THE PILLAR NONPROFIT NETWORK STORY


It was 2001, the International Year of the Volunteer. The United Nations had established the global campaign to recognize the impact of and need for volunteerism to solve important social issues, and communities around the world were joining the conversation.

In London, Ontario, Information London hosted a Community Volunteer Summit that same year. It was there that the seeds were first planted for the idea that would become Pillar Nonprofit Network. Inspired by the concept of the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, Willy Van Klooster, founding board chair, introduced the concept of a “chamber of charities” to a favorable reception. In the months that followed, a growing number of volunteers gathered to dream up how this organization could serve the community, and what was then called the London Voluntary Sector Initiative was born.

From the beginning, Pillar has stayed focused on two key objectives that continue to be important priorities today: to increase the accountability, credibility, visibility and capacity of the nonprofit sector; and to encourage collaboration between the business, government and nonprofit sectors to solve important community issues. Acting on these objectives, our early projects included the creation of an online volunteer portal, workshops, public policy research and a member newsletter.

In 2003, we reached another important milestone incorporating as a nonprofit organization. That year, we changed our name to Pillar Voluntary Sector Network to represent our role as the middle pillar that holds up the community and works collaboratively with the other sectors to build a vibrant community. With support from the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, Pillar gained charitable status in 2004.

Over the course of our 18-year history, we’ve conducted research, hosted community events, started our own social enterprises, started a social finance fund and developed a wide variety of programs and services all to elevate the impact of organizations invested in positive community impact. Follow us on the journey of our growth and explore the moments that made us who we are today.

2004 – Hosted London Leadership Conference

Through hosting the London Leadership Conference in 2004, we signaled an increased focus on facilitating cross-sector collaboration. The conference entitled “Building from Within” allowed leaders from all three sectors to converge and reflect on how they could work together to achieve systems change within our community. 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.

2005 – Became Pillar Nonprofit Network

While connecting Londoners to volunteer opportunities has always been an important part of what we do, we’re so much more than that. Having ‘voluntary sector network’ in our name made it challenging to build awareness of the breadth of our programs and services. We changed our name to Pillar Nonprofit Network in 2005 to better reflect our role as a connector and capacity builder for nonprofits in our community.

2006 – Hosted first Pillar Community Innovation Awards

We hosted the first Pillar Community Innovation Awards ceremony in 2006. Building on our vision to encourage cross-sector collaboration, the awards recognize how individuals, organizations and enterprises are investing in the social good of our community. The event now draws over 1000 attendees each year from the business, government and nonprofit communities. Award recipients are recognized in the categories of Innovation, Leadership, Impact, Collaboration and a Community Choice Award where the community votes for their top award recipient. We believe that sharing stories about the exceptional work that’s changing our community for the better is a powerful tool for change.

2006 – Started board diversity project

At Pillar, we wholeheartedly believe in the value of equity and diversity from a moral perspective and see all the benefits of accessing a broad talent pool of global experience to develop innovative solutions to complex problems our communities are facing. In 2006, a federal government grant enabled us to conduct a research study on diversity and inclusion, exploring the topic at both a community level and specifically in regards to board governance.  Along with our partners, we worked with 18 boards in the London area to understand how discrimination can manifest and the barriers that can prohibit inclusivity in organizations. This project enabled us to develop evidence-based strategies to eliminate discrimination. Using this research, we were able to bring organizations together and host training workshops using an anti-oppression framework.

2008 – Participated in Community Action Forum

Along with K-W Counselling Services and United Way of Windsor-Essex County, Pillar hosted the Community Action Forum: Creating inclusive & diverse nonprofit organizations in October of 2008. The event brought ninety people from London-Middlesex, Windsor-Essex and Kitchener-Waterloo to encourage conversations about topics such as board diversity; engagement strategies for ethno-cultural communities; building equitable leadership and partnerships; and recruitment and retention strategies. Through this forum, we examined barriers and gaps in engaging diverse communities and increase cultural competency amongst participants showing our commitment to inclusiveness.

2009 – Launched consulting program

Through our interactions with a wide variety of nonprofits in the community, we saw a need for one-to-one support beyond our learning and development programming. In 2009, we received an Ontario Trillium Grant to launch our own social enterprise program for training and consulting (now called Impact Consulting). In the early days, the program offered support in the areas of board development, strategic planning, fundraising and organizational development. Today, through a variety of approaches, tools and resources, we strengthen the capacity of individuals and organizations to develop innovative solutions to complex problems, advance their social purpose and generate greater impact.

2009 – Began participating in ChangeTheWorld

We began our involvement with ChangeTheWorld: The Ontario Youth Volunteer Challenge in 2009. The program was designed by the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration in partnership with the Ontario Volunteer Centre Network, and encouraged highschool youth to become engaged citizens and leaders in their community. In collaboration with various partners in our region, we were able to increase youth understanding of volunteerism, engage youth in volunteer opportunities and recognize those who contributed to the community.

