Leading with empathy and communications during organizational change

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

It was two years ago when, in an executive leadership coaching session, the idea of a sabbatical or fellowship came up. It was with a laugh and the comment, “That does not happen in nonprofits,” then I brushed it off. Janet Frood, from Horizon Leadership, asked “Why not?” and sent me links to opportunities that exist in the U.S.

Fast-forward to Tonya Surman, CEO of Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), embarking on a three-month sabbatical that ended up being extended to six months. Tonya promised, as part of this opportunity, to support two to three other leaders to share this transformational experience:

“Taking time, creating space for others to lead in my absence, was an incredibly powerful process to support the growth of CSI. After six months, I was transformed, I was finding my source, my power, my energy coming from such a good place, such a place of connection, to our mission and a new commitment to making the world a better place.”

As I considered what was next, I knew that documenting the origin stories of Pillar, Innovation Works and VERGE Capital was part of the next stage of work that I wanted to commit to. I started to look at formal fellowship opportunities but the timing did not line up, so I created my own reflective practice fellowship. I asked myself, “What do I hope to get out of this experience and what are the questions that I want to dig deeper on?”

When I presented to the board in December 2018, Tonya Surman joined us to share her experience. The proposal was met with enthusiastic approval and I shared the news with the staff team with exuberant excitement. Our Board Chair, Jason Kerr shares:

“In academic circles, the concept of a professional leave or sabbatical is commonplace. In nonprofit and other workplaces it is almost a foreign concept. The opportunity for a senior leader in an organization to both reflect on their own professional development, but also to research topics related to their organization’s strategic directions or plan is priceless. In Michelle’s case, you have a leader that has been operating at a high level for the better part of a decade. To be able to have this time allows a leader a chance to renew themselves and infuse new knowledge and concepts into the organization on their return while allowing others in the organization a leadership opportunity in the leader’s absence.

Further validation through augmentation

While staff response was positive, I quickly discovered that they were deeply curious about the concept. I sent the fellowship proposal to staff so they could see the good thinking and planning involved. Over the holidays, as I shared the news with staff and family, I felt incredible support but picked up on some subtext that maybe I was taking six months off. Whether this was real, or my own internal dialogue, I cannot be sure but I responded by promptly adding the word “research” to the title, updating it to “Reflective Practice and Research Fellowship” and sought out a research partner to provide mentorship and lend legitimacy to the project.

Preparing the team

A full transition plan was developed over the holidays and at one point the ED and Directors talked about sharing parts of it with staff. One Director shared an article that was a turning point for me; “The Secret to Leading Organizational Change is Empathy” highlighted that teams adapt better to change with more information and this inspired me to share more and share often. The transition plan was sent to staff and almost immediately I noticed a shift. One staff member said, “You have really thought this out,” and the sense of uneasiness and discomfort decreased.

I knew that documenting the origin stories of Pillar, Innovation Works and VERGE Capital was part of the next stage of work that I wanted to commit to. I started to look at formal fellowship opportunities but the timing did not line up, so I created my own reflective practice fellowship. I also added the word “research” to the title, updating it to “Reflective Practice and Research Fellowship” and sought out a research partner to provide mentorship and lend legitimacy to the project.

We created a culture around the fellowship of asking questions; one question that kept surfacing was how the Interim ED was going to continue to fulfill her existing role and take on added responsibilities. Would this put pressure on staff, who are already at capacity? Finding the proper project management supports for an upcoming elevator upgrade and for building management were essential to create space for the added role. We also created a shared document where people could ask questions and the ED and Interim ED could answer them. We only received one question (about a staffing update), but the “in-person” questions followed, and were more personal in nature.

At a team meeting, Lore Wainwright, Interim ED, shared why she was open to taking on this role: “I’m thrilled to be leading an exceptional team like the one at Pillar. The next six months will be a critical piece of work in leadership, transformation and community impact. This is a servant leadership moment, as I want to make this possible for Michelle and the organization. It’s sort of a ‘pinch me’ moment for me.”

Early lessons

Here’s what I know at this first lap of the journey; to navigate a leadership transition takes a village. The board and staff were all essential in creating the conditions for a leadership transition that acknowledged the instability that change can bring, and they leaned into our values of openness, transparency, communication, embracing failure, and learning and co-creation.

Naturally we got some of this right and there were things we could do better. If you’re interested in an overview of the process and practices we followed to prepare our staff team, Board of Directors and network for this interlude, you can find that here.

As we navigate these six months we will be sharing the learning and experience about network building and cross-sector collaboration as well as our high dream for other nonprofit and social impact leaders to have the opportunity for a fellowship experience.

You can read more of Michelle’s thoughts on her reflective practice and research fellowship here.

A networked approach to strategic planning

Pillar has embarked on a three-year strategic planning process since our early days. At the time we developed our last strategic plan, we were growing at a fast pace and had many new board members and new staff. Before we started looking ahead, we wanted to make sure that our board, staff and network were all on the same page. We didn’t want the development of our next strategic plan to be just a one-day event, but rather a journey of ideas, dialogue and reflection with our whole community. Below, we’ll share the steps we took to engage our network in our unique strategic planning approach to help you ensure your own strategic planning process represents your stakeholders.

Asking good questions 

The first step we took to engage our network in the strategic planning process was to carry out a survey. We received over 160 responses from both members and non-members of Pillar that helped us to assess our areas of focus going forward. We also posed the same questions to our co-tenants at Innovation Works. The following questions were included in our survey:

  • What do you love about Pillar (answers show in word cloud below)? 
  • What questions do you have about Pillar?
  • What should Pillar focus on in the next 3-5 years?
  • What else can Pillar do to help your organization?

Jamming about our future

The next step was to host a design jam to gather input from our network. A design jam is a creative brainstorming session that engages a diverse group of individuals to come up with solutions for a particular issue. We asked participants a variety of questions including those below. Out of the session, our members generated 49 ideas about Pillar’s strategic focus for the next three to five years, and we prioritized those ideas into our top three.

  • What does it means to be part of a network?
  • What is Pillars role in creating a network?
  • What is Pillar’s role in “system” work for the nonprofit sector?
  • What is Pillar’s “next level”?
Engaging past chairs in reflection 

We held an informal board social where we asked our past board chairs to reflect on the strategic planning journey during each of their times as chair. Together, they shared what they considered to be their key moments and learnings from Pillar’s past strategic plans. Below, Willy Van Klooster, founding board chair, shares his reflections on Pillar’s early strategic priorities.

Exploring our epic tale

Our past board members, current board members, past staff and current staff came together to participate in telling our “epic tale”, a session facilitated by Janet Frood of Horizon Leadership. The epic tale is a process of telling the story of an organization through the experience and lens of the many people who have been part of it. All members identify the major milestones and achievements, as well as the disappointments and challenges. This process allowed us to capture a snapshot of Pillar today and things to consider in preparation for our strategic planning process.

Leaving behind our baggage and packing our luggage

Part of the process of developing an epic tale for your organization involves looking at what “baggage” you want to leave behind and what to pack in your “luggage” for the future. Baggage includes those ideas and practices that no longer serve you and luggage are those things that have been successful for you or new ideas for the future. For example, one element of our baggage was that we had to fight to be at the table on important community issues and embrace that we’ve earned our right to be there. One element of luggage was that despite our growth we maintain the enthusiasm, innovation, heart and nimbleness of a small organization. 

