How Pillar convenes cross-sector collaboration

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

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

Leadership London Conference

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

Pillar Design Collective

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

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

Collaborating for Community Impact Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Action Forum 

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

The purpose of the forum was to encourage dialogue and learning about the changing face of communities; board diversity; the benefits of cultural competency models; making a plan for organizational change; engagement strategies for ethno-cultural communities; implementing diversity in a unionized environment; building equitable leadership and partnerships; and recruitment and retention strategies. Through this form and along with our partners, we were able to examine barriers and gaps in engaging diverse communities and increase cultural competency amongst participants showing our commitment to inclusiveness. 

Keys to effective cross-sector collaboration 

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

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

Optimizing nonprofit-business partnerships

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

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

Pillar Community Innovation Awards

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

Relationship with the London Chamber of Commerce

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

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

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

Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities

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

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

Social Enterprise Southwest

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

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

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

Shift to the Middle 

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

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

Keys to effective collaboration with business

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

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

Collaborating with government for community impact

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

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

Partnerships with Municipal Government 

City of London Community Economic Road Map 

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

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

City of London Community Diversity and Inclusion Strategy

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

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

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

London for All: A roadmap to end poverty

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

Partnerships with Provincial Government

Community Hubs Ontario

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

Keys to effective collaboration with government  

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

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

How to start a support network for social enterprise

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

Creating a support system in midsize cities

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

Establishing funding and investment opportunities

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

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

Developing a coaching and consulting program

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

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

Forming community partnerships to expand support offerings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting social enterprises with market opportunities 

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

Evolving to meet the needs of social enterprise 

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

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

Moving towards network engagement in policy development

When Pillar began, we were modelled after the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations and, like them, a key objective in our organizational strategy was public policy. We had many discussions about being a “voice for the nonprofit sector” and not the “voice of the nonprofit sector.” The subtlety of “for” not “of” was about using a network approach in our public policy efforts. Today, we are mindful of balancing the need to find a collective voice for the sector for issues that impact us a whole and providing capacity building for our members so they have the tools and knowledge to advocate on the issues relevant to their missions. 

In the past, our strategy for engaging the network in public policy has been to lean on existing partners. Moving forward, we are committed to engaging our members and network more intentionally in developing our own policy priorities and strategy. Here are the ways we have engaged our network around public policy and an overview of our plans for the future.

Communicating our public policy strategy

Over the years, we have hosted several community conversations bringing together our non-profit and charity members to discuss how they are responding to the current political and economic climates. These conversations help us to both empower our members in their our policy efforts and determine how we can best represent the sector in our own policy strategy and our programming.

In 2008, we hosted a conversation centered on creating solutions for how the sector would handle the world-wide economic downturn. In turbulent economic times, it is important to stay focused on our missions and strategic directions as services and needs in the nonprofit and charitable sector increase as we see job loss, more people hungry, mental health problems on the rise and other challenges. Together we were able to generate actions and ideas to help navigate the challenging economic situation.  

Then again in 2009, we partnered with the London Community Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation and United Way London & Middlesex to host “Community Conversation Continued”. At the event, we summarized research, surveys and other community conversation reports to provide background and context about the current situation and the impact on the sector. We talked about the possible responses from organizations, networks, funders and government. 

Both the 2008 and 2009 community conversations led to us hosting the Innovation & Resilience Forum and also inspired our focus on social enterprise and cross sector collaboration; in particular connecting nonprofits with business and government. 

Fast forward to 2019, we hosted a policy conversation about navigating the new economic realities given the provincial budget in partnership with London Community Foundation, Mischievous Cat Productions Inc., and United Way Elgin and Middlesex. From the discussions, themes including information and resources sharing, financial resilience and diversifying funding, and future planning emerged. Along with each theme, we provided our response including resources and training opportunities.

We are mindful of balancing the need to find a collective voice for the sector for issues that impact us a whole and providing capacity building for our members so they have the tools and knowledge to advocate on the issues relevant to their missions.

Two further conversations have been planned including “Beyond the Talk” and “Getting to Action” that will focus on giving the network tools and information to build their own policy strategy and advocacy. We will also host “Future Forward Thinking” about how we prepare our organizations to be resilient in the face of shifts in government and shifts in our local and global contexts. 

Digital community animation 

Finding the right way to communicate our policy efforts with our network and keep the conversation going has been a challenge. We communicate to our members and network using policy alerts that are distributed by email and when there is relevant information to share and we have been experimenting with blogs. We are using the hashtags #policytalk and #nonprofitsadvocate in our social media to identify any posts that are related to public policy and advocacy. We also heard from our network the need to share available tools, information, and knowledge. Pillar’s digital online community has a #policytalk section for members to ask questions and exchange expertise and resources with others. 

Member exclusive content

One of the many benefits of being a Pillar member is that we send out member-only emails, which include policy updates, funding opportunities and resources. Our policy alerts and updates section are timely and aggregate the information and updates from our network partners including Ontario Nonprofit Network and Imagine Canada. 