2010 – Received City of London funding

We were thankful to receive core operational funding from the City of London for the first time in 2010. Having our municipal government recognize the importance of the work we were doing was a significant moment for us, and more broadly helped to elevate the profile of the nonprofit sector. This annual funding has helped us to leverage other funding opportunities to build a more sustainable organization.

2010 – Refreshed professional development program

Through feedback from our members, we heard that many individuals and organizations were looking for more programming around nonprofit capacity building. We took the opportunity to evaluate our professional development program and ensure that our programs better served their needs. Today, we offer year-round Learning and Development programming on topics ranging from board governance to leadership development, and marketing support to social innovation.

2010 – Hosted Innovation and Resilience: A community conversation and forum

With ever-present funding challenges, charities and nonprofits must always explore innovative approaches to meeting growing community needs. We hosted the Innovation and Resilience Forum to enable nonprofits and charities to share innovative solutions that would create resilience in their organizations. Through this event, we helped to raise awareness about social innovation and social enterprise and how they may be used as avenues of revenue generation.

2010 – Started Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities program

How do you create and support a system for social enterprise in midsize cities? That is the question we were looking to answer with the development of the Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities program. Along with our partner cities of Sarnia-Lambton, and Ottawa-Carlton, we worked with the United Way London & Middlesex and the Ivey School of Business 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.

2012 – Started Collaborating for Community Impact program

With a grant from the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, we began a three-year program called Collaborating for Community Impact in 2012. The program had an overarching 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. In each year of the program, Pillar hosted community members from all sectors at collaboration forums to gauge the important issues in our city. With this community input, we developed three key initiatives for the program, including developing a social innovation shared space, addressing mental health as an employment barrier, and improving campus-community collaboration.

2013 – Collaborated with London Chamber of Commerce on Corporate Social Responsibility Award

It’s been a journey to raise the profile of the nonprofit sector and gain recognition as an important part of the local economic ecosystem. Being asked by the London Chamber of Commerce to collaborate on developing a Corporate Social Responsibility Award for their Business Achievement Awards felt like an important acknowledgement. We initially worked with the Chamber to develop the selection criteria and lead the selection process and continue this partnership today. This award continues to be a positive example of how the sectors can work together to initiate and recognize the social impact in our communities.

2014 – Began involvement with DiverseCity OnBoard

We believe that inclusive organizations start with inclusive leadership. That’s why we became a partner of DiverseCity OnBoard (now onBoard Canada), to help nonprofit and public sector organizations recruit for their boards with diversity in mind. The program offers board matching and governance training to ensure that qualified candidates from visible minority and under-represented groups are not excluded from positions of decision-making, and influence.

2014 – Purchased the Garvey building

As the backbone organization of Innovation Works, we found its future home in 2014 when we purchased the Garvey building. Located in London’s downtown core, the building was a perfect fit in terms of amenities and being part of the downtown revitalization initiative. It truly takes a village to succeed at an initiative of this size and we can’t mention this momentous occasion in our history without recognizing the partnership and financial support we received from our founding members and supporters.

From the beginning, Pillar has stayed focused on two key objectives that continue to be important priorities today: to increase the accountability, credibility, visibility and capacity of the nonprofit sector; and to encourage collaboration between the business, government and nonprofit sectors to solve important community issues.

2015 – Co-hosted Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise

After four years of running our social enterprise program, we were gaining recognition as a provincial expert on the topic. Along with the Canadian Council on Social Enterprise, we co-hosted a three-day conference in April 2015 on social enterprise called “Telling Our Story”. Hosting this conference in London put our city on the map as a strong ecosystem of support for local social enterprises. The event featured local social enterprise tours and stories, opportunities to learn and share personal stories, government and private sector engagement models, governance, scaling and advice on how to measure impact.

2015 – Launched Community Bond

We started London’s first community bond in 2015 to help us raise the remaining $1 million dollars required for the opening of Innovation Works. A community bond is an interest-bearing loan that can only issued by nonprofits or charities that generates revenue, and allows contributors to align their investments to their values. The 47 investors in the community bond provided debt financing for renovations and needed capital for Innovation Works, and in turn, earned three percent interest per year for five years.

2015 – Launched VERGE Capital

By 2015, Pillar had been connected to social enterprise work for over five years. As early as 2009, we provided social enterprise coaching, and our Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities project continued to build on this momentum. Then, in 2013, we proposed the creation of a formal joint-leadership model for social finance in London to keep expanding local knowledge of the opportunities presented by community investing. That year, what was then called Social Finance London – a partnership between Pillar, the London Community Foundation, Sisters of St. Joseph, and United Way of London & Middlesex – began. In 2015, the group received funding from the Ontario government and the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham to launch a $500k Startup Fund for local early-stage enterprises and the newly rebranded VERGE Capital was born. 