Capturing our adaptive cycle

The adaptive cycle was originally born out of environmental research, but can be applied to natural systems, social systems and organizations. The concept is a four stage cycle that includes birth, growth, maturation and creative destruction. In the context of systems or organizations, it is meant to explain what stage of development the system or organization is in and how resilient it is. We use this concept, shown in the image  below, to help us monitor our various programs and services. 

Thinking of this concept as it applies to a forest ecosystem can be helpful to understand it. Creative destruction is when old trees decompose or get burnt down releasing energy and providing opportunity for new trees to grow. In the birth phase, new seedlings or ideas are planted that require ample care and tending. During the growth phase, trees get bigger but also compete for resources. Lastly, during maturation trees are well established but need to be tended to to keep them healthy so they don’t burn or decompose. 

We didn’t want the development of our next strategic plan to be just a one-day event, but rather a journey of ideas, dialogue and reflection with our whole community.

Reconnecting to our why

According to author, motivational speaker and organizational consultant Simon Sinek, every organization needs to define their “golden circle” in order to define their “why” or reason for being. The golden circle starts with the question why in the centre of the diagram, as in why does the organization exist and for what purpose. The second circle asks how, or what sets the organization apart. Lastly, the outward circle asks what, or what are the programs, products or services the organization provides. During our strategic planning process, we determined our golden circle – pictured below – as a team to ensure we stay focused on our core reason for being. 

Sharing a staff perspective

At Pillar, we define both board and staff strategic plans and feel it is important to ensure that there is an interplay between board and staff in the development of both plans. We asked our staff to contribute their ideas of what they would like the board to consider during their strategic planning process; these topics included:

  • Our nonprofit services are our foundation
  • Our mission must include social enterprise and social innovation
  • We will play a lead role in diversity
  • We will have work/life balance
  • We must consider the sustainability of Pillar 
  • Cross-organization communications is key
Committing to our priorities 

On the day of our strategic planning session, our staff discussed their top six considerations with the board. We reviewed Pillar’s golden circle and created an environmental scan using the PESTLE framework to identify external influences including political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental. Out of this session, we determined our three strategic directions for the next three years and renewed our mission statement.

Pillar’s current strategic directions:
  1. Be Ready: Be ready for future opportunities and growth.
  2. Be Focused: Be focused to maximize our impact.
  3. Be Inclusive: Provoke discussion and action around equity and emerging cross-sector community issues.
Pillar’s mission statement:
  • To strengthen individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact.
Getting to action

Each year, we develop both board and staff action plans to ensure we carry out the goals of our strategic plans. The board action plan identifies each action with timing and who will be responsible to make sure we fulfill our priorities. This annual best practice clearly defines the role of the board and engages the board fully in the future of the organization. Each year the board reviews the strategic priorities and makes any adjustments and plans for the year ahead.

To create our staff action plan, mini-interviews are conducted with staff asking how they think Pillar might achieve the objectives set out by the board. This approach breaks down silos and ensures all voices are heard. Staff came together to identify tactics to achieve the objectives set out by the board and created a master staff action plan that is updated annually. 

Keeping tabs on progress

To monitor our progress on the strategic plan a quarterly review of our performance measures is brought forward to the board. This has been an area of growth for Pillar as it is the most challenging part of the strategic planning process to find meaningful performance measures that demonstrate progress and do not create additional work without return.

To check out Pillar’s past strategic priorities and see our evolution as an organization of meeting the needs of our network read more here.

How Pillar approaches diversified funding

As traditional funding models for nonprofits are changing, diversified funding has become critical for the sustainability of many organizations. These changes are being felt across the sector with a reduction in government funding, a decline in donations and a shift to goods and services making up 45.1 percent of the total income for the sector. Like many other nonprofits, Pillar was funded primarily by grants in our early days. We faced our first wake-up call when a significant grant with the federal government was almost signed off on and then an election was called that delayed the funding. This caused us to be unable to cover the costs of our core staff role of our Executive Director. As we recovered and learned from this failure and, our board turned their focus to our sustainability and diversified funding.

As we now support other nonprofits and social enterprises through our consulting and learning and development programs, we can talk first-hand to the dangers of having a single funder or funding source. Over the past decade, we have diversified our funding to include earned revenue, corporate sponsorship and multi-year municipal grants. For example, our earned revenue has increased from $300,000 in 2014 to $1.176 million in 2018. Bringing on new revenue streams has required us to build detailed business plans and evaluate risk, which has created better stability and organizational capacity. Further, we are walking the talk and have seen how revenue diversification gives options when the ground shifts beneath us. Throughout this process, staying focused on our mission, being adaptive to changing trends and pressures on communities, and ensuring the capacity of our team has been essential to our growth. If you’re looking for ways to expand your revenue approach, read on for an overview of our funding evolution at Pillar and what we learned in the process.

Core municipal funding

We presented for the first time at a public participation meeting in 2006 to ask for funding from our municipal government. While we were not successful the first  time around, the experience did get us in front of city council and started the discussions about having the City of London provide operating funding. We then hired a past municipal staff member to put together a business case for support. In 2008, we were successful in securing $40,000 in one-time funding. From here, it took a few years to solidify our funding request and in 2011 we secured $50,000 of ongoing funding. Receiving this stable source of core funding was a game changer for us as we have been able to leverage these funds to focus on building the capacity of staff, volunteers, board members and social entrepreneurs. In 2017, the City of London introduced multi-year funding and this move provided the nonprofits the opportunity for longer term planning, as well as better evaluation and impact. 

Pillar Community Innovation Awards

In 2006, Pillar launched the Pillar Community Innovation Awards with a vision of the nonprofit, business and government sectors coming together to share, inspire and recognize those making our community brighter and better. While we knew that our goals for the event included building stronger relationships with business and media, we did not have the foresight to see how just how much it would grow. Today, the annual event sees over 1000 attendees, more than 45 corporate sponsors, 156 finalists and has resulted in solid relationships and storytelling from our local media. While special events do not typically yield revenue, we have been able to cover the staff and event costs year over year, and the relationships we have built and the increased profile we have garnered has lead to other revenue sources.

Learning and development program 

For several years, we ran our professional development program with contract employees who were part of the job creation partnership. While we were happy to provide this opportunity for these individuals to gain valuable skills while searching for employment, it was not a sustainable business model for us. In 2010, we embarked on an evaluation of our current program and developed a business plan to guide the future of the program. This approach has been highly successful allowing us to cover our development and implementation costs while maintaining a financially accessible program with bursaries for smaller nonprofit member organizations. While this was an earned revenue strategy that was aligned with our mission, it was only in more recent years that we adopted the language of calling our learning and development program a social enterprise. We are due to review our program and update our business plan and  are now in the planning stages.

Sustaining members 

In 2010, our board recommended that we start a new Sustaining Member program. For a $1,000 annually, individuals, organizations or enterprises can become Sustainers who support Pillar’s work in building a strong, connected and influential sector. The money from this fund gives us the financial flexibility to respond to emerging issues and opportunities and allows us to maintain accessible fee levels for all groups. We have had up to 23 Sustainers annually and we are looking to grow the program to 50 Sustainers in 2019.

Impact Consulting 

In 2010, we were exploring our sustainability and recognized we were supporting others to consider social enterprise and we should walk the talk. We started the process of exploring social enterprise with a readiness assessment, discussion about values and impact, evaluation criteria, and completed idea generation sessions. We also conducted market research, evaluated and presented social enterprise ideas, held board information sessions, secured funding, hired a Manager of Consulting Services and completed a business plan. 

