Heart-centered leadership lessons: Michelle Baldwin reflects on building relationships, trust and a network of impact

A banner showing pictures of Michelle looking reflectively at mountains along with the article title

Michelle Baldwin, a visionary leader, purpose-driven community connector, mentor and change-maker, has stood at the helm of Pillar Nonprofit Network for over 14 years and even before that was engaged as a founding volunteer. During that time, Michelle ignited countless projects and community collaborations that have had a positive social impact in our community and region. Under her leadership, the impact of our organization has increased tremendously, growing to include Innovation Works, VERGE Capital and CityStudio London

While the list of projects and accomplishments under her leadership is long, Michelle is most well known for her unique brand of genuine, heart-centered and humble leadership that helps others to rise. As a mentor to young leaders, she models a level of personal introspection that encourages them to believe in their own capacity to change the world around them. As Michelle moves into a leadership role at a national level, she recently took the time to reflect back on her leadership journey at Pillar and share the stories of her most impactful lessons learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Embrace the beauty of the unknown

Thinking back to my early days as a volunteer for Pillar, I was excited to be part of an organization that was going to make connections across the three pillars of nonprofit, business and government. The people who had been involved so far really wanted to make a better community and a better world; surrounding myself with those kinds of people felt like a gift and an opportunity. I saw the potential in being part of something that was mobilizing people towards a common vision. It was an opportunity to step into leadership in an organization I really believed in and felt compelled to continue to be part of it.

Michelle and early members of the Pillar team

It can be a difficult decision to make that leap into leadership. I remember feeling absolute fear and excitement at once and wondering if I had what was needed in that moment. That was a good learning opportunity for me, and for anyone thinking about taking the next step in their career. Sometimes when you’re making those big leaps and risks, it’s ok to feel some fear and uncertainty and vulnerability. That’s what humility is about and that means there’s some essence of beauty and innovation in what is possible. You don’t have all the answers, you don’t have a clear path and you really have to lean on other people to dream up what is possible.

Lesson 2: A network mindset is key to transformation

When I stepped into the role, I hoped to mobilize the three sectors towards a common vision and that Pillar would become a place people could come with their questions about collaborating with nonprofits. What I’m most fulfilled by is how we’ve been able to convene community, listen to community and create action based on what we’ve heard. In particular, the Collaborating for Community Impact program stands out as a jump off point for many of the programs we still operate today. The three-year project allowed us to form partnerships and host collaboration forums to gauge pressing local issues. With community input, we identified the need to create a social innovation shared space and enhance campus-community collaboration towards social change – Innovation Works and CityStudio London rose up to fill those gaps.

What Pillar has achieved isn’t just about supporting a sector. It’s about looking at the root cause of issues, seeing where the systems are broken and focusing on building a network approach to understand issues and ultimately make shifts. Anti-racism and equity and inclusion are critical underpinnings of this work. Learning that was a shared leadership moment for me. I had to learn to be open to learning through doing and seeing, as opposed to me having that vision. The common thread, essence or through line that’s needed to get to systems changeis the network approach; it’s finding the people who need to be connected to uncover the faults in our systems. While these large backbone projects are easy to point to as signs of progress, I think it’s equally important to highlight work that reflects more subtle behavioural shifts, work that has taken more time or is still evolving. After all, transformation is about changing mindsets and mental models.

One example is our work to support anti-racism and anti-oppression. Early on, Pillar began our path to support this work through a board diversity project. It’s been an evolution to see how we first started using the language of cultural competency and cultural humility then moving to diversity, equity and inclusion and now to naming anti-racism, anti-oppression, white supremacy and white dominant culture. To see this evolution, and to learn from impacted communities, has been a huge learning for myself and for our organization. It’s a journey many of us are still on and one we must approach with humility. We have to accept the discomfort of knowing we don’t have it all figured out and that we still have work to do to engage those most impacted.

