Building a network approach for positive community impact

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

Expanding from a local to regional network

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

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

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

Expanding our membership

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

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

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

Using technology to connect networks

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

Enabling learning and development

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

Mapping networks to measure impact

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

Keys to building a network mindset 

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

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