This comprehensive process engaged both our board and staff and ensured we were all on the same page about the value and impact of social enterprise. Our primary goal for the consulting program was to be dynamic and flexible so that we could respond to the needs of the nonprofit sector. Through the program, we wanted to both dig deeper to respond to the needs of nonprofit organizations and generate unrestricted funds to become more sustainable. We now offer service in areas including social innovation, social enterprise, social finance, board governance and diversity training.

As traditional funding models for nonprofits are changing, diversified funding has become critical for the sustainability of many organizations. These changes are being felt across the sector with a reduction in government funding, a decline in donations and a shift to goods and services making up 45.1 percent of the total income for the sector.

We have had many variations in our model for consulting services including a single consultant, an associate model, and a principal associate model. Today we have a staff team approach with associates. Through testing various models, we have found that leveraging the skills and expertise of our staff team in areas that are not overlapping with the existing consultants in our network best serves nonprofits, social enterprises and collaboratives. In 2015, Ivey Connects had a group of students work with our team on a next phase business and marketing plan. We also rebranded to Impact Consulting to better represent our goal to provide cutting edge consulting to amplify impact. Over the years, we have had significant growth in our consulting including broadening our work nationally. Recently, we have had a shift in our staffing and we are in a reset period of re-establishing our partnerships with associates and planning for our next stage of growth for Impact Consulting.

Innovation Works co-working space

Pillar was involved with the creation of Innovation Works  from the very beginning when it was just a dream born in a living room gathering. During the development phase, all the partners had a focus on ensuring that this new social innovation shared space for London was backed by a sustainable business plan.  Pillar stepped up to become the backbone organization, and after we had gathered a commitment of $1.2 million in social finance investments, we took on the role of purchasing a building. Pillar’s board boldly took on the role of financial steward while other the partners continued to hold the full vision, engage the community, and initiate the start-up phase collaboratively. 

Today, Innovation Works is a social enterprise that has generated $1 million in revenue from co-tenants and event bookings and, after three years, is on a solid path to sustainability. As a nonprofit and charity, the assets from purchasing a building and the revenues are invested back into the mission of Pillar.

VERGE Capital social finance program 

The launch of VERGE Capital, a local investment for local impact intermediary, along with our own social finance journey with Innovation Works, has opened up new capital for Pillar. VERGE Capital catalyzes an ecosystem of impact investing that redirects wealth to help tackle our region’s most challenging social and environmental issues. The model for VERGE is a social enterprise where interest from the loans and investment management fees are reinvested back into the work. With the leadership of the VERGE team, we have secured $1.2 million in social finance investments and $1 million in a community bond for Pillar and Innovation Works.

Finance and audit committee

With the growth at Pillar with Innovation Works and VERGE Capital, we created a Finance and Audit Committee to better monitor and support our more complex financials with a mortgage, social finance loans, community bond and social finance impact investment portfolio. Additionally, the responsibility for generating revenue is dispersed across each of our team clusters with targets for each group. Our audited financials have become more in-depth with these diverse funding streams and can be seen here.

Key lessons and failures

Pillar’s growth in earned revenue and undesignated funding has provided us with the flexibility to fund new programs and adapt to the needs of our network. Many of the funding strategies outlined above, including consulting and Sustainers, have required us to experiment and redesign the models as we learned from our failures. Throughout this process, we have been fortunate to have a board and staff team who are bold in their ideas and open to innovation. 

While we have seen growth in our revenue there have been times where some revenue strategies have had more attention than others because we have more staff resources to dedicate to them. For example, we still have challenges in securing ongoing funding for our volunteerism and board diversity programs. We have had 11 grants to support our board diversity program over the years which illustrates the challenge for nonprofits to secure ongoing core operational funding and decide what new projects to fund. Now, we are at a time when we can reflect on our capacity to maintain the social enterprise and revenue strategies we have today and ensure we continue to nurture each of these to build a sustainable future to deliver on our mission.

Reflective practice and research fellowship

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

What is a reflective practice and research fellowship? As the Executive Director of Pillar for more than 10 years, there was an intensity to my role during the growth phases of Pillar, Innovation Works and VERGE Capital that had me all in and firing on all cylinders. I had reached a point in my career that I was looking for a renewed sense of meaning, energy and purpose both personally and professionally. I had heard of other leaders who had done something similar to a fellowship and how it was a transformational experience. I chose to design a reflective practice and research fellowship to explore leadership growth, succession planning, and reflective practices in a meaningful and sustained way. Having others step into leadership and documenting our network approach were intentional to create succession planning for the organization. My fellowship included five main elements including those below. Whether you’re able embark on your own fellowship or just adopt a few of these practices for yourself, I hope what I have learned will provide inspiration to you on your leadership journey.

  1. Reflective practices and coaching – I developed reflective practices that integrated pause, nature, arts and inner exploration supported by a life and leadership coach and a trusted circle of like-minded people.
  2. Network research – I met with impact and social innovations networks across the world to learn more about the network building principles that we had been exploring at Pillar including collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion and storytelling and impact.
  3. Strategic projects – The three main project deliverables from my fellowship were to develop a policy strategy, conduct a networking mapping exercise to illustrate our impact and reach and create a micro-site to share our network approach at Pillar.
  4. Learning opportunities – I participated in programs that fit with the themes of purpose, policy and networks and I also did a deep dive into resources related to these themes.
  5. Transition and change management – We prepared our staff team, board of directors, and network for the fellowship, did a mid point check-in through a survey with the staff and board, and we did transition planning for the re-integration.
Reflective practices and coaching
Nature practices

Through my coaching over the years I have recognized that being in nature is a place of renewal and healing. At the outset of the fellowship, my coach suggested a ‘sit spot’ practice where you go somewhere in nature and take a question and notice what your surroundings are telling you; the longer you sit the more you will notice. This practice connected me to the land, to my inner self and was an intentional way of slowing down each day. At first I was doing a sit spot daily and now it is two to three times per week, which seems more sustainable going forward. During each sit spot, I would capture a photo and share it along with the question on social media and then write a short reflection about it.

Leadership and peer coaching 

As part of the fellowship, I continued the coaching relationship I have with Janet Frood from Horizon Leadership. The dedicated time to think through the transition, learning, and challenges along the way was invaluable. We also did coaching sessions with the interim executive director and board chair to set intentions about how we would structure our relationships during the time and to reflect on the journey. Horizon Leadership did a survey to our staff and board at the mid-point, provided a summary and facilitated a staff team discussion about the results.

I also leaned on my learning sister and wise council throughout the fellowship. I reached out to these people in my trusted circle who inspire me and had knowledge around networks, purpose driven work and personal growth to be a sounding board and hold me accountable along the way. Sharing ideas, resources and what has surfaced for me with these peers has added to the richness of my fellowship experience.

Self care practices

After attending the Foundations of Purpose program, I wanted to test other reflective practices and I decided to start a gratitude journal. Each day I now journal three reflections of what I was grateful for from the day before. To keep on top of this and other daily practices I want to maintain, I use an app one of my team members mentioned that they use to track their reflective practices. The Momentum – My Habits App sends me a notification daily to remind me to do my gratitude journal, sit spot and drink water daily. I’ve also incorporated both reiki and massage as practices for stress reduction and relaxation that have helped me to create time for healing.

