Learning from other networks: More questions than answers

Written by Michelle Baldwin, Executive Director, Pillar Nonprofit Network

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

Questions for our network partners

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

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


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

Leadership and governance

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

Equity and inclusion

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

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

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

Storytelling and impact

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

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

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

Networks from around the world 

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

10C Shared Space

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

Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations

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

Centre for Social Innovation

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

CityStudio Vancouver

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

Centre for Connected Communities

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

HiVE Vancouver

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

Imagine Canada

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

Impact Hub

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

Ontario Nonprofit Network

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


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

Social Enterprise Netherlands

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

Social Innovation Canada

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

Vantage Point

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

Yunus Social Business, University of Florence

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