2016 – Opening of Innovation Works

A meeting of the minds in a London, Ontario living room eight years earlier was the spark that started our journey to create a social innovation shared space for our community. In June 2016, we opened the doors to Innovation Works, London’s first co-working space for social innovators. Innovation Works is a 32,000 square foot building located in the heart of London’s Downtown. It’s designed to attract incredible people, get them talking about one another’s ideas, and offer the supports they need to turn those ideas into an achievable plan. In other words, the space is the physical representation of everything Pillar has ever dreamed of.

2017 – Launched Project Impact/Useful Evaluation Project

In 2017, Pillar and our partners Centre for Social Innovation, 10C Shared Space, Impact Hub Ottawa and ReThink Sudbury received funding from Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration to expand the capacity of nonprofit organizations and social enterprises to evaluate their programs and services and be better able to respond to the needs of the community they serve, increase their effectiveness and enhance their impact. The project engaged social innovation shared spaces throughout the province to offer a range of evaluation trainings, programs, coaching, mentoring, tools and resources. This led to stronger partnerships with other social innovation shared spaces and the creation of the Director of Storytelling and Impact role at Pillar along with the launch of the Impact & Failure Report and the failure workshops and art installation.

2017 – Launched Social Enterprise Southwest

In collaboration with EPICentre at University of Windsor, Huron Small Business Enterprise Centre, Waterloo Region Small Business Centre, and Innovate Niagara, we launched Social Enterprise Southwest (SESW) in 2017. SESW promotes the flourishing of social enterprise in Southwestern Ontario, offering education, coaching and connections to investors for enterprises interested in achieving social or environmental outcomes and maximizing revenue. Our collaborative goal is to infuse social enterprise into communities and entrepreneurial support services across Southwestern Ontario through access to knowledge and tools.

2018 – Launched VERGE Breakthrough Fund

We are the backbone organization for VERGE Capital and the launch of their Breakthrough Fund was an exciting moment for the organization and our community. After receiving over $2.26 million dollars from impact investors, the fund was launched in 2018 becoming Southwestern Ontario’s first impact investing fund providing growth capital to social and environmental enterprises. The fund, which is a partnership with SVX, makes it possible for caring investors to leverage their investment portfolio to create positive community impact through a pooled approach. This fund has fostered job retention and creation in our community creating 22 jobs for people in the following targeted groups: mental health, young, newcomers, racialized, disabled, low income and rural.

2018 – Hosted Be Inclusive Series

At Pillar, we believe that inclusion is a collective responsibility. We started the Be Inclusive series to help participants explore the diversity that makes up our community. Through providing an open forum for the stories and knowledge that surrounds us, these sessions allowed participants to build connections and gain a deeper understanding of each other. Topics in the series included Understanding Supervised Consumption Sites, De-Mystifying Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and Anti-Islamophobia Training. These sessions were an important moment for us to show our commitment to helping build an engaged, inclusive and vibrant community.

2018 – Launched Diversity and Inclusion Community of Practice

To further our commitment to helping build diverse and inclusive organizations, we began hosting a Diversity and Inclusion Community of Practice in 2018. In these sessions we hold no agenda and encourage participants to share what they are doing in their roles, share their struggles, share resources and support each other. There are many different forms of diversity represented in this community and we recognize the importance of providing an avenue for those with lived experience to share their stories and contribute to community solutions.

2019 – Re-designed membership program

Since our early days, we have looked for opportunities to bring the three pillars together with the goal to help change our communities for the better. In January 2019, we expanded our membership program beyond nonprofit organizations to include individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in creating positive community impact. At this time, we also debuted a digital online community to enable our network to ask questions, share knowledge, and connect online. These changes have helped to facilitate deeper and expanded connections network that enable members to lean on and learn from each other. 

2019 – Launched CityStudio London

To further the community vision for campus community collaboration, Pillar is acting as the backbone organization of CityStudio London, launching in September 2019. 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. Through experiential learning projects with the City of London, local post-secondary students will have meaningful opportunities to apply their skills and creativity to real-world issues and challenges facing our community.

Future directions

Looking forward, our mission to strengthen individuals, organizations and enterprises that are invested in positive community impact will continue to guide us as we explore new directions and improve our existing programs and services. We will bring forward the voice of our sector around public policy and government relations. We will continue to increase our capacity for responsible and effective impact storytelling in our city. We will seek to better understand the issues around equity, and how our community wants to be engaged. As a leader in the nonprofit sector, we will look for opportunities to ensure the sector represents our community.