Expression through arts 

Like so many of us, I thought because I could not draw when I was younger, I was not an artist. During my fellowship, I wanted to explore my inner artist through various art forms. Why? Because innovative ideas are required to solve the big problems facing people and planet, and it is important to nurture creativity to spark new ways of thinking. I attended a ‘Sparks & Splatter’ workshop with Revel in the Mess to be playful while pausing to create the space in my life to unlock potential. After attending Foundations of Purpose, I was also inspired to delve into the world of watercolour painting. I asked my nieces and nephew to come over and bring their watercolours so I could try it. It was intentional to do this with younger people as I knew they were less inhibited when it comes to art and would be great coaches. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own watercolour painting supplies and now find it to be peaceful and playful.

I experimented with poetry during the fellowship and found through this practice that it revealed parts of me I had not connected to and the darkness and light that were in the crevices of my mind and heart. The following is a poem I wrote:

It’s About All

A once in a lifetime opportunity created from nothing but a seed,
A moment about self, to reclaim purpose and direction, 
It was there and then taken away,
Slowly reflection and pause emerge between the crevices,
Not fully realized, sometimes forced,
More resilience peeks out,
Alone and lonely shifts to calm,
Time to think & listen to the thoughts,
Yearn for what was, pine for anonymity,
Lean into natural hopefulness despite its distance,
Find the rhythm in nature, in corners undiscovered,
Let go of what is expected & emerge into what is,
It is not about me, about other, about them,
It is about we, about us, about all.

I also took many pictures along the way and when scrolling through them, the theme that emerged was pathways – along the beach, canals, sidewalks, roadways and hiking trails – representing the journey I was on without any set destination or decisions. At the Foundation of Purpose program when we were to share a performance that was a culmination of our experience, I shared these photos as way to represent that I was still on the journey.

Through my travels I visited many art galleries and museums including Art Gallery of Ontario; Vancouver Art Gallery; Palazzo Pitti and Fort Belvedere in Florence Italy; Leopold Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Albertini in Vienna, Austria; Anne Frank House, MOMO, Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands; National Museum of African American History, Library of Congress, National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC; and Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. I found meandering through art galleries and museums to be calming and almost meditative while sparking my curiosity and making me feel whole.

Network research

Throughout my travels, I met with 17 impact and social innovation networks across the world to discuss key research questions related to themes we were exploring at Pillar including collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion, and storytelling and impact. The discussions were a shared exchange of mutual learning and connection rather than formal research. As I embarked on the research and conversations, I quickly realized that our work in the impact sector is complex; I was coming at this looking for answers and what I found was more questions. Here is a list of the key questions I asked members of each of the networks I visited.

  1. Collaboration: How has cross-sector collaboration contributed to network building in your community? How do you engage with those who are outliers but are needed to move forward your vision?
  2. Leadership and governance: What is the governance structure of your network, what works well and what would you reimagine if you could?
  3. Equity and inclusion: How does your network support and live out empathy, equity and inclusion?
  4. Storytelling and impact: How has storytelling shaped your network? What story is your network currently telling? Where are the diverse voices in our stories? How has failure and learning played a role of innovation and systems change?

You can read more about what I learned from these networks in More Questions Than Answers: The Learning from Networks. 

Strategic projects

Policy strategy 

As part of the six-month program with Maytree Policy School, I developed a policy strategy for Pillar that is rooted in our strategic theme of equity and inclusion. It outlines our focus for government relations with the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

Network mapping 

We are mapping our network through data visualizations in partnership with The CutlurePlex Lab at Western University to establish a baseline so we can monitor our network evolution to compare pre- and post- our membership redesign and inform our network strategy. We are testing this model with our new program CityStudio London to track the strength of the relationships and the increase in the relationships for students, faculty and partners from the outset of the program and to evaluate the change and impact in relationships.

See an example of network visualization analysis in this overview of annual Pillar events, 2011-2018.

I chose to design a reflective practice and research fellowship to explore leadership growth, succession planning, and reflective practices in a meaningful and sustained way. Having others step into leadership and documenting our network approach were intentional to create succession planning for the organization.

Network approach micro-site 

A key goal for the fellowship was to share our network approach at Pillar and share a cohesive story of Pillar, Innovation Works and VERGE Capital. We decided on a micro-site “The Network Approach by Pillar Nonprofit Network” that would provide educational content about our promising practices using the network building principles of collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion and storytelling and impact. Developing this site has been a succession planning exercise to have myself and our team document our learning and promising practices since the inception of Pillar. It is our hope that is will also serve as a thought leadership hub for those starting a similar network to Pillar or for those who want to borrow some of our promising practices for their own organizational development.

Learning opportunities

When I was researching different learning opportunities I wanted to find a balance between personal and professional development. I applied to the Maytree Policy School with both my roles as ED at Pillar and incoming Chair for Ontario Nonprofit Network in mind. Up to this point, I had really learned about public policy and government relations by trial and error and I knew that having some theory and knowledge behind me would be an advantage as a leader for both organizations. I had heard about the programs at Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and in particular the Foundations of Purpose program. There are scholarships available and with a successful application I was ready to explore my next stage of purpose.

Learn more about my Top 10 takeaways and actions from Maytree Policy School and Journey of finding my foundation of purpose.

I also had the opportunity to attend the National Council for Nonprofits Learning Confab with Ontario Nonprofit Network and Imagine Canada. The National Council for Nonprofits gathers annually to bring together the leaders of the network of state associations. Given the current political climate in the United States, there was much to learn from the innovative and adaptive practices of our counterparts. The concept that change should be cross partisan rather than nonpartisan was one takeaway that I will integrate into my language for our approach to government relations. The principle of moving from diversity to equity and being more explicit about racism and oppression also resonated and aligned our organizational approach. A session on building better movements with Leslie Crutchfield based on her book How Change Happens reminded me that we need to change hearts and minds to change policy.

During the fellowship I read and listened to more than 100 books, blogs, and podcasts about networks, inclusive economies, equity and power, and leadership and tracked them along with their key themes. These have shaped my learning and thinking and really sparked my contemplation about how philanthropy and social impact work needs to be deconstructed and reimagined since the very systems we have assumed are helping people and society are holding power and privilege. To decolonize and reshape it requires giving up power. With our propensity in society at this time in history for an individualistic rather than a collective perspective, we have some critical thinking and action ahead of us. To check out the resources click here.

Transition and change management

My fellowship journey all started with a proposal to the board along with conversations and a transition plan. This document was created to help our team navigate leadership and functional changes to the team during my fellowship. To read more about how we managed the transition with the staff team at Pillar read this article.

About half way through the fellowship we sent out a fellowship survey to the staff and board to check in on how they were feeling. We then held a team meeting to discuss and unpack their responses and provide further support and direction. With about six weeks left in the fellowship, we created a reintegration and change management plan as I re-enter my role as ED.