Learning and development 

Our network also shared that boards require training and support about their role in public policy and government relations. We will be offering a session as part of our “All About Boards” program about how a nonprofit can build relationships at municipal, provincial and federal levels of government, and the role of governance volunteers in developing organizational strategy related to advocacy and public policy.

Policy and government relations committee 

One of the concrete ways we are looking to engage our network more in building our policy priorities and strategies is by expanding the mandate of our existing Policy and Government Relations Committee beyond our internal governance policy to include government relations. We are engaging our membership with experience in this area to be part of this committee to have the voices of our members and network to influence our priorities, approach and strategy.

A voice for nonprofits and social enterprise in public policy and government relations

Group of people

As our communities are changing and becoming more diverse, our leadership, strategy and approaches in nonprofits, charities and social enterprises are not keeping pace with this change. If we are going to address the persistent challenges facing our communities and advance the quality of life for all, our organizations and solutions need to represent the communities they are a part of. To achieve lasting change, we must consider the systems that are impacting equity and inclusion. Collaborating with government on these issues is an essential part of the equation. 

Pillar was created in 2001 to be a “voice for the nonprofit sector” and therefore at our core is a commitment to taking a role around public policy and government relations. This work has been most often done in partnership with other organizations at the municipal, provincial and federal government levels. As part of the Maytree Policy School, our Executive Director developed a policy strategy. Pillar’s current public policy priorities are sector-focused, rather than issues-focused, but we are mindful that other sector-focused priorities may emerge going forward. 

We will share some of the issues and approaches we have taken with each level of government. With the municipal government, Pillar often leads and mobilizes partnerships, at the provincial level we work closely with the Ontario Nonprofit Network and at the federal level we work closely with Imagine Canada.

A collaborative approach to municipal public policy

Our work at the municipal level has included election-related activities such as candidate surveys – to poll their commitment and understanding about the nonprofit sector, social enterprise and equity and inclusion – as well as organizing all candidate meetings. Our work has also revolved around raising awareness and understanding of the role of nonprofits and social enterprise and their economic impact within our community to support the need to invest in our sector’s work. For example, London Community Foundation, United Way London-Middlesex and Pillar advocated for maintaining the affordable housing and community capital funds. While we were successful in our efforts to ensure affordable housing monies were maintained, the community capital fund was cut. When a new City Council was inaugurated, we worked to have the new Innovation and Capital Fund established with increased commitment levels over a three-year period. 

Some of our most recent involvement at a municipal level includes our Director of Diversity and Governance participating in the creation of the City’s Community Diversity & Inclusion Strategy, and our Executive Director participating in the creation and implementation of the Community Economic Roadmap. Our Executive Director and Director of Innovation Works have also been meeting with the new City Council recently to ask key questions about their vision. Each meeting is followed up with the “Pillar at a Glance” briefing document. 

Lastly, our Executive Director organized ongoing quarterly meetings with the new Mayor along with the CEOs of United Way Elgin Middlesex and London Community Foundation. These meetings focus on the nonprofit sector, social enterprise and key issues impacting our community.

Engaging with Ontario Nonprofit Network for provincial public policy

Pillar’s Executive Director was part of the development of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), an organization with a mission to engage, advocate, and lead with, and for, nonprofits that work for the public benefit in Ontario. Pillar partners with ONN as its key partner in nonprofit provincial advocacy. In addition to our significant contributions to ONN, Pillar participates in pre-budget consultations and submissions with the Ontario government. We meet with our local MPPs three to four times per year to share our work and to understand their priorities and opportunities for partnership. Our staff team also contributed to the development of the Social Enterprise and Social Finance Strategy. Additionally, our Director of Social Innovation contributes to the Ontario Social Economy Roundtable (OSER), and our Executive Director served on the Premier’s Community Hubs Advisory Committee.

To achieve lasting change, we must consider the systems that are impacting equity and inclusion. Collaborating with government on these issues is an essential part of the equation.

Leaning on Imagine Canada and our local members of Parliament 

Our capacity as an organization for public policy and government relations has rested mostly with our Executive Director and, more recently, the VERGE Capital team related to social finance. Imagine Canada has been our key partner in federal policy development and our ED has participated in Hill Days to bring forward issues and policy specific to charities, social innovation and social finance.

Pillar and VERGE Capital hold a strong relationship with our local MP Peter Fragiskatos, who is our representative from a geographic standpoint, and with MP Kate Young who also engages with and supports our works. Our consultations in partnership with the MPs are ongoing and our meetings are frequent. London North MP Peter Fragiskatos highlighted our work at Pillar and VERGE Capital while posing a question to PM Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons about how local organizations like Pillar will be supported with the new fund and budget.