Lesson 3: Leadership isn’t possible without inner work and reflection

At Pillar, we champion failures as opportunities for growth and learning. When I think of the ways I have failed, what comes to mind isn’t a particular project it’s more about how I viewed myself and related to others in the earlier days of being a leader. Failures aren’t always about big mistakes, sometimes we only see them in the rear-view mirror as we evolve and learn better. For me, I came into leadership with programming that many young girls have been taught – you must be nice and be liked. This manifested in how I presented myself and how I interacted with my team and with partners, but I’ve since learned the value of vulnerability and embracing my truth regardless of others’ perceptions.

I remember there was once a situation where I cried at work and a team member was surprised to see me that vulnerable. It was almost that up until that point, I was packaged up as a leader trying to appear as someone who had it all together without showing vulnerability. The coaching work I’ve done has revealed to me that if you don’t show yourself as a whole human to your team and to community then that isn’t really authentic leadership and relationship building. It served me up until a certain point, but it’s not being a real human. When you do reveal those parts of yourself, you’re more relatable and accessible. At the same time, you don’t have to reveal everything, and you have to pace what you feel people need to understand about you and your complex life.

All leaders face crossroad moments where it feels like fate hangs in the balance. When I’ve encountered these moments, I think of a favourite quote I coined: “Innovative projects require being bold, perseverance, tenacity and a sprinkle of panic.” That philosophy drives me. Sometimes feeling slightly on edge drove me and propelled me forward to go all in. That was true when I stepped into the role at Pillar and when I pushed forward on initiatives like Innovation Works. In these moments, having an entrepreneurial spirit and a possibility mindset is essential.

I have learned that inner work and reflection is essential for being a good leader. A critical component of my own reflective practice is connecting to the natural environment both as a source of strength and as a call to reflect on my responsibility to the land. My own inner work has led me to realize one of my greatest personal lessons – what other people think of me is none of my business. One of my gifts is being able to bring people together but, on the other hand, leadership means that even if you’re authentic and vulnerable, sometimes, you aren’t going to be liked. People aren’t always going to like you or your decisions and sometimes you have to sit in that discomfort. Regardless of where you’re at in your journey, I think it serves all people to remember that we’re all really layered humans, and often, what you’re seeing isn’t the whole person.

Lesson 4: Building relationships is about authenticity and trust

Systems, networks and issues we’re trying to change are all connected to real people. At the core of everything is relationship building and trust. If you look at team building, fundraising, advocacy, government relations or partnership building, at the heart of it all is finding a common vision and shared alignment. Sometimes I think we try to systematize or create something formulaic but it’s all really about authentic relationship building. As a leader in the nonprofit sector, being able to build strong external relationships is critical, but the most important relationships you will build are with your team. I find the same philosophy can and should be applied to building relationships in any context.

To me, the first priority is about being accessible to people, and that means all people, within a team or the community. I think that my being accessible has made Pillar feel accessible to people. You have to not choose who you connect with based on influence and power and privilege. If people show an interest in the mission and what you’re doing, you listen and you think about how you may be able to connect on that. It’s about finding a shared excitement for something and following through. My biggest advice to young people is, if you just follow through and do what you say you are going to do and connect the dots, it’s a formula for trust and relationship building.

Building authentic relationships also requires an equity and inclusion mindset, which includes being aware of and naming power dynamics. As a leader, you have to be mindful of how when you speak it influences a discussion. Even if your intention isn’t for it to be weighted more heavily as the way forward, there’s an inherent power and privilege that comes with holding a leadership role. It’s important to speak openly about the power you hold and either say: I’m adding my voice to this but it’s not my decision, or this is a decision that I’m going to have to make. I have not always got this right. The bottom line is, prioritize the human relationships, without them, progress isn’t possible. 

Michelle throws a ball in the air while members of the Pillar team pose as if catching it
Lesson 5: Embrace risk and dwell in possibility

All leaders face crossroad moments where it feels like fate hangs in the balance. When I’ve encountered these moments, I think of a favourite quote I coined: “Innovative projects require being bold, perseverance, tenacity and a sprinkle of panic.” That philosophy drives me. Sometimes feeling slightly on edge drove me and propelled me forward to go all in. That was true when I stepped into the role at Pillar and when I pushed forward on initiatives like Innovation Works. In these moments, having an entrepreneurial spirit and a possibility mindset is essential.