By the numbers
Aha moments
  1. I resonate with being an ecosystem tender and how do I prioritize tending to myself?
  2. How can we embed in the organization the mantra – Everyone follows, Everyone leads?
  3. How do I and we “paint it done”? What is the future state and impact we collectively want and how do we clearly communicate this with new staff and new programs?
  4. Is Pillar is an “impact network” not a network based on legal structure anymore (nonprofit, social enterprise, co-ops)?
  5. Daring leadership is about serving others not ourselves, how do we choose courage over comfort?
  6. How as a network are we mindful of power we hold and that systems hold power, how do we use our power as a bridge?
  7. Does our network feel they have a voice for change?
  8. How can we measure the ways our network and shared space creates a sense of belonging, connections and reduces loneliness?
  9. In a time of such uncertainty, how can we hold true that optimism is not uncool, it is rebellious, daring and vital?
  10. How do I become a human being not simply a human doing?
  11. How do we check our own blind spots daily?
  12. How do we make sure that individuals are authors of system innovation and give more resonance to community voices?
  13. How can we support that place-based networks are a driver for change in addition to being social and economic drivers?
  14. How does our consulting program go beyond a transactional in and out and support those by providing them with the skills and training to not need us in the future?
  15. What would it take to do an audit of our programs and practices and how they could be perpetuating the power structures and colonization that we are trying to address through our work as organizations?
  16. The fellowship is not a book end but a series of inflection points that requires care and attention. How do I carry forward the reflective practices as I go back to the intensity of an ED role at Pillar?
  17. How do you prepare for the inevitable change that will happen during a fellowship and provide clarity about what decisions the leader would be engaged in during this time?
The next stage

As I re-enter my role at Pillar, there are a number of projects and practices that I plan to continue going forward. Here is a look at some of the outcomes of my fellowship that I will complete going forward.

  • Re-evaluate my reflective practices to make sure they still serve me and continue those that do
  • Have regular check ins with coach and learning sister to hold me accountable
  • Being present for the Pillar team at outset and pacing meetings
  • Share learnings with board, staff and community
  • Continue with the expression of art
  • Spend as much time on the implementation for the policy strategy network mapping and micro-site about our network approach as the development stage
  • Be authentic and open about what worked and did not work during fellowship
  • Be gentle with myself as I step back into leadership and accept I will make mistakes and need to own them and recalibrate
  • Have a conversation about our advocacy role as a team and board
  • Have a conversation about who are our key audiences and our role with business as a team and at board
  • Have a conversation about our role connecting to land, climate change, planet-first with team and at board
  • Host a workshop with Janet Frood, Executive Coach called Leadership Time Out – Power & Purpose of Structured Reflection
  • Partnering on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council research partnership engagement grant with Dr. Neil Bradford at Huron to research opportunities for learning and intellectual capacity for leaders and collaborative network structures as a continuation of the fellowship themes
  • All About Boards session on Boards & Government Relations on Dec 5th with Sara Middleton from United Way who also took the Maytree Policy School last year
  • Booked one Friday off a month for reflection and strategy for rest of year and will have team help me be accountable to keep them open
  • Speaking at Global Co-Working UnConference in Toronto October 30th about my reflective practice and research fellowship

Learning from other networks: More questions than answers

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

My reflective practice and research fellowship included the opportunity to meet with and learn from 17 impact and social innovation organizations across the globe (listed below) about network building principles that we had been exploring at Pillar including collaboration, leadership and governance, equity and inclusion and storytelling and impact. As I embarked on my research and had conversations with various networks across the world, I quickly realized that our work in the social impact sector is complex and often not clear cut. I was coming at these conversations looking for inspiration and answers, but what I found was more questions. While coming away with these questions was not what I initially expected, the conversations were a valuable exchange of our experiences and learning and it offered a moment of collaboration and connection. The themes and questions that emerged demonstrate common trends and needs to be addressed within our sector.

Questions for our network partners

The key questions that I asked at each meeting with the networks included:

  1. Collaboration: How has cross-sector collaboration contributed to network building in your community? How do you engage with those who are outliers but are needed to move forward your vision?
  2. Leadership and governance: What is the governance structure of your network, what works well and what would you reimagine if you could?
  3. Equity and inclusion: How does your network support and live out empathy, equity and inclusion?
  4. Storytelling and impact: How has storytelling shaped your network? What story is your network currently telling? Where are the diverse voices in our stories? How has failure and learning played a role of innovation and systems change?
Emerging themes and questions for the sector 


  • As network support organizations, how do we adapt to change, anticipate shifts and support our members to be adaptive and not static?
  • How can we build trust-based relationships with partner organizations before starting any project? When you trust someone you say yes more than no, and you go places together that would otherwise be impossible to imagine
  • How do we help businesses and institutions within a community understand the benefits they receive from and the responsibilities they have for that community?
  • How do we encourage the belief that a network approach will lead to collective success? None of us are big enough to solve major societal issues on our own; we can achieve so much more together.
  • Next generations are asking companies to do no harm and to do good in communities, how are businesses adapting to this new reality?
  • If collaboration is not well coordinated and thoughtful, are we ‘starving the problem’ and creating deeper issues?
  • How do we engage with everyone not just social enterprises or nonprofits when supporting social change? When we focus on the legal structure of an organization, does it only preclude inviting more people to the conversation rather than including?

Leadership and governance

  • Do your board members reflect the organization and the community and are they part of your membership?
  • Do we need “everyday advocacy” between elections and not only during election campaigns?
  • Can we just duplicate a network in another community? No, we need to consider existing partners, unique needs and cultural considerations.
  • What are we working on as a network that is incremental change, quick wins and transformational? We can’t be working at all levels always so choose wisely.
  • At different stages in the lifecycle of a nonprofit or social enterprise different competencies are required from leaders and teams, how do we recognize this and plan for this?
  • How can boards be advisors and champions rather than seen as something to fear by staff?
  • What if governance is distributed beyond the board?

Equity and inclusion

  • How are we mindful of the power that networks and systems hold? How do we use our power as a bridge?
  • Does our network feel they have a voice for change? 

We believe that mobilizing networks to work together on finding solutions to pressing issues in our communities is the best way to make lasting change. We hope that in sharing these learnings with our network we will inspire dialogue on these questions and issues and that the topics will contribute to future changes in the sector.

  • How do we create spaces that welcome every human and make them feel the space is their own?
  • How do we own when we stumble and fail in being inclusive? We should be checking our blind spots daily.
  • How as networks do we consider the power structures and ways that we have contributed to system barriers and colonization?
  • How as networks can we use our power to influence?

Storytelling and impact

  • Is our society facing a lack of sense of belonging and loneliness? Can impact and social innovation networks and shared spaces create this sense of belonging and connection, and reduce loneliness?
  • How does the language and terminology that our networks use (see photo below for a selection of common terminology) create barriers to access? Should we use the term “social impact” or does it limit the understanding of our impact? 

  • How can networks embed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into their collective work and lean on each other for examples of how to do that well?
  • How do we focus on the quality of engagement not the quantity of interactions with members of our network?
  • When we talk about failure we usually share a story with a happy ending. How are we authentic about the experiences and stories that were really hard, devastating and not a happy ending, and how do we deal with prolonged periods of failure? 
  • How do we collect stories that are useful and can provide insight while  not forcing a positive response about our network that is not genuine?
  • How can we influence and demonstrate an impact-first focus rather than a profit-first focus for social enterprises and business? 
Next steps 

We believe that mobilizing networks to work together on finding solutions to pressing issues in our communities is the best way to make lasting change. We hope that in sharing these learnings with our network we will inspire dialogue on these questions and issues and that the topics will contribute to future changes in the sector. Within our organization, our staff and board will have an opportunity to review the learning and share what it sparks for them. Together we will look to these ideas as a starting point for future decision making and explore where further discussion and exploration is needed.

Networks from around the world 

To learn more about some of the amazing networks and organizations making a positive impact in their communities around the world, explore the links below. 