Top 10 tips for working with all levels of government
  1. Think cross-partisan, rather than nonpartisan – Many nonprofits and charities often reference their nonpartisan stance. We have policies that state this imperative, and in the case of charities we are bound by Canadian Revenue Agency rules to be nonpartisan. The term cross-partisanship  better reflects the approach we take at Pillar. Similarly to the problem with the word “nonprofit” sharing more about what we are not than about what we are, “nonpartisan” also comes from a deficit mindset. Working across all parties and connecting with them early in our advocacy efforts, reflects an approach rooted in engagement, partnership and action. If your policy issue can be put on hold for four years because you lack alignment with the current government you may need to ask yourself how important the issue is.
  2. Start with questions and be solutions focused – When we ask questions before producing answers it leads to better solutions. Collecting and analyzing data, formulating hypotheses and assessing a range of policy options and solutions leads to good policy. When we focus only on the problems we can miss important information, perspectives and solutions. Pausing to consider whether we are creating any unintended consequences and ripple effects with our policy proposals and solutions is critical to successful and sustainable systems change.
  3. Harness the power of networks – Networks have the power to test and build consensus and to broker solutions. We can leverage a wide range of networks to serve as knowledge mobilizers around information and resources in order to drive innovation and inform policy development. We can harness the political capital of networks to better serve our communities.
  4. Establish cross-sector partnerships – Cross-sector partnerships enable all sectors to contribute to, identify and implement cross-sector solutions. Establishing trust and practicing radical empathy are key factors in creating enduring and effective collaborations, so be ruthless when making decisions about which partners fit your public policy strategy; your success depends on how effectively you work together.
  5. Embrace radical optimism – When we bring forward policy we should offer proof of possibility and share an aspirational endgame, including more allies, more resources, more support. As rightly stated by Guillermo del Toro, Oscar-winning filmmaker, director and producer, “Optimism is not uncool, it is rebellious, daring, and vital.”
  6. Value the many, and not the one – To build better movements around policy we should put value in the many, and not the one, and cultivate leadership at all levels. This includes distributing policy development across a team within our organization. Additionally, having varied partners and allies across sectors in our policy efforts will strengthen collective leadership and influence.
  7. Engage those with lived experience – When developing policy that addresses the needs of specific populations, it’s important to engage those with lived experience early and often. Having a participatory process is crucial to developing policies that are based on true needs rather than assumptions. When we engage individuals with lived experience as authors of systems innovation and policy change our proposed solutions resonate with government.
  8. Understand the value of social research and development – Nonprofits often lack the capacity, resources and data they need to rigorously measure the impact of their work. Further, it can be challenging to access the right evidence and research to inform decisions that lead to continuous improvement and strong policy strategy. Just like the private sector, investment in research and development is critical for achieving our objectives; for nonprofits it is required for evidence informed policy. Research results are a far greater tool for persuading government than relying on anecdotal observations. Evidence has become a valuable currency.
  9. Communicate your story – To ensure that your message resonates with your audience, adopt the language used by the government you are bringing your policy strategy forward to. Sharing a compelling story that is personal and evokes empathy and understanding will better illuminate the policy issue. When we share values, emotion and action, in our discussions and in our written pieces, it connects those we hope to influence to a storyline of the human experience. Practicing radical empathy and putting yourself in the shoes of the “other” to understand their thinking and perspective can change minds and hearts and generate responses that address the issues at hand.
  10. Appreciate relentless incrementalism – Public policy takes time and requires patience and tenacity. To practice ‘everyday advocacy’ requires an acceptance of relentless incrementalism. I thought I had previously understood this lengthy timeline, yet after hearing advocacy stories about campaigns that took 5-10 years of sustained effort (or longer!) I was reminded of the stick-to-itiveness that’s foundational to policy change.

Reimagining board governance at Pillar

Every nonprofit and charity must have a board of directors to guide the organization, ensure it has adequate financial resources to be sustainable and advance its mission. Since its inception, Pillar has engaged in board research and played a capacity building role to support the development of high performing and diverse boards. Read about how we have supported our members through our research, learning and development programs, and consulting, along with how our own board journey has evolved and the tools we use to help guide us. For more information on how we strive to embed diversity into our own board practices and share our knowledge with our network, read Bringing diversity to volunteerism at leadership levels

How research has shaped our network approach to board governance

The research we have conducted has consistently shown that our boards lack diversity and are not representative of the London community. In 2004, the London Voluntary Sector Employment Training and Needs survey showed that fewer than 10 percent of organizations recruited at least one newcomer to their board of directors. This sparked additional research to dig deeper and we conducted a study called “A New Canadian’s First Decade of Volunteering” to explore how nonprofits have incorporated new Canadians into their volunteer base and what new Canadians need from organizations to support them in volunteering. The results of this study showed cultural differences, language levels and discrimination make this solution complex. This study further confirmed there was a lack of diversity on boards and respondents indicated that adding diversity training and mentoring supports helps both the organization and the new volunteer.