Embedding risk taking and an entrepreneurial spirit in our organization has been possible thanks to our network approach; I never felt alone in achieving anything. To know that we’re all in it together has been so amazing. It’s about holding the whole team accountable to the goals of the organization instead of taking it all on yourself and connecting with others who can help you on the journey. An entrepreneurial spirit is especially important in nonprofits, whether it be exploring a new programming area or perhaps a social enterprise. It’s all about being able to draw inspiration from others and shifting from the scarcity that can often be a part of nonprofits – often as a result of broken systems – and moving towards an abundance mindset.

Members of the Pillar and Innovation Works team celebrating the opening of Innovation Works

I try to balance being positive and a realist. I’m always conscious of naming resilience and positivity as a choice because it places the onus on the individual rather than seeing individuals as part of a system designed to advance some over others. I recognize that being in a position to be a possibility thinker is a privilege. At Pillar, I found the opportunity to stay in the mindset that there was a possibility in what we were doing. Sometimes that means tweaking, shifting and adapting. Pillar’s secret sauce is being adaptable, we don’t think we have to stay the way we were. We’re always trying to evolve and looking towards a future forward outlook. Embracing failure and having forgiveness have also been areas of growth in being a realist. Being curious, feeling like there’s possibility in something and that change is possible has been wildly meaningful.

Having the opportunity to work at Pillar for these past 14 years has been a great honour. I want to share attribution and immense gratitude for all of the relationships, learning, and trust built within the network. While I’m happy to share these lessons from my career, I also want to name that sometimes, we make assumptions and put leaders on a pedestal. We may think that a leader is the reason something happened. If we think that, we’re simplifying things. We often want to simplify and point to an individual as achieving an innovation or bringing a concept to life or fruition, but it takes countless hours and many hands to make it happen.

Our network has accomplished remarkable things, but I’m also very aware that any sector or network is never in a static state. It is always evolving and changing so you never finish mobilizing a certain group or sector, there’s always more to do. If you’re truly engaging the next generation and new people coming into your community, there’s always more opportunity for connection and learning and to know when it is time to step aside. Today, the need for collaboration across sectors that Pillar has always encouraged has never been more apparent. With a network approach, we can hold the complexity of humans, relationships, change and innovation and realize that together is the only way forward. We can no longer remain in our own lanes; we all need to embrace the collective call for equity and justice for all people and for our planet. 

Pillar’s journey to starting a dialogue about the realities of Anti-Black racism

Image of people of different races linking arms

Pillar’s Director of Equity, Inclusion & Governance, Dharshi Lacey, shares what she has learned so far about how we can best support the local Black community in the ongoing fight against oppression and racism.

In the middle of a global pandemic, we watched and could not look away as George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Perhaps the brutality of that moment caused us to look back and forward to Canada’s own story and our disproportionate undervaluation of the lives of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. It was and is still not a pretty picture. In this moment, the Black Lives Matter movement rose to the top of the news again with brave and loud voices gathering during a pandemic to protest across the globe. Our city held a rally that drew over 15,000 people. We were in a “moment” in history.

As a network organization supporting over 600 nonprofits and social enterprises, we decided that we needed to have this important conversation about anti-Black racism within our network. We began to talk about hosting a community conversation on the topic as part of our Learning and Development programming on June 10. Now, deep into October, we are still having this discussion with members of the local Black community. It was important to me to start keeping a record of this process as we move along the journey of this work to share what we have learned and what we are still working through. 

As I reflect on the steps we have taken to organize this session, and the conversations that have resulted, I realized that even as a racialized woman, I approached this process with a very traditional system lens. I knew (enough!) that this conversation needed to be led by members within the Black community. I thought I could reach out to a few people in my network, have a quick zoom call to discuss content, learning outcomes, length of time of session, presenter availability and we would be good to go!

What followed for me was a lesson in humility. Due to the strength, wisdom and kindness of the Black leaders who were willing to engage in this initial conversation, I heard many thoughtful questions and reflections and also challenges:

“Not so fast…”

“Who is not in this conversation who should be?”

“Why do you want to have this conversation?”

“What is your commitment to advocacy?”

“What makes you the agency that should be doing this?” 

“What is your role/space in this work?”