10C Shared Space

10C Shared Space is the hub for community changemakers in Guelph. It is working and event meeting space, offering students, professionals and researchers working within Guelph a place to gather, exchange ideas and work for change. They are a not for profit social enterprise creating a platform for those working across sectors and engaging in collaborative work to improve our community. 

Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations

Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations is a member-based charitable organization that was established to strengthen Calgary’s vibrant nonprofit/voluntary sector, and address sector-related public policy issues in Alberta. They are proud to support their member organizations through sector research, advocacy, and informed convening and programming activities.

Centre for Social Innovation

The Centre for Social Innovation works across sectors to create a better world. They accelerate their success and amplify their impact through the power of coworking, community and collaboration. Together with their members, they are building a movement to put people and planet first.

CityStudio Vancouver

CityStudio Vancouver is an innovation hub that brings together city staff, students, faculty and community to co-create experimental projects that make Vancouver more sustainable, liveable and joyful. It accelerates sustainability in higher education and provide students with direct opportunities to work in and with the city on urban challenges.

Centre for Connected Communities

The Centre for Connected Communities (C3) was born out of the pioneering work of the East Scarborough Storefront. Since 2001, the Storefront has been developing and adapting a new approach to community, the Connected Community Approach. C3 was created to help as many people as possible to be active players in their own communities and to be effective agents for positive change.

HiVE Vancouver

Vancouver’s longest standing coworking space that operates as a nonprofit society. HiVE has wild dreams of building a network of knowledge, connection and innovative action in order to take on society’s most complex challenges. They are making this happen by using the powerful tool of shared space to cowork, host events, deliver programming, and build community.

Imagine Canada

Imagine Canada exists to work alongside other charitable sector organizations – and often in partnership with the private sector, governments and individuals in the community – to ensure that charities continue to play a pivotal role in building, enriching and defining our nation. They offer programs and provide resources to strengthen charities and their operations so they can, in turn, support the communities they serve.

Impact Hub

Impact Hub is a network of 100 Impact Hubs, 16,500 members in 55+ countries around the world that make up one of the world’s largest networks focused on building entrepreneurial communities for impact at scale, In locally rooted and globally connected collaborative co working spaces they inspire, connect and enable entrepreneurial action for a more just and sustainable world. Impact Hubs interviewed included Impact Hub Amsterdam, Impact Hub Florence, Impact Hub Ottawa, and Impact Hub Vienna. 

Ontario Nonprofit Network

The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) is  the independent network for the 58,000 nonprofits in Ontario. They are focused on policy, advocacy, and services to strengthen Ontario’s nonprofit sector as a key pillar of our society and economy. ONN works to create a public policy environment that strengthens nonprofits so they can do more. 


RADIUS is a social innovation hub based out of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in the heart of Vancouver at the Charles Chang Innovation Centre. RADIUS builds programs to collaboratively develop, test, and accelerate innovative responses to tough social problems. 

Social Enterprise Netherlands

As a national membership body, Social Enterprise Netherlands (NL) represents, connects and supports the growing community of social enterprises in The Netherlands. Social Enterprise NL aims to increase the visibility of social enterprises by providing support to its members, facilitating a favourable business environment and inspiring social and entrepreneurial action.

Social Innovation Canada

Social Innovation Canada aims to create a unique, inclusive and open movement to put people and planet first. It will provide the collaborative infrastructure to strengthen Canada’s social innovation ecosystem, empowering people, organizations and systems with the tools, knowledge, skills and connections that they need to solve real and complex problems.

Vantage Point

Vantage Point is a not-for-profit that provides high-value, immediately applicable training and services to not-for-profit leaders – board directors, executives, and other team members. Their work builds organizational capacity, for improved outcomes and impact.

Yunus Social Business, University of Florence

The Yunus School of Business aims to harness the power of business to end poverty through philanthropic venture funds and corporate social innovation, and by growing and supporting social businesses to help solve the world’s pressing problems.

A journey of finding my foundation of purpose

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

I am the one who creates brave new spaces for play, belonging and connection.

Do not proceed if you want your life to remain as it is. These are the words I heard a month before starting the Foundations of Purpose program in a preparation call. I remember in this moment feeling overwhelmed with both excitement and fear, but sure that I wanted to embrace the learnings that would come with attending the program.

The program was aligned with my reflective practice and research fellowship; it was about pausing, reflecting, shaking things up and capturing my personal journey and the organizational journey of Pillar. As a leadership development opportunity, the program fit with my goals for the fellowship of deep reflective practice, exploring this next stage in my purpose and career and tapping into my creative potential in my work and my contribution to the world. Preparing for such a journey is as important as the journey itself and the facilitators of the program provided pre-reading and a life alignment review to look in the mirror and reflect to the degree our inner and outer selves were aligned. I journaled about what life stage I was at, my intentions for taking the program and what I know about my unique path of service at this time.

This type of program provides the space, time and backdrop in nature for leaders to step outside of their roles and reflect in order to connect to themselves and to their organizations in new and different ways. For myself, these explorations helped me to reset, reaffirm my purpose and set intentions for how I would continue to be in relationship to myself as a “human being” not a “human doing.” Read more if you would like to know about the deep growth and learning I experienced during my time at Foundations of Purpose.

The power of human connection

Leading up to the program, I was on a call with my “learning sister” and she shared the wisdom that I should look at this program as an inflection point and not to look for the big aha or put bookends around it. This perspective was my first shift. When I arrived, this friend and I met up and you could feel the vibrations of sheer excitement and terror from both of us. Her aunt, who is an energy healer with those in an oncology program, came over and she sat gently in front of my “learning sister” and put her hands on her knees. My friend and her aunt talked through the feelings and discussed her background of blending energy healing and science. After this process, it was clear that my friend was feeling a greater sense of ease. I was mesmerized and any doubts I had in the power of a human to sense and heal someone who is open to it were gone in that moment. I too felt the shift and I was able to show up open to being excited and terrified and holding space for both feelings.

Sharing my search for my purpose

During this program, in one of our early sharing circles, we were asked to tell a story and share images of the life we are inhabiting now, a dream or the life we were looking to step into. I told the story of walking the beach with my toes in the sand while the sun was shining and searching for beach glass. I expressed the pure joy in finding a rare piece of beach glass. I told this story as I felt that searching for beach glass, the sounds of the waves, the sun on my face and my toes in the sand was a metaphor for the journey I have been on to find that rare and unexpected experience that aligns with my values and purpose. I wondered if my journey ahead in the program would provide that very experience.

Deep ways of knowing

“The longest journey is the journey inwards.” – Dag Hammarskjöld

There is so much to share about the journey of the inner and outer arcs and we explored both elements throughout the program. Our inner arc is finding the deeper aspect of our self and soul as well as our unique way of being alive. Our outer arc is our external way of living out this sense of purpose. It is not a linear path, it is winding and produces creative tension as we seek for our inner and outer arc to be in rhythm. We explored deep ways of knowing our inner selves and our sense of purpose as well as how to live with those in harmony with our hearts, our bodies, our imaginations and our minds. Some of it I am still processing, some of it I am keeping close to my heart and some of it I will share with you.

Asking good questions

Asking good questions has been something that I have embraced as being the key to personal and community work. When we were asked to take a few minutes to answer “what brings you most alive” and “what terrifies you or makes your tremble,” the words flowed freely in my journal. I felt like I must have known this inside of myself and just needed to get it out on paper and to express it. Below I’ll share my deeply personal answers to these questions, in hopes they may help other leaders to engage in a deeper exploration of self.