In 2016, as part of the DiverseCity onBoard project, we participated in further research in partnership with Western University and MITACS looking at “Visible Minorities and Women in Senior Leadership Positions: London, Hamilton, Ottawa.” In London, only 7.9 percent of senior leaders in the nonprofit and municipal public sectors were identified as visible minorities compared to 13.1 percent of the general London population. In London, only 3.1 percent of senior leaders in the nonprofit and municipal public sectors were visible minority women compared to 6.5 percent of the London population. These results demonstrated there is still much work to be done to ensure that the voices of visible minorities and in particularly visible minority women, are represented in senior leadership positions in the nonprofit and public sectors. These findings have helped to shape our areas of focus in both our learning and development and our consulting programs.

Building capacity through learning and development for boards 

Education has been a core offering since the inception of Pillar and board governance training has been a central topic. Our board education offerings have included sessions specific to board diversity and we have integrated the concepts of building board diversity into organizations in all board programming. In 2012, we shifted from single course offerings to a program based approach called All About Boards that is offered annually in the fall and includes topics such as board structure, roles and responsibilities, governance policies, financial role, recruitment and retention, board diversity, best practice and trends. Through this training, the participants also develop a professional network of peers. Each year we have included a session of best practices and trends and these have included board diversity, governing through changing times, the role of the board in government relations, generational changes, mergers and partnerships, as well as social enterprise and social finance. We have suggested that board members go back to their board meetings and share their learnings with their board.

To help support an organization’s full board to dig deeper we have offered board governance training through the Willy Van Klooster Nonprofit Governance Scholarship. The scholarship was established in 2008 to honour the founding and long-serving Chair of Pillar Nonprofit Network and his exemplary leadership in board governance. It was awarded annually to build excellence in board governance of a small- to medium-sized member organization of Pillar. The scholarship was aimed at organizations who wished to enhance the governance capacity of their board and ensure a productive relationship between their board and executive director. One organization was selected annually and provided support by a local consultant or coach depending on their governance needs. In 2019, the program evolved to become Board & Executive Director Partnership Coaching created to help executive directors and board chairs design their working alliance to create a high trust relationship. When an ED-board Chair partnership flourishes, it creates conditions for a high-performance board governance culture. We have had 13 board chair and ED pairs participate in this program with outstanding feedback and the program will continue going forward.

Pillar has had a strong history of a board who is committed to the needs of the community and to being adaptable and innovative. Board diversity training and making sure our board practices have an equity and inclusion lens have been cornerstone practices throughout our history. As board members change, our commitment to having an equity and inclusion lens continues.

The role of consulting in meeting the needs of boards

As our DiverseCity onBoard three year Ontario Trillium Foundation funded project was coming to an end, our Director Diversity & Governance started to take on a significant role as a consultant offering local organizations support related to board governance and board diversity. We are fortunate that the volume of contracts has now exceeded the time of one person focused in these areas. We have had great success in our consulting program in the areas of board policy development and review, board diversity training and board planning. 

Our story of board governance

Pillar has had a strong history of a board who is committed to the needs of the community and to being adaptable and innovative. Our board has strong governance policies and processes and yet can also be nimble and responsive to opportunities that arise. Board diversity training and making sure our board practices have an equity and inclusion lens have been cornerstone practices throughout our history. As board members change, our commitment to having an equity and inclusion lens continues. Our current strategic plan has us looking at the next stage of growth and being focused, for this reason the role of the board is ensuring we go deep with our impact and measure our impact. This change in focus for those who came on board as we were launching Innovation Works and VERGE Capital has impacted our board engagement. We are looking for opportunities for engagement and this will be the new board chair’s key priority during this term. A first step is to meet with each board member to better understand their goals, interests and opportunities to maximize their skills and energy.

The future of board governance

Pillar has been engaged in the Reimagining Governance project and we have been asking the question will the way boards work today serve us tomorrow? The project is a collaboration designed to advance new approaches to the governance of nonprofit organizations. The aim is to help nonprofit leaders reimagine a more effective way to fulfill organizational governance, including its structures, processes and practices. In partnership with London Youth Advisory Council and Ignite NPS, the Next Generation Governance: Emerging leaders’ perspectives on governance in the nonprofit sector report explored trends, views about governance and how the next generation of governance could meet their needs and expectations. 

Top 10 promising practices at Pillar

Here are some of the promising practices that the Pillar board has adopted over the years to enhance, engage and evaluate their board governance. Feel free to adapt our documents for your own board management purposes. 

