In 2008, London had been experiencing significant growth and change and was yearning for an innovative approach to explore solutions to the accompanying economic, environmental, social and cultural challenges. This type of social change doesn’t usually happen by doing the same old thing the same old way. Change occurs when we introduce something different; a different idea, perspective, or approach that stimulates new ways of thinking.
In this climate, the idea for Innovation Works was born in a living room amid a small gathering of great minds. Together they imagined London’s very own co-working space, where change-makers and innovators could intersect and cross-pollinate. A space dedicated to social innovation. This small living room gathering hatched an idea that would soon be embraced by a community of champions eager to make it happen.
Exploring feasibility and our business model
Community interest in a social innovation shared space for London continued to build over the next several years. Then in 2010, Pillar Nonprofit Network partnered with Downtown London, Emerging Leaders, London Arts Council, London Heritage Council and other community groups to explore the possibilities for a shared space in our community. Pillar also engaged the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) to support the development of the coworking space for London. CSI was Canada’s first co-working space and has been a globally recognized leader in the field of collaborative communities and innovation since its inception in Toronto in 2004. Working from CSI’s models and best practices, the project was propelled forward.
In 2013, Pillar and Emerging Leaders conducted a detailed feasibility study and created a business plan thanks to a grant from the London Community Foundation. The grant also allowed London to bring in social innovation experts, Purpose Capital and CSI, to share significant real life experience that helped the partners hone the financial plans and operating model. Our partnership with CSI continues today and has been an invaluable resource that has helped to shape our community in many ways, from our values to our volunteer program.
Getting the community on board
To create a roadmap of what Londoners were looking for in a shared space, we hosted four Design Jams with more than 300 community members in attendance. Participants provided input on the values and principles they wanted to have at the heart of the project along with ideas on the requirements and functionality for the space. We partnered with web.isod.es on this project who generously captured these sessions for us.
We hosted “Get on the Bus” Tours to Toronto for our partners, potential tenants, and potential funders to see and hear from other social innovation shared spaces including Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape. This shifted people from hearing about the potential to seeing the potential for London and literally and figuratively ‘getting on the bus.’
Pillar steps up as backbone
The feasibility and business plan and community engagement opportunities helped the project gain considerable momentum, but it was clear that a leader was needed to move the project forward. According to the collective impact theory of achieving social change, there must be a backbone organization that is dedicated to organizing the work of the group. When asked to step up as the backbone, Pillar was well positioned to take on this role and bring our work in community impact and cross-sector collaboration to the next level. Today, Pillar programing, staff and resources support the space but at its heart, Innovation Works is a community-driven initiative, made by and for London.
Spreading the word
As the project progressed, we did a roadshow and spoke to groups, service clubs, nonprofit boards, businesses, partners and anyone who wanted to hear more about the idea of a social innovation shared space for London. We shared our vision and the journey through videos, photos, social media, mainstream media and created a first-phase website. We looked at our communications and marketing as an engagement strategy. The end result we were striving for was not only a physical space, but also to inspire people to a vision of nonprofits, social enterprises and businesses coming together to spark social innovation and change.
Our community engagement efforts also failed along the way when we tried to crowdsource the name of the space. We learned that there is a branding journey that must be followed with the help of communications professionals, and that you must capture the essence, feel and intention of the brand before jumping to the name.
Show us the money
With CSI’s template and model, we developed a financial model to demonstrate the viability of the project. As we searched for possible spaces, we were able to test the model based on the size, cost of the building and opportunity for rentable space and shared amenities.
Early on we had three impact investments come forward totalling $1.2 million that demonstrated the community and financial support for this innovative model in London. We then started to meet with possible mortgage holders to share our business plan and financial model. We learned that the process of meeting with credit unions and banks was more than a mortgage for a building it was about sharing a vision of social innovation and what was possible in London.
When we started our fundraising efforts, McCormick Canada provided a $50,000 grant to support the McCormick Kitchen and the Ontario Trillium Foundation provided a $275,000 grant for the Solutions Lab. These grants created momentum and credibility to the idea and kick started a $2.2 million campaign of donations and grants from individuals, corporations, foundations and government. We also had a crowdfunding campaign that raised $27,000 where our community could donate $10 or more as a community engagement strategy.
Pillar worked with VERGE Capital to offer London’s first ever community bond which was sold out well ahead of schedule. Innovators across all sectors were rallying behind the project and it wasn’t long before future co-tenants were signing on the dotted line. Our finance and fundraising model infused social innovation integrating new finance models and approaches and most importantly engaging the community to create a sense of ownership and co-creation.
Our final fundraising strategy was the the IN Crowd campaign which used crowdfunding to raise $27,000. This was firstly a community engagement strategy where people could be a supporter for as little as $10. To recognize our donors, we created a word cloud with their names that was updated online and put on reusable bags as a token of our appreciation for each of the IN Crowd donors.
Finding our home
After an extensive search looking at more than 25 buildings and spaces, Pillar announced the purchase the Garvey Building at 201 King Street in downtown London. Innovation Works finally had a home. Located in London’s core, the building was a perfect fit both in terms of amenities and being part of the downtown revitalization initiative.
Before you could say “innovation”, committees with more than 40 dedicated volunteers and partners were formed including a Project Manager, Communications, Finance & Fundraising, Design & Construction, IT, and Tenant Cultivation. Having these skills-based volunteers leading and co-creating this project made it truly community based. The expertise and influence these volunteers brought forward generated credibility and buy in from the community.
Read Building our community: Innovation Works from implementation to scale to find out more about how we designed our space and brought our community to life.
Lessons learned from the startup of Innovation Works
- Determine backbone organization – According to the collective impact theory of achieving social change, there must be a backbone organization dedicated to organizing the work of the group. We learned early on that our project would need one of the partner organizations to play this role and coordinate the efforts of the group and were eager to step up to the task.
- Create a strong project team – Take time to choose those you want to help create. Choose a variety of backgrounds and skills – something that could represent the types of tenants you want in the space. A strong project manager with a proven project management background and a lens to impact will be key.
- Establish continuous communication – To co-create with community requires constant communication to keep them in the loop even when you are doing the behind the scenes work.
- Borrow from others – Look for inspiration and instruction from those who have gone before you. We developed a consulting relationship with Centre for Social Innovation where they shared their best practices with us including their financials, policies, programming, and community bond model.
- Determine economies of scale – When creating a shared space you must have room for enough rentable space and shared amenities. Having too small of a space puts pressure on the financial model.
- Show and tell – Take interested community members, such as possible co-tenants or investors, to see and learn from similar models. Seeing similar spaces first hand creates energy and excitement and they share it across the community.
- Engage branding experts – We do not advise crowdsourcing your brand and name from the community. Your brand will be one of the most important things you build so it’s important to work with experienced communications professionals from your community.
- Implement innovative finance models – When creating a shared space that has innovation as its core, having an innovative fundraising and finance model that includes elements like social finance or a community bond is necessary to demonstrate social innovation.
- Be patient in finding the right home – We looked at over 25 buildings in our search. While it was intense and time consuming, it was important not to settle. Doing financial modelling and valuations about each building helped us make solid decisions.
- Walk the talk – Be able to call yourself a social enterprise with a model of both revenue and social impact.
- Develop a welcoming atmosphere – Invest in a welcoming culture and appealing design. Start planning early for ways to make tenants and the community feel at home in your space; don’t skimp on design elements that give your space soul.
- Finding the right fit takes time – Your first co-tenants may not be exactly the right fit but i it will eventually level out to the right mix. As your brand and community presence builds over time, word will get out to the right people.