What brings you most alive?
  • Being with others, connecting and helping others achieve their potential
  • Being in nature – toes in sand, feet in water, in the mountains or on a hike in the trees
  • Being playful, silly, laughing, letting go and being free
  • Being just not doing, taking time for myself and tending to self
  • Being someone who sees how things intersect, collaborating and finding shared vision
  • Being someone who sees the fullness of every person and seeks inclusion and love for all
  • Being on a spiritual journey – this is new and necessary, seeing energy, nature and love as giving me a sense of aliveness
  • Being me, being with you and being with all
  • Being an ecosystem tender who weaves soul power
What terrifies or makes you tremble? 
  • Being in a room with those who hold power, typically men and feeling less than, dealing with imposter syndrome
  • Being at a moment of having to let go of those whose values are not aligned or who are taking more than they are giving
  • Being at a moment where my own mental health is slipping as I support others with who are struggling and not being able to re-centre
  • Being not good at art and expression, suspending judgement
  • Being liked as my driver, but knowing that what people think of me is none of my business
  • Being in a place where personal challenges make me feel like I am not best self at work
  • Being in nature and knowing we are nature and when we feel most alive in nature, you are part of it

Do not proceed if you want your life to remain as it is. These are the words I heard a month before starting the Foundations of Purpose program. I remember in this moment feeling overwhelmed with both excitement and fear, but sure that I wanted to embrace the learnings that would come with attending the program.

Inviting my protective voices 

The program being located at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity was a driver in my decision to make this program part of my fellowship. I knew the location was nestled in the beauty of the mountains, forests and trees, and I feel that nature listens when you speak, and if you listen, she will speak to you. I cherished the time we had to be out in the forest to do our reflection. One of the activities we were asked to complete was about exploring our protective voices that arise in us when we are in fight or flight and to hold them without judgment. While completing the exercise, I was down by the water on a cliff sitting on a rock and I naturally found myself choosing a tree, and yes talking to that tree, that represented my protective voices – loyal soldier, rescuer, inner critic and conformist. I thought about how these voices had served me in the past, how they affected me finding and living my purpose and what might happen if they actually came true and I invited them in their wholeness from a place of compassion, love and respect. I searched for clarity, love, respect and let go.

Wisdom from others who have come before you

One of many connecting points for me during the program was hearing insights from two incredibly inspiring women who had participated in the program and both experienced  significant reflective journeys. One of our speakers came to see their purpose as being an ecosystem tender. This revelation had resonance for me and provided a step forward in my own clarity that I had alignment on my purpose. It also made me see that what I was learning and discovering throughout the program was how to tend to myself to be whole and be in deeper relationship with myself. Another aha moment from one of our wise speakers reinforced the idea that what other people think of me is none of my business and my constant pull to do what others think I should be doing needed to be let go. The gifts and seeds of wisdom that the facilitators and other participants in the program shared through their words, thoughtful expressions, movement and performances will always be something that I cherish as essential to my discovery.

The journey to coming home

To prepare us for the journey of coming home and how we would choose to share our experience with intention, we created a reintegration plan. This was a brilliant way to think about our one day, one week, one month and long term plan to live out what we had discovered and took away in our mind, body and spirit. We had a coaching call with one of the facilitators, a video call with all the participants, an email thread of sharing and reflection and prompts along the way as gentle nudges to come back to our purpose. As a way to integrate the core ideas and values as a declaration of taking what I had learned and come to know, I created a personal manifesto upon my return. It captures what I want to hold onto and my foundation of purpose. I hope in sharing my manifesto other leaders will pause to reflect on the inner values that guide their lives and their work.

I am the one who…

Believes in the infinite and possibility,
Creates an impact simply by being more of who I am,
Falls into the deepest conversation I can have with myself,
Embraces that the longest journey is the journey inwards,
Is curious about the atmosphere of my dreams,
Explores what makes me feel most alive and what makes me tremble,
Accepts that what others think of me is none of my business,
Wonders where is the wild in me,
Holds myself with tenderness, with clarity and with love,
Steps into the light and opens up to the vulnerable,
Finds and crosses the threshold,
Finds my gift and gives it away,

I am the one who creates brave new spaces for play, belonging and connection.

Best practices in equity and inclusion for the nonprofit sector

In the early 2000s, nonprofit sector research showed that newcomers, visible minorities and under-represented groups were not receiving equitable representation in the sector. As a result of this research, Pillar began several initiatives to support equity and inclusion in our own organization and the nonprofit sector. Along with the development of our own internal best practices, we began work to help bring diversity to volunteerism at leadership levels and to provide education and consulting services to support nonprofits in bringing equity and inclusion practices to their workplaces. In our own organization, we began our equity and inclusion journey with a focus on racial equity using an anti-oppression framework. We have since expanded our work to ensure we are inclusive of Indigenous persons, persons living with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ2+ community, and women. Our efforts in this area are formalized in our current strategic plan with the objective to “Be Inclusive”, which outlines our commitment to provoking discussion and action around equity and emerging cross-sector community issues.

To move from where we are today towards developing truly equitable organizations, we need to build solid plans and be committed to their implementation. An effective plan to create equity balances several needs, it must include all of the steps necessary to achieve your vision and mandate enough focus to do your work well, while recognizing that building a diverse organization is a continually evolving process and you will need to adapt along the way. A good strategy should allow room for innovation and flexibility, and also have a focus on exploring power and privilege at an individual and organizational level. In this article, we will share the promising practices and tools we have used in our work with the community, with boards, and internally to help you as you embark or continue on your path to becoming an equitable and inclusive organization. We also explore some of our failures and learning moments to help you avoid or address these issues in your own work.

Nonprofit sector education and consulting practices

Establishing common language

One of the first steps in educating others about equity and inclusion best practices is to establish and share common language. Language is powerful and it’s important to ensure that it is being used appropriately and with common understanding. Pillar’s internal and external equity and inclusion training commonly begins with defining key terminology. Additionally, our Director, Diversity and Governance consulted on establishing London’s Community Diversity and Inclusion Strategy which includes a helpful glossary of terms.

While frank and open discussions that clearly name issues prove to be the best way to educate, there is often sensitivity and resistance around certain language which we have had to adapt to over the years. For example, to promote our early consulting and education on the topic, we started with establishing the moral imperative for diversity and over time started to build in the business case for diversity as that was more compelling and drew more organizations and board members in to participate. We have experienced the tension between wanting to use the language of anti-oppression that clearly names the issue and the need to use language like cultural competency to keep individuals open to the process and program. “Early on I wanted to encourage people to see embracing diversity as a good thing to do. I’m more radical now than I was then. The shift now is we’re being more authentic in calling it what it is,” shares Dharshi Lacey, Director Diversity & Governance.

Today, we have enough credibility in this field of work to use the appropriate language and now use equity and inclusion language more consistently than diversity. We have also broadened our scope since our early days when we were focused on increasing representation and are now intentional about both measuring and illuminating the need to have voices heard at leadership tables, and about naming racism, oppression, power and privilege. The language we use has evolved to include other forms of diversity and we balance the need to find common language and understanding while recognizing that language shifts over time.