As I reflect on these questions, and how I entered this process with yes, great passion and excitement, I’m drawn to a phrase that one of my colleagues used: “white ways of doing”. I feel that was indeed what I was guilty of. White ways of doing often emphasize expediency and results often over the type of deep reflection and relationship-building that is required to do this type of work. In our earnest effort to support the Black community and have the conversation around how anti-Black racism exists in our city and what we can do to stop it, we moved too fast and didn’t think of these important questions that were raised to us.

So where do we go from here? This is still an active dialogue with members of the local Black community and a continual learning experience. From what we experienced together so far, I would like to share a few considerations that will guide our next steps and may be helpful for others trying to act as allies to under-represented communities.

  1. How can we be transparent about our capabilities and what our accountability will be?
  2. How are we committing to ongoing relationship development?
  3. How can we build more trust-based relationships?
  4. How can we ensure we are accurately conveying the complexity of anti-racism work while centering voices of the impacted?
  5. How can we approach this work with a shared agenda while not over-burdening the impacted community with responsibility?

I look forward to inviting others both within our own organization, and the leaders from the Black community who continue to gift us with their wisdom, to share their reflection as and when they are ready at all points along this continuing journey.


What does it mean to act as an Ally?

Graphic depicting people of different races holding hands with the ally acronym outlined in this article

By Eaman Fahmy, Inclusive Program Designer, Pillar Nonprofit Network | ALLY acronym attributed to Kayla Reed on Twitter

At this tipping point in history, those of us who possess power and privilege are being called upon to act. But before action, we must first pause and reflect. We must reflect upon how we operate at the intersection of complex identities, and how those identities are attached to different privileges in different spaces. We must acknowledge our role in upholding systems of oppression. And we must identify ways by which we can disrupt these systems in order to address the inequities faced by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) communities.

Those of us who work in the nonprofit and social enterprise sector have the power to address systems change. We have the opportunity before us to collectively commit to allyship and the work of anti-oppression. As allies, we recognize that this work is hard, and we must be in it for the long haul. Only then will we see real change.

Ally and allyship defined 

Let’s start our exploration of this important work with the definition of the word ally. An ally is an individual who stands up for a person or group that is targeted and discriminated against. The term allyship then – as defined by the Anti-oppression Network – is an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group. 

It is important to note that allyship is not an identity. If you are calling yourself an ally, you’ve already got it wrong. Instead, it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals and groups of people. Even more important is that allyship cannot be self-defined; our work and our efforts must be recognized by the people we seek to ally ourselves with.

Understand that all oppression is linked 

Before we can explore some of the steps we can take to act as allies, we should stop to reflect on the fact that all oppression is linked. The system of white supremacy that perpetuates anti-Black racism is the same system that perpetuates anti-Indigenous racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression. 

By reflecting on our role in upholding white supremacy, we can arrive at how we can act in allyship with marginalized groups and disrupt oppressive structures and systems. Understanding white supremacy, and our role in upholding these structures, is a learning journey and takes time. We are called to accept that most of what we have come to learn was taught to us from a white supremacist lens. Those with privilege have a responsibility to unlearn, which is active, sustained and hard work. 

Steps to practicing Allyship 

For many of us, it can be difficult to know how to support the BIPOC community in the most helpful way, without saying or doing the wrong thing. We must first accept that there is no one good way to be an ally, and that what is helpful to one person may not be right for another. This is difficult work, we must be flexible, adaptable and open to shifting as we learn and do better. Here are a few tips to help you to get started or to continue the work of allyship in a helpful and meaningful way. 

A – Always centre the impacted 

Seek to understand how the impacted community wants to be supported.

  • Don’t assume you understand the particular needs of a group you want to support.
  • Understand that sometimes a community may want your help to advocate, and that, other times being an ally is about the act of making safe spaces for folks to share their stories.  
  • Consider the difference between intent and impact – someone may think that they are being helpful, but their words or actions may be perceived as insensitive. 
  • Pause to refocus your efforts in another way if you are told that impact you have had was hurtful rather than helpful. 