  1. Board Diversity matrix – Use the matrix to assess areas including sector representations, perspectives, field of experience and areas of diversity. An analysis of what is needed to best reflect the community and strategy of the organization will help to ensure diverse perspectives at the board table.
  2. Board nomination process – We have learned that a public process is the most inclusive and promoting it through networks yields a strong and diverse pool of candidates.
  3. Board orientation – New board members attend a comprehensive board orientation to introduce them to our history, strategic plan, role of the board, policies, financials, board committees, programs and services, relationship between the board and the Executive Director, role of the board in fundraising, and the role of board in government relations. Orientation also includes and a further discussion from the interview about what they are hoping to get out of the volunteer experience. 
  4. Board mentors – Each new board member is paired with an existing board member with at least one year experience. For six months, they connect before and after each board meeting to onboard them and offer guidance and support.
  5. Board governance handbook – The policy committee of the board at Pillar does an annual review of the board governance manual to make revisions and reflect any changes required to guide and protect the organization. The manual includes executive limitations to guide the Executive Director. 
  6. Board action plan – Each year of our strategic plan we have a facilitated session to create a board action plan that will help us achieve our goals in our strategic plan. We start by revisiting the strategic plan and assess the impact to date and its relevance. This ensures that the strategic plan is adaptive and serving our members.
  7. Board evaluation – The board of directors annually completes a board evaluation about how well the board has done its job, how well the board has conducted itself, the board’s relationship to the Executive Director, feedback for the Board Chair and suggestions for improvement. A board member volunteers to compile the results and brings a brief forward with recommendations and a discussion at a subsequent board meeting.
  8. Board socials – During the holidays and summer we host board socials to connect the board on a more personal level and to create a sense of team building and connection.
  9. Board Chair and Executive Director partnership coaching – With each transition to a new board chair, the incoming chair and Executive Director participate in coaching to explore their strengths, shared vision, how they will engage the board, how to communicate and how to resolve conflict.
  10. Effective board meetings – We establish a sense of consistency and order by ensuring our Board Chair starts meetings on time, ends meetings on time and holding our meetings on the same recurring dates that do not change. Further, our Board Chair facilitates a discussion that trusts in the wisdom of the group and works to hear from all board members.

Building a team culture that reflects your values

At Pillar, we are connected through strong values and a shared vision of creating a vibrant community, and we know that achieving that vision starts with us. We collectively put people first and we believe deeply that together we are better. Employees here have a genuine respect for each other and acknowledge each other’s differences without passing judgement. Our team has an energy of passion, commitment and belief that change happens when you are willing to accept people from where they are at.

We believe the way that we work is just as important as the work that we do. We also hold space for generosity and forgiveness knowing that we are not perfect and our culture will always be in flux. While there is always more to learn and we continually adapt our practices as our team shifts and grows, the core processes and values outlined below help us maintain a culture we’re proud of – a culture that landed us on the list of London Inc. Magazine’s best places to work in 2019.

Breaking down silos with a cross-cluster communications team and plan

While our new organizational structure created certain efficiencies, it also created silos and we had to be intentional about how we would share our work both internally and externally. We created a cross-cluster communications committee to develop and implement an integrated, cohesive communications plan for Pillar aligned with our current organizational strategic priorities. Our communications plan was informed by a human-centered leadership approach. 

Taking time together to build connection

We make time to be together outside of work for fun and to build connections. Over the years, some of our more memorable team outings have included a caravan tour to thank our sponsors by singing a jingle, making fortune cookies that had the message “Be The Change – Volunteer” and handing them out in a local park, attending the Grand Theatre to see Prom Queen, and participating in random acts of kindness. We do simple team outings to local restaurants too. The important point is time to connect outside of work to get to know each other on a personal level as this builds understanding and human connection. We have volunteered  at the Special Olympics, ONERUN, United Way Stair Climb and for Reforest London, and together we also collected over 1000 pairs of “Underwear for Kindness”. Taking the time to volunteer together is good for the collective heart of the organization and is just one way we lead by example in our community. 

Living out our team alliance

We have created and live out our Team Alliance – a set of agreements that we have built together. It includes important aspects like celebrating successes, being present to each other, honouring self-care and supporting flexible working hours. We value failure, because we know that it creates a culture of learning and innovation. We also prioritize inclusion and mutual exchanges and invite community to those conversations. We recognized we have a bias for positivity so we have committed to ensuring conversations are honest and non-judgemental, checking out assumptions, saying what we need to say, actively listening, and following up so nothing is left hanging. We have fun together because we recognize that knowing each other as our full selves is just as important as knowing what our roles are in the organization. Our leadership team models these values and encourages feedback from the team if they are not. We plan to revisit our team alliance regularly as our team grows and changes.

 Adapting our organizational structure 

In 2016, with growth to our team we had a need to reevaluate our organizational structure. Previously, more than 15 staff reported to our executive director and this model was not sustainable. We opted to create clusters with a director who would support the team members. The clusters offered focus and better connected team members working together on common programs and services. While we have tried not to create a hierarchical organization, the reality is that there is power and privilege that comes with being in a leadership role and we are exploring this further. We think it is important to acknowledge that hierarchy exists within teams and to talk openly about who has access to power. 

It’s never like ‘work comes first.’ It’s the understanding that you bring your holistic self to work.

As change happens within an organizational structure, employees can feel a sense of ambiguity and unease. When one of our team clusters was facing these feelings, they went through a journey of reflection about their role at Pillar. They used a poem to frame their experience and work, and shared the poem and new name of their cluster – the Network and Education Cluster – at a team meeting. This creative expression was just one example of the way we encourage open dialogue at Pillar. The practice empowered the team to establish a new identity while acknowledging all of the pieces and individual experiences that make them who they are. 