Examining power and privilege

We have taken our equity and inclusion work deeper with sessions and discussions about power and privilege, and have also developed definitions of related terminology. We facilitate sessions that include reflections on our personal commitments to leveraging our power and privilege to challenge oppression and our professional commitments to leveraging our power and privilege within the systems that we have influence in. All people carry unconscious bias and acknowledging this along with how we fit into systems of power and privilege is critical to anti-oppression work.

In several of our workshops, we have used a power and privilege exercise adapted from Peggy McIntosh’s work on white privilege to demonstrate the power and privilege participants hold in their lives along the seven domains – sexuality, ability, gender/sex, race, religion, class and nationality. As they answer each question, they add a fruit loop (you can use pretzels too) on the string. At the end, each person has a necklace that visually reveals their power and privilege to themselves and other participants.

Power and privilege work can be challenging and uncomfortable for many. We once hosted power and privilege workshops with Louise Pitre Consulting and Mojdeh Cox for nonprofit leaders where we started with more than 45 participants and by the fourth session had 15 participants left. The work in these sessions was very difficult and required leaders to identify their conscious and unconscious bias and sit in the discomfort. While we cannot know unequivocally why the shift in attendance occurred, the difference from beginning to end was significant to reflect on.

Understanding the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act (AODA) 

Since 2011, Pillar has offered both online and in-person workshops about demystifying AODA standards and supporting organizations to be compliant. Participants in these workshops also explored how to create meaningful opportunities for individuals with disabilities and consider the importance of fostering professional relationships with individuals living with disabilities.

Encouraging inclusivity through storytelling

In 2018 and 2019, we offered a “Be Inclusive Series” of sessions exploring the diversity that makes up our community and the stories that surround us. Our goal was to build connections in the pursuit of diminishing feelings of “otherness”. We wanted to create a brave space that would allow us to become a more unified and help us work together to build a more inclusive community. Sessions included a focus on the trans, black, and Indigenous communities, as well as important issues in the London community including temporary overdose prevention sites, anti-islamophobia, addictions, and AODA standards.

These sessions provided many rich learning opportunities that we outlined in a report on the series. One important lesson learned was that the individuals with lived experiences who are sharing their stories of struggle must be consulted and highly involved in the implementation and execution of programming, including the set-up of the physical space. Providing an avenue for those with lived experience to share their stories and struggles is critical to establishing empathy and understanding and dismantling assumptions.

Board diversity practices

Board diversity toolkit

We created a diversity toolkit for boards of directors, executive directors and senior managers who are responsible for decision-making in an organization. This toolkit can also be beneficial for diversity managers, leaders and inclusivity champions. The goal of the resource was to provide organizations with the necessary information to set and reach their diversity goals. This board governance-focused resource mapped out how to move from acknowledging and respecting diversity to developing real action-based strategies. This process includes developing an organizational diversity goal, a board recruitment process, and tailoring your documents and statements (i.e., vision, mission, values, policies, constitutions and by-laws) to be more inclusive.

Creating workplaces and a community that embraces and celebrates differences, acknowledges bias, power and privilege is essential to creating an inclusive and equitable community. We need to go beyond the surface level of diversity.

Board diversity matrix

One of the promising practices we have created that has been shared far and wide is our board diversity matrix. The matrix should be used when recruiting board members to assess diversity, skills and backgrounds.The intent of the grid is to strive to ensure that the makeup of the board reflects the spectrum of diversity identified in the matrix. Annually, the matrix should be vetted against the diversity of the board and gaps should be identified. Identified gaps should be prioritized, ranked and weighted and become the basis of candidate ranking. 

Organizational diversity practices 

Diversity training and action plan

Bi-annually, the Pillar board and staff attend diversity and equity training to review current demographic data, explore equity and inclusion in the context of our organization and the sectors we serve, and create board and staff action plans. Pillar’s board and staff are consistently trying to find new ways of becoming more accessible. We all understand that inclusivity within the workplace is a process that requires an organization to make continual changes to ensure it is meeting the needs of the population it serves. With changes in board and staff, careful attention and oversight to the continuity of this process is critical.

Recruitment of staff and volunteers

Pillar has been intentional about reaching out to diverse communities through networks and media focused on inclusive communities. In all interviews we ask, “What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean to you?” to better understand the candidate’s depth of understanding and commitment. Our own staff team has become more diverse over time and their contributions on interview panels has been essential. For our board, committees and volunteers we recruit with diversity in mind. We have open conversations about whether we are bringing any conscious and unconscious bias to our hiring and recruitment process.

Our board nomination process includes an open call and we shared it widely. We have had some missteps with one year identifying we only needed one candidate and did not post it and circumstances shifted and we required additional board members. With having access to our board diversity program, we were able to recruit board members who represented to the diversity and skills we had identified. However, we will post the call for nominations going forward to ensure we are accessible and inclusive in our process.

Inclusion champion

When we established the strategic priority “Be Inclusive,” we wanted to ensure that our diversity and equity work was integrated across the whole organization with the philosophy that it’s everyone’s responsibility, and did not just sit with our Director of Diversity and Governance. We established a Diversity and Inclusion Champion role for a staff member for a one year commitment to embed an inclusion lens when developing projects, planning events, hiring, and assessing our work. 

Equity and inclusion baseline survey

With our new strategic theme “Be Inclusive,” we recognized the need to establish a baseline of understanding of equity and inclusion among our staff and board. We developed and equity and inclusion baseline survey to identify if there is a measurable change and impact over time from our efforts.

Equity and inclusion conversations

Our staff have been meeting informally on a monthly basis over lunch to discuss various topics related to equity and inclusion. Employees have the opportunity to bring up issues related to their work or topics of interest that they have encountered. Topics have included equal access versus accommodation, best practices for including land acknowledgements at events, and discussion surrounding accessibility in our space among others. 

Indigeous inclusion practices

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reports were released in 2015, we took the time as an organization to read, reflect and better understand how we could learn our country’s history and advance truth and reconciliation both as an organization and network. Just a few of the practices we have adopted to be more inclusive of the Indigenous community have included: incorporating a land welcome and acknowledgement at our events, participating in various learning opportunities such as the Indigneous Cultural Safety program from Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre, instating a smudging policy at Innovation Works, and evaluating our board practices to be more inclusive. We continually look for ways to honor, celebrate and support the Indigenous members of our community with their input and guidance. Equity and inclusion work is not a checklist and this short summary is not representative of the scope of our work in this area. While we have developed many practices we are proud of, we have made mistakes along the way and we do not claim to be experts. We are always looking for ways to learn and do more and continually engage Indigenous people in our community to help develop and evolve our policies and programs. To read more about our equity and inclusion work with Indigenous peoples read more here

Creating workplaces and a community that embraces and celebrates differences, acknowledges bias, power and privilege is essential to creating an inclusive and equitable community. We need to go beyond the surface level of diversity. We are all at different places and this is life work not a check box, it is continuous and ever evolving.

Looking for more support to start an inclusive dialogue at your organization?

Pillar’s Impact Consulting works with charities, nonprofits, for-profits and cooperatives to map out customized support to unpack equity & inclusion practices within your organization. We will work with your team to encourage brave and uncomfortable conversations, and embed anti-oppression values in your work. Learn about our equity and inclusion consulting services.

The art of communications and storytelling with a small team

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

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

Leaning on the experts

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

Maintaining brand consistency

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

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

Hiring communications staff 

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

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

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

Forming a cross-cluster communications committee  

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

Building a stellar communications plan

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

Experimenting with new approaches 

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

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