L – Listen and learn from those who live in oppression

  • Seek out the opinions and stories of the groups you wish to support.
  • Understand that no group is monolithic, each person has their own experiences and opinions.
  • Consider the intersectionality of various groups – the aspects of a person’s social and political identities that can combine to create discrimination and/or privilege.
  • Take ownership of your own learning process and don’t expect to be educated by those facing oppression.
  • Reflect on the biases that you have, and any problematic language you may be using, and begin a process of unlearning.

L – Leverage your privilege

  • Take the time to reflect on your privilege, and how we all hold different privileges in different spaces.
  • Consider the different ways you can leverage your privilege, for example: 
    • If you have a platform, amplify the voices of the marginalized. Disrupt power imbalances in your workplace or social circles to create meaningful inclusion.
    • Be an active bystander and intervene in situations of discrimination, such as, taking power away from the perpetrator by talking to the target and interrupting the harassment or getting physically in between the harasser and the target to literally create a safe space.

Y – Yield the floor

  • Speak less, listen more, and consider how much space you’re taking up in conversations, in rooms and in organizing groups.
  • Reflect on the intersection of your identities; how much space do you take up physically and verbally as a result of the power and privilege located at that intersection.
  • Create a safe space for diverse voices to share their experiences and perspectives.Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

    Practicing allyship will, at times, come with both relational and personal discomfort. We must commit to the work of confronting racism in all forms as we interact with those around us. We cannot be afraid to have difficult conversations with family, friends and acquaintances about racist comments, jokes, and language. As we look outside our own immediate circles, we must also hold elected officials and institutions accountable for their words, policies and actions.

    On a personal level, we have to be honest about your shortcomings and learning journey. We all make mistakes, but accountability and a commitment to do better are the most important things in allyship. Our actions should not be propelled by guilt but out of a responsibility to make a difference for those who are on the margins. We should always ask ourselves, what risks are we taking to disrupt oppressive power structures and build an equitable world.

Additional resources 

If you’re interested in exploring more of the concepts discussed in this article, take a look at the links below curated by members of the Pillar team. 



Power and privilege 

Anti-racism and equity in the workplace 

Organizations to support

Network Symbiosis in Action – CityStudio Vancouver shares their take on Pillar’s Network Approach

Header image depicting symbiosis in nature

Our Network Approach outlines four essential principles for building networks that create positive impact – collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion, and storytelling and impact. While each of these principles are equally important in building strong networks, the value of connection and knowledge sharing amongst network members can’t be understated. At Pillar, belonging to a larger network of organizations invested in social good has helped us towards our own goals in immeasurable ways. When we partner with, and rely on, the insights and experiences of other organizations in our sector, we can all achieve more together. 

When we set out to achieve one of our audacious goals – to enhance campus community collaboration for social change – we turned to CityStudio Vancouver. As a result of this partnership we successfully launched CityStudio London in September 2019. While Pillar has learned countless lessons from CityStudio Vancouver, in true network collaboration fashion, they have also looked to our Network Approach for guidance. CityStudio Vancouver’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, Duane Elverum and his colleague Alix Linaker, their Canadian Network Coordinator, were kind enough to sit down and share how they interpret each of our four network building principles in their own work.

CityStudio is “a model of experiential education and civic engagement that is helping to develop tomorrow’s leaders by turning the city into the classroom.” The program began in Vancouver in 2011 when Elverum and his colleague Dr. Janet Moore heard a common theme from their students expressing their sadness about the state of the environment and their disappointment that upon graduating they wouldn’t be fully trained to help begin work that could help the planet or deal with social justice issues. Their solution: give students the opportunity to work on these problems while in school as part of course work and for credit, co-creating solutions with city staff that contribute directly to city needs – a mutually beneficial arrangement that gives students tangible experience and inspires new approaches to solving society’s wicked problems while providing city staff with faculty and research expertise.

Elverum and Linaker both expressed that looking to our principles has served as a map for strengthening their network and a tool for deep reflection as they continue their expansion (at present, they’ve licensed CityStudio to 14 network members across Canada, Australia and Norway, and are still very much scaling up). In sharing CityStudio Vancouver’s interpretation of our network approach, we hope to share another layer of depth to the principles. In showing how they can be applied across different nonprofit organizations we hope to continue this generative conversation with you as you consider their application for your organization.