Building and relying on our decision making tool

Our team is always thinking in terms of future possibilities and look for ways to maximize opportunities. While this makes for a lot of great ideas and projects, sometimes there is a need to go deep and not wide. One of the priorities for our current strategic plan is to “Be Focused”, which has us focusing on maturing our core services and existing programs among other objectives. To help us stay on track, we co-created a decision making tool as a staff team that walks us through strategic alignment, organizational fit, resources and time commitment to get to a decision.

Walking together for empathy and discovery

After participating in the Shifting from Ego to Eco conference in 2016 that was based on the ULab method, we were introduced to the idea of empathy walks. Our team suggested that we implement this simple but powerful tool for deep listening to build trust and empathy. We also use discovery walks with our team where each member takes the time to get to know each other, and when new team members start we have them meet with each team member. Walking meetings have also become a common practice as well as we know that walking alongside someone mitigates hierarchy, puts people at ease and of course you get to be outdoors getting fresh air. Here are the instructions on how to do an empathy walk.

Leading the way through ambiguity 

Teams are made up of people who thrive with clarity and those who thrive with ambiguity, finding the balance requires time, open conversation and recalibrating. As we prepared for our Executive Director to embark on a Reflective Practice & Research Fellowship, we tried to reduce ambiguity through extensive preparation for the transition. Half way through the fellowship, a survey was sent out to the staff and board to check in and the results showed that our team culture was struggling and the pressures that our building was putting on our team were significant. We had team coach come in and facilitate an open dialogue about what was working and what was not working. We are now recalibrating and making adjustments and this open conversation has helped the team to feel supported through this transitional time.

Pillar Nonprofit Network Team Alliance

Building, recognizing and enabling leadership development

Leadership development has been a core element of our programming since Pillar’s beginnings. In our early days, we focused solely on developing nonprofit leaders. Over time, we saw the possibility of recognizing and influencing leaders from various sectors with the overarching goal being to enable them all to hold a community impact lens. Our support and recognition of leadership has spanned across generations and sectors and continues to evolve as societal trends and communities shift. 

As a network, we look to build, recognize and enable our community to gain leadership opportunities. Through our learning and development program, the Pillar Community Innovation Awards, and our volunteer supports, we have provided knowledge, awareness and connections to leaders across our community. Across sectors, we believe that it is core for all organizations to support their employees in developing these important skills. Here is an overview of the ways we support leadership development and our top tips on how to develop leadership capacity in your employees or network. 

Building leadership potential through learning and development 

Building success and inspiring leadership in individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact has been foundational to our learning and development program. Our efforts in this area began in 2004 when we hosted the London Leadership Conference to address how leaders from each of the three pillars could work together to solve the challenges facing the London community and how to bring a systems lens to our solutions. One of the themes from the conference was the fact that we all want to make a difference but cannot do so in our own silos. Many of the speakers stressed the importance of working together as a collective to make a difference and using our power to rally support from the public and private sectors.

Over the years, we have offered programming for Executive Directors including workshops and peer learning circles. We have provided boards with diversity and governance training, and have hosted forums for foundations to build their capacity and knowledge of emerging trends. We started a leadership development series to bring together peers including nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs and those wanting to maximize their leadership potential to create positive change in their communities. To keep the program innovative and fresh, the themes have evolved from Leading for Community Change, Leadership Beyond the Box, and Leading from the Inside Out

Shining a light on those making positive community impact

An important part of encouraging leadership development in our community is recognizing those people and organizations whose efforts make a difference to create a stronger, more vibrant community. We developed the London Community Innovation Awards in 2004 to celebrate best practices within nonprofit and charitable organizations across London, the people at the heart of these organizations, and the individuals and corporations who provide ongoing support. 

In 2007, we redesigned the program in consultation with a group of diverse community members and it was renamed the Pillar Community Innovation Awards. The four award categories included: Community Innovation, Community Leadership, Community Impact and Community Collaboration. The potential nominees could include individuals, nonprofit organizations, corporations and government who provide ongoing support to the nonprofit sector demonstrating our commitment to recognizing the three pillars for their contributions to the community. There is an independent selections committee of community members who make the tough decision of who the finalists and award recipients are annually.

As a network, we look to build, recognize and enable our community to gain leadership opportunities. Across sectors, we believe that it is core for all organizations to support their employees in developing these important skills.

As part of our diversity and inclusion work, in 2008, we added to the criteria for each of the awards on how the nominee encouraged diversity and inclusiveness in the community. Then in 2017, we introduced the Community Choice Award to engage the community recognizing an individual who is not already selected as an award recipient in another category. Since launching the Pillar Community Innovation Awards, it has evolved into one of the biggest celebrations of positive community impact in our city drawing more than 1000 people last year alone. 

While there is a specific community leadership award category, each of the awards recognizes community leadership excellence. Inspiring our community through the storytelling leading up to the event, the night of and following the event is intended to inspire our community to see how they too can be community changemakers. Each of us has a role to play to build a community for all to live, work and play. See a list of our past Pillar Community Innovation Award recipients visit here.

