space modelled after the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto.

The community bond is a fairly easy structure to implement and it provides the opportunity for all community members to participate, even in a small way. The bond was a five-year investment with three percent interest paid each year. We raised $1 million from 47 investors for our bond and learned there was an interest in investing funds, not just donating like in traditional philanthropy. 

Our Breakthrough Fund, also seeded by an Ontario government grant, was the realization of our vision of redirecting investment capital for local impact. To launch this fund, we also received support from SVX, the VERGE collaborative, and early adopter impact investors in the fund development process. We hired Miller Thomson with the leadership of Susan Manwaring to determine which legal structure would fit best and work within the limits and regulations that govern financial markets. We created a structure that had no precedent in our community allowing us to pool nearly $2.3 million in investment capital from 20 investors. 

Today, we are on the cusp of scaling our current model and innovating new ones, which includes a Conservation Impact Bond and other products as part of our VERGE 3.0 strategy. We are encouraged by the interest in and support of social finance in our community and we continue to balance the needs of those needing money and those willing to invest. 

Collaborating to build a local market for social finance

We recently paused to reflect on our journey and the evolution of VERGE Capital as our regional place-based social finance intermediary. What were the key conditions that led to the successful roll out of a community bond, two loan funds and a new understanding of how caring wealth holders can invest for both a financial return and community impact? While there were years of work that went into creating VERGE,  the underlying factor to our success has been the way we have been able to collaborate effectively with so many community partners and supporters. 

Everyone knows that collaboration is not easy, but we also know that blending diverse skills, vantage points and resources provide the best outcomes. VERGE’s Founding Manager, André Vashist, shares his reflection about collaboration: ‘To explore tension in a creative way, we change “or” to “and” – then we can see the truth from all perspectives.” Our collaborative has survived this tension and has explored differing truths and perspectives along the way. In this article we explore how each collaborator contributed to our success, which includes compelling testimonials of how VERGE has changed over the years and what being a part of VERGE means to them. 

Our local collaborators

Three local key organizations have been vital collaborators in Pillar Nonprofit Network’s ability to get VERGE off the ground: Libro Credit Union, London Community Foundation, and Sisters of St. Joseph of Canada. While at times, each partner may have been unsure of their role in making VERGE a success, they all played critical roles. These organizations provided matching operational funding that enabled Pillar to receive grants, administrative support, engage impact investors, launch VERGE social finance products and be impact investors themselves. Along the journey to develop VERGE, we have also seen each collaborator embark on their own social finance journey in parallel to helping VERGE flourish. 

London Community Foundation (LCF) has bounded forward with their own commitment to investing five percent of their endowment funds. VERGE and LCF have worked very closely on due diligence processes and have leveraged each other’s areas of expertise. With LCF’s developed expertise and review process for affordable housing initiatives, and VERGE’s honed due diligence and expertise in social enterprise, it was a natural next step to co-invest and each play a lead role in our own areas of expertise. This partnership has significantly increased our capacity to review potential investments. 

Libro has always provided expertise to VERGE and have been generous in supporting through in-kind loan administration. For the Startup Fund, Libro is effectively the lender, with VERGE providing 75 percent of the loan amount. Working with a local credit union to take on the administration of the loans means the entrepreneurs get backed by a real finance institution and can establish a relationship for the future.  In addition, Libro has begun the journey of formalizing their own impact investing journey as a leading B Corp in the region with their first investment in the VERGE Breakthrough Fund.

The Sisters of St. Joseph have been on their own impact investing journey and engaging in VERGE has helped them better understand their own mission-based investment opportunities.  Since the start the Sisters have always wanted to create systems change as their roles in community have changed from providing direct services to being able to empower others. 

Here are some of the reflections provided by collaborators at our 3 year anniversary since the launch of our VERGE collaborative in 2015:

The landscape is changing in Southwestern Ontario and VERGE Capital is helping to support a conversation across the region, which is helpful for Libro. Your name pops up in all the conversations, in all the regions when they talk about social innovation and social enterprise, VERGE pops up.

Shane Butcher, Libro Credit Union

When we started, it was all about theory, and now we have actual results. It’s a lot different when we are storytelling, for potential enterprises and real application, to share what worked and what hasn’t worked. From wraparound support we are in better shape because of real examples. When partnerships are strong, the work becomes easier to do.

Vijay Vankatesan, London Community Foundation

It feels more like a movement and VERGE is a true collective - all of us are sharing and learning. Each collaborator is well informed about the others’ work and the differentiators between us. We have refined how to evaluate loans since the start. The storytelling has been amazing and mainstream media picking it up – which is a real sign that the movement is happening. We are creating a local movement and are tapped into provincial and national networks – our city and region is on the map! Different levels of government are reaching out and people paying attention to our collective work.

Michelle Baldwin, Pillar Nonprofit Network

We just celebrated 150 years in London and we are always happy to be invited to tables where there are new ideas and possibilities. With unemployment and other challenges, we needed new ideas, we couldn’t do the same thing and achieve different results. It’s been good to see a group of people from many different perspectives come together and figure out how to make it happen and respond to the future we are creating, and a different future for the next generation coming to these tables. What I really appreciated about VERGE, when there is bump or snag, we don’t walk away, we keep trying again, that's an exciting way to learn, everyone has something to bring to the table. It's been exciting.

Joan Atkinson, Sisters of St. Joseph

We have answered the how question and made the collaborative happen. When we first started to gather, including working with LCF and Libro, we were asking: How does that work in our own organization? How does it overlap? VERGE brought it together to support independent journeys and a collective one. Having investors involved is exciting. What hasn’t changed, is everyone is at the table, working together as collaborators. We have seen an evolution of everyone’s understanding, not just in the collaborative, in the community as well. The understanding of social finance is growing.

Lina Bowden, VERGE Catalyst
Relying on national experts

Since our very first community roundtable about social finance, the SVX team has been on hand to provide advice and support. We have acknowledged that as a place-based social finance intermediary, we would be unsuccessful if we tried to duplicate other highly-funded groups that have earned a solid reputation as national leaders in the field of social finance. Where possible, we have leveraged their expertise in designing and developing funds and our ecosystem. The SVX sees VERGE as a leader in place-based work and have partnered with us as co-owners of VergeSVX, the trustee that governs the Breakthrough Fund. This governance structure creates investor confidence, especially for those who are not familiar with our work. Our relationship with SVX has also helped us connect to other place-based social finance groups across the country; groups that are trying to do the same work to connect local investors to local impactful ventures. 

Keys to a successful impact investing collaborative

What are the key conditions that make collaborations successful? These are just a few of our ponderings about some of the vital elements that have helped our work. 

  1. A neutral convener – A passionate convener that can bring the community together in a neutral way will be the glue that ensures people work well together. There will be overlapping goals in the group, but the convener should be able to help everyone at the table see the benefits of working together. This person can help the group to and stay focused on the mutual mission of creating a vibrant and resilient community.
  2. Regular engagement of collaborators – We have found it’s important to engage collaborators more regularly than just at quarterly governance meetings. We are fortunate to have a cross section of volunteers from across the region with a variety of skills and expertise who provide regular support in the form of review panels and  providing technical and strategic advice to us as well as our social entrepreneurs. Our collaborators have been a part of this group, rolling up their sleeves and staying engaged with the detailed work of assessing loan applicants.
  3. Create structure to meetings and roles – Structured meetings with agendas and two-way communication and sharing, not just reporting back to the management team, is essential for a successful collaborative. In our collaborative, roles evolved over time but there was always a keen need to understand how each collaborator was to contribute and what they were accountable for.