When asked how the network approach principles align with the mission of CityStudio Vancouver, Elverum responded, “how do they not”? In speaking with him and Linaker it is clear that they have and continue to put a great deal of thought into applying all four network building principles. But, the work of connecting students, universities and city staff within the local CityStudio requires a special focus on ensuring effective collaboration.  

At CityStudio Vancouver, learning how to lead and convene their network of multiple stakeholders, who often have differing agendas, has been an iterative process. Elverum explains two key lessons that shaped their approach to collaboration. The first, that trust-based relationships must precede collaboration, has become the foundation of CityStudio Vancouver’s theory of change. 

“The theory of change came about because we were trying – often struggling – to undertake projects before we had built a good relationship, and so we began to see that the success of our entire organization could hinge in the quality of individual relationships, our entire world has to be about building trust,” Elverum explains. “At first, we thought maybe collaboration was the first step in our theory of change, but it didn’t work. In order to have collaboration we needed to have relationships, but that didn’t fully work either – in order to have relationships, we needed to have trust relationships, rather than simply instrumental relationships, or financial relationships.”

Building this trust, however, requires a second tenant of effective collaboration. The network or backbone organization must establish itself as an impartial convener who places the goals of the collaborative above their own.

“What started to become apparent was that in order to fully collaborate properly, we needed to put ourselves in the middle, aim to have no agenda, and really start to amplify the agenda of the people we are trying to collaborate with,” Elverum notes. “To collaborate, you have to say my agenda doesn’t matter at the moment, what matters is our shared agenda.” 

Today, Elverum thinks about the 14 CityStudios in the network model as a kind of brain with each of its collaborators and network members as neural nodes communicating in real time with all the other nodes. The continued growth of the network brings the need to evaluate how to best share information between members in a real time way to optimize opportunities to learn from one another. This also involves an analysis of how best tactically to share information and support different stakeholders with different needs. 

“We are really strategizing and intentionally thinking about what’s the best mode of communication and for what purpose,” Linaker explains. She adds that as they plan programming to enhance member engagement, they take time to understand the differing needs and cultural contexts of their audiences. This involves a continual feedback loop to understand preferences such as the preferred methods of content delivery, the frequency of communication and the pace of collaboration.

Leadership and Governance 

When managing an organization that involves leadership of and collaboration with such diverse groups of stakeholders, from students, to city staff, to organizational staff, clear organizational governance is also of the utmost importance. Today, with an organization, charity, board and staff, Elverum explains the great care that is placed on ensuring principles used with students and staff are the same amongst all stakeholders, in what he calls front of house and back of house. 

“In regard to the governance of the organization, my goal is to test what practices can be applicable to front and back of house with staff, the board [and other stakeholders] like distributed leadership, and consensus-based decision making,” Elverum explains. “We are not always sure which ones should appear in both places, but we are trying to test it. We question the cultural practices that the movement uses so that we don’t draw a distinct line between governance and management as frequently as your average organization might.”

As a leader and voice for the nonprofit sector, he is also focused on answering the question of belonging in the sector while questioning its inherent limitations. “The charitable sector can likely do far more in Canada than it is being enabled to do, the rules are sometimes in opposition with fast movement and change,” says Elverum. 

He further notes his acknowledgement of complexities around social justice and obstacles to diversity and equity that make the sector more challenging than it needs to be. He is personally committed to continuing conversations around systems change with other impact sector leaders.

Equity and Inclusion 

For Elverum and the CityStudio Vancouver leadership team, distributed power is central to their philosophy on equity and inclusion. He often explores the idea of what it means to have power, to distribute it and how to gauge that it’s being shared in genuine ways. One way that he strives to ensure this principle is through empowering open and honest feedback from his employees and colleagues. 

“I promise my staff that I will be the most responsive person to feedback that they’ve ever met, that’s my aim, and if something is not working I am not devoted to these ideas, I am devoted to the principle,” he explains. “At times it’s the hardest thing to say this is exactly what I asked for, but it’s the most exciting thing to know that my staff feels power with me.” 