Volunteering to gain new leadership skills

Pillar’s first major program and project was building an online volunteer portal to connect the community to volunteer opportunities. Our website still features this functionality and accounts for a large percentage of our online traffic. Over the years, Pillar staff have also spoken at schools, community groups, and businesses about the value of volunteering. With our commitment to supporting newcomers and immigrants in volunteering we have had 10 different funded projects related to board diversity and volunteering at leadership tables including a Board Diversity Project, onBoard Canada and The Art of Volunteering for New Canadians. 

We continue to work with the Indigenous community around how to engage them in the nonprofit sector and at leadership tables. Supporting youth volunteerism has also been a core program including the ChangeTheWorld Youth Volunteer program that ran for more than 10 years and the Canada Life Young Leaders program. Our work related to volunteerism has been precarious as it has been dependent on grants and therefore takes on different focuses and demographics. We see volunteering as a key way to build leadership skills, career experience and community impact and remain committed to connecting our community to these opportunities.

Ideas for developing leadership capacity in community
  1. Bring diverse people together – There is great value in bringing together different generations, backgrounds and sectors to learn from one another. There is much to gain from the perspective of those with different lived experiences than our own. 
  2. Build basics and beyond – It’s important to provide foundational leadership programming, but to also to weave in fresh and innovative concepts that reflect trends and shifts in society. Look to reinvigorate programs with input from your network and community. 
  3. Be a catalyst for deep learning – Go beyond hosting one off sessions and provide an ongoing learning and development series that provides opportunities to dive deeper into content and learn through peer discussion and reflection.
  4. Highlight outstanding leaders – Share, recognize and celebrate leadership in your community or organization to build awareness and inspire others.
  5. Embrace technology to connect – Using technology as a way to connect community to leadership and volunteer opportunities can be a game changer, making the process more efficient and less reliant on human resources.
  6. Receive through giving back – Whether you’re a seasoned professional, a newcomer or a young person, there are many leadership opportunities to be found through volunteering. Taking on a role on a board or at a leadership table is a valuable way to build your network, skills and experience.
  7. Bring a network mindset to your leadership approach – The leadership team in an organization can practice a networked approach even with the way it interacts and engages the team. This includes involving the team in decision making and creating a culture that leans on one another. 

A path of learning, recognizing and honouring truth and reconciliation

It was the release of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission reports that nudged our organization to read, reflect and better understand how we could both as an organization and network learn our country’s history and advance truth and reconciliation. We had been intentional about recruiting someone to serve on our board of directors from the Indigenous community as we came to realize that our board’s diversity program didn’t take the Indigenous community, the first peoples of this land, into account. We had started to incorporate a land acknowledgement at the outset of our workshops and events; however, we stumbled and didn’t get things quite right and required some education and guidance.

As an organization we are on a journey to listen deeply, engage and be in true dialogue. Because we are uneasy as a sector about misstepping there can be a chill in engaging with truth and reconciliation. We need to create courageous spaces as there is an urgency to this issue and ask ourselves what are we doing each day towards reconciliation. We need to learn from a place of understanding and not place ourselves as hero or saviour. There is an immense amount of work as settlers, immigrants and as a community as a whole that we need to do related to truth and reconciliation and we cannot expect Indigenous people to continually provide emotional labour by educating us, or holding us and our healing.


It starts with learning and understanding the full history, stories and our shared responsibility as settlers. We need to acknowledge the harm and understand the intergenerational trauma and impact of residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and other atrocities towards Indigenous peoples by both settlers and the government. 

Many of Pillar’s staff have participated in the Indigneous Cultural Safety program from Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre, an interactive and facilitated online training program that addresses the need for increased Indigenous cultural safety within the system by bringing to light the service provider bias and the legacies of colonization that continue to negatively affect service accessibility and health outcomes for Indigenous people.

Further, our staff team have participated in programs and learning opportunities that have included an Indigenous learning arc including Banff Centre’s Social Innovation Residency and Foundations of Purpose Program; Social Capital Partners (SOCAP18);  Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Nonprofit Driven Conference; Imagine Canada Sector Champion Roundtable; Resilient Cities Conference; London Environmental Network’s River Talk Conference and EconoUS.

For our network, board and staff we participated in and held sessions of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The exercise is an interactive learning experience that teaches the Indigenous rights history, increases our awareness of Canadian history as it pertains to Indigenous peoples’, promotes empathy, and inspires action towards reconciliation. We first hosted it as a public session at Innovation Works, a shared space for social innovation, and it sold out. Since it evoked much emotion and reflection, we decided to continue running the sessions. The second time we hosted it at an Indigenous based partner Atlohsa Family Healing Services, and this was an example of how connecting and going to an Indigenous organization was a more impactful experience. 

Furthermore, we have been hosting decolonization workshops, Indigenous sharing circles and a local Indigenous learning series for the nonprofit sector so that other community members can explore Canada’s shared history, stories and work towards solutions on decolonization to build stronger, more positive relations with Indigenous people.