Linaker shares that the organization is also focused on developing strategies around how the network can use their power to influence in positive ways. CityStudio Vancouver is developing an agenda for what they want to achieve within a Justice, Equity, Diversity, Decolonization and Inclusion (JEDDI) social justice framework, and to do this, they ensure that they are listening to the voices of all of their network members and marginalized future members.

“We think about inclusivity and equity in the sense of different levels of power from top leadership to staff to students,” she notes. “Something that I really like about the CityStudio model is how it empowers students to get involved in civic issues and understand that their voices and ideas and needs are important.” 

At this time in history, with calls for long overdue racial equity and justice, CityStudio Vancouver is also examining their blind spots – the places where they haven’t been looking for ideas, where they weren’t focused enough on student inclusiveness, and the cities or towns where they licence CityStudio to be developed. Even the naming of the organization is being called into question when thinking about licencing to smaller municipalities and how the language of rural versus city influences people’s perceptions.

“Something that we are working on is looking at is what’s the role of a CityStudio network in smaller cities or smaller municipalities, instead of going to larger or mid-sized urban centres. Those students may not have the same level, quality or number of opportunities to get this real world type of experience,” explains Linaker. “We’re thinking about what we do to better support underrepresented student segments.” 

“What started to become apparent was that in order to fully collaborate properly, we needed to put ourselves in the middle, aim to have no agenda, and really start to amplify the agenda of the people we are trying to collaborate with. To collaborate, you have to say my agenda doesn’t matter at the moment, what matters is our shared agenda.”

Storytelling and Impact

For any organization, two important elements of good storytelling are a balance between a well-defined tactical communications strategy and a strong underlying brand story. As CityStudio continues to grow, the organization is working hard to deliver on a communications strategy that will allow them to increase storytelling for the overall network. As part of this plan, CityStudio Global social channels, a newsletter, and more news and stories for their blog are in the works. They’ve also recently launched an online CityStudio member platform and are exploring how that will help them share learning, successes and build awareness about the network from within the network and publicly. 

The narrative aspect of building a brand is very much understood at CityStudio Vancouver, and it’s something Elverum thinks often and deeply about. The story of the organization being a one-stop shop for universities and cities to work together for civic benefit is the current thinking, but supporting that message when selling the concept requires a deeper dive into the reasons why this is needed.  

“A key part of that story is a question, how is it possible that our two largest public institutions don’t easily and naturally work together in the everyday business of city building? That’s an existential question that I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Elverum explains. “The more we talk to cities around the world, the more important this question has become for us. There’s an important story to be told around how in North America, and around the world, our public institutions don’t know how to or don’t want to work together.” 

Getting people on board with the concept of CityStudio, of course, varies depending on the city, the stakeholders – city staff, faculty, institutional leadership, etc. – and different cultural contexts. Some respond to the fact that systems underserved youth and how their capacity is left to idle, while others may be more motivated by mobilizing youth for social justice impact or for the benefit of economic development. The team always explores what each city needs and shows them how the model would support them.  

While CityStudio does have a formal impact measurement framework based on their theory of change, it aims to capture much more than quantifiable measures of the number of participants and cities enlisted. Through their reporting, they aim to showcase measures of how the overall network is helping to shift the system of how post-secondaries and civic governments collaborate. As the number of network members grows, they’re also exploring how to capture impact measurement for the network as a whole. 

Impact measurement can also be challenging in a world where many would think that success looks like the number of student projects that are implemented in the real world. Part of their challenge has been shifting the culture around outcomes and deliverables to a more nuanced understanding of the value of expanding minds through exposure to new ideas and relationships, and understanding that experimentation today can seed ideas for future benefit. 

During our interview, Elverum expressed his belief in the value of dialogue between network members, and the importance of deep reflection on the principles of network building. 

“Asking these questions [about the network principles] and allowing us to think about them and generate our own new thinking around these questions is itself evidence of the network approach,” he said. “The interview itself becomes a kind of network mechanism, and trust building relationship mechanism. This is really working, this is mutually beneficial and mutually exciting and powerful. The network approach is in action through this process.” 

We hope this conversation may be a seed that allows you to think, explore, and reflect on how the network approach can serve your organization to maximize your impact. 

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. 

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 findyouranswers.biz 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 web.isod.es 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.