Recognizing and honouring

Nokee Kwe’s +Positive Voice program supporting urban Indigenous women in creating positive narratives and community connections was the recipient of the 2017 Community Innovation Award for the Pillar Community Innovation Awards. Former Program Coordinator, Summer Thorp remarked, “The wonderful thing about being nominated and receiving the award is the sense of ownership that the Indigenous women in our program feel; this truly is their award. Having their bravery, resilience, and accomplishments recognized by the community on such a large scale is a validating experience that they proudly share when talking about their achievements.”

Like many organizations, Pillar adopted the practice of sharing a land acknowledgement before workshops and events. By making a land acknowledgement you are taking part in an act of reconciliation, honouring the land and Indigenous presence. We started with a fairly brief version and stumbled over the pronunciation. We had an Indigenous colleague come and provide some training in the pronunciation.

All Canadians must now demonstrate the same level of courage and determination, as we commit to an ongoing process of reconciliation. By establishing a new and respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, we will restore what must be restored, repair what must be repaired, and return what must be returned.

Over time we were hearing that land acknowledgments were feeling like a check box and they should be customized and aligned with the intent of the event and we started to personalize each one to the person who was delivering it and the event we were hosting. Still this did not feel right and we met with various Indigeneous colleagues to seek their guidance. Today, we have an elder open with a welcoming or prayer and then we have a settler do the land acknowledgement and share their role in truth and reconciliation. A welcome and land acknowledgement is only a start and organizations need to understand there is much more we can action together.

Pillar encourages and supports those who wish to participate in smudging ceremonies. Smudging is the burning of sacred medicines and is meant to purify, protect, ground and harmonize people and spiritual spaces and is a common practice among Indigenous people. We have had concerns related to allergies and location in our space and therefore we created a smudging policy that states that it is a welcome practice at Innovation Works and it includes notifying our co-tenants of timing and location. Pillar recognizes the spiritual and cultural importance of Indigenous practices, and is committed to creating an inclusive environment for its co-tenants and the wider community.

Partnering and supporting

Through our social enterprise and nonprofit supports we have worked alongside Yotuni that provides mentoring, guidance, cultural education teachings, workshops and healing circles to provide the tools and life skills for Indigenous children and youth to live positive and healthier lives. Further, Kuwahs^nahawi is a social enterprise that provides consulting, educating and facilitating using Indigenous practices, specializing in teaching truth of Indigenous People and history, and ways we can work together towards healing and reconciliation that Pillar has engaged for several sharing circles and workshops. We have also supported Atlohsa Gifts that sells authentic products from Indigenous artisans throughout Canada to help fund the services of Atlohsa Family Healing Services. We have offered incubation, business planning and market connections. Further, Pillar as part of its social procurement sources the services of these two social enterprises for consulting, workshops and gifts for our speakers and staff. 

When developing new partnerships, it is essential to engage Indigenous-led organizations as partners in the development of the project. When we were seeking interest in having Indigenous leaders on nonprofit boards we were reminded that we had made an assumption that they would want to sit on boards. A group of Indigenous leaders have been coming together to explore about what leadership means to them and how that dovetails with nonprofit governance. It had surfaced questions about how nonprofit boards are colonized and whether they are inclusive. Most recently, we have built a partnership at the outset of a new program with Centre for Social Innovation and Nordik Institute for a new provincial program, Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network funded by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. This new program is focused on supporting women social entrepreneurs and is based on inclusive design and Indigenous approaches to venture creation.

Through learning, recognizing and honouring our history, Indigenous people and their traditions we are witness to the resilience, courage and determination they have and continue to demonstrate daily. 

Ideas for incorporating work with the Indigenous community into your organization
  1. Learn and acknowledge history – Learn the history and acknowledge the harm and atrocities in our shared Canadian history including reading the Truth & Reconciliation reports
  2. Recognize the urgency – There is an urgency to Truth & Reconciliation because hard and atrocities are still happening today
  3. Make incremental progress – Ask yourself how you can make progress towards  reconciliation each day in  your organization
  4. Follow not lead – Go to Indigenous related organizations, events and training rather than asking Indigenous people to come to you on boards, committees and events
  5. Recognize power dynamics – Acknowledge power in all interactions and be prepared to give up power
  6. Build relationships and trust – This is a critical step before jumping to requesting a partnership
  7. Consider how to redistribute wealth – Look at strategies such as a granting and investments and have the Indigenous community as a priority and focus
  8. Have the right partners – Pause and ask who is missing in the room and be intentional
  9. Create a social procurement policy – Consider purchasing from Indigenous-based social enterprises and business
  10. Go beyond land acknowledgements – If doing them have a welcome from an Indigenous elder and land acknowledgement by a settler to make it meaningful
  11. Explore Indigenous cultural traditions – Learn about the 7 Sacred Teachings and other Indigenous cultural traditions including the medicine wheel and smudging from a place of learning without appropriating 
  12. Create courageous, safe and open spaces – Make sure your organization and community is inclusive of Indigenous people and all people