(Re) Visiting

There’s a lot you can learn when traveling, even (especially?) when you’re going to a place that’s familiar. Earlier this month I made the trek to Winnipeg, the city where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. Although in recent years I make it back on average a couple times a year, I usually don’t break out of the normal routine of seeing family and friends. Funny enough, out of all the cities I’ve lived in I’m probably least familiar with what’s happening in the “for-impact” sphere in Winnipeg, even though I spent more than half of my life there.

Lunch with a Side of Change

To start changing that imbalance, I met up with Kaye Grant, an independent consultant as well as the communication coordinator for Canadian Worker Co-op Federation1. Kaye’s primary focus is management consulting with both businesses and nonprofits, and also has a strong interest in social enterprise. As it turns out, we both were at the Social Enterprise World Forum a few years ago in Calgary: she has also worked with Marty Donkervoort, who presented at the conference on his experiences with Inner City Renovation in Winnipeg.

Our time together started with a late lunch at Neechi Commons. This space, located just north of Winnipeg’s downtown in the Point Douglas neighbourhood, is in many ways a mirror-image of Saskatoon’s Station 20 West. Both buildings house a grocery space, café, and office space for local community organizations: Neechi also includes a small store selling art and craftwork with a focus on local artists.

There’s also a geographical similiarity at play. Like Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods of Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, Winnipeg’s Point Douglas has faced a lot of difficulties over the past decades. Visiting that area after dark was seen as dangerous for someone growing up in the suburbs, a stereotype that, while having some basis in reality, was exacerbated by regular media stories of poverty and crime: I imagine that the core neighbourhoods here in Saskatoon have confronted similar stigma. Although these communities in both cities still face numerous challenges, there’s a renewed sense of hope and energy for creating meaningful and equitable change.

Have Warehouse, Will Innovate

After Neechi, we travelled a few blocks down to Winnipeg’s Social Enterprise Centre. Located in a repurposed warehouse just north of the train tracks seperating Point Douglas from Winnipeg’s downtown, the centre houses multiple tenants including neighbourhood groups, a community-university research partnership, a hardware co-op and several construction and renovation social enterprises, including BUILD and Manitoba Green Retrofit (MGR).

Lucas from MGR gave us a tour and shared some of the history of both the building and his organization. He had started working for BUILD, an organization that provides energy retrofits of old homes as a means to improve local low-income housing stock and provide training for people who face barriers to employment. Although successful on the training front, BUILD faced two issues: first, their graduates were having difficulties finding and holding employment in their field, and second, due to funder restrictions BUILD was limited in the types of contracts they could take on.

The solution? Start a new social enterprise, Manitoba Green Retrofit, that could provide the work experience and would be free to pursue different contracts. Graduates trained through BUILD could find meaningful employment with MGR, building their resume and developing soft skills such as learning how to navigate workplace culture. According to Lucas, so far the approach has been successful, with expansion in the cards: the only snag is accessing capital, which is somewhat complicated by their non-profit status.

The City You Visit is Not the One You Grew Up In

What did I take away from this experience?

First off is inspiration. As with many Winnipeggers, I hold a love-hate relationship with our common city of origin2, and it can be difficult to shake impressions rooted in 18 years of memory. These views have been challenged recently by friends and colleagues here in Saskatoon who’ve spoken highly of the city3, but as the old saying goes, seeing is believing. Meeting people from my hometown who are tackling deep-rooted issues with innovative approaches was hugely inspiring: hopefully there will be future opportunities for me to continue learning from them, to share ideas with organizations here in Saskatoon, and perhaps contribute to their work!

The broader lesson that I took away is linked to the importance of a longer term impact and vision. The people and organizations I connected with were all working towards the same end, namely creating positive change for the community and its members, even though they worked under different structures (non-profit, social enterprise, for-profit) and utilized different skills and knowledge bases. There’s the risk in promoting social enterprises of over-emphasizing the importance of business-based solutions: at the same time, saying that all social change has to come from charity or government can be just as limiting. There’s no one-size approach for the change we want to see. In my opinion, so long as we bring similar values, goals, and dreams, that’s a good thing.

  1. Hat tip to Victor Das for making the connection!
  2. Check out the forward to an aptly titled book, “Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg” if you want further insight into this duality.
  3. Just not during the CFL season.

Borrowed Terms

Pop quiz: What is the basic aim of any non-profit organziation? (or for-impact, a term I’m growing attached to more and more)

  1. Use force or the capacity for force to protect one's nation-state and secure its international policy aims
  2. Generate financial profit for the organization's owners / stakeholders
  3. Create positive change in our communities

The answer is obviously the third option. Yet, many of the ideas and concepts in our sector have been borrowed from the military and business worlds. I was reminded about this fact not long ago by an article in the Harvard Business Review that encourages for-profit businesses to stop using battle metaphors: make customers, not war. In our line of work, we aim to make change, but we talk about tactics and strategy (as pointed out in the HBR article, originating from the ancient Greek term for a military general), cost-benefit analyses, and after-action reviews, among others.

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely good ideas and concepts we can borrow from these areas. Both have had to grapple with balancing efficiency and impact, planning for and adapting to complex and changing situations, and avoiding mission creep (oops, there’s a borrowed term again!). In some ways, the stakes are higher when we start talking dollars and firepower: just take a look at the worst-case scenario in the three spheres, what happens if they don’t bring their best game to the table. For the military, it’s death and destruction. In business, financial ruin for individuals, companies, even whole financial systems. Non-profits? Well, people and communities don’t grow and improve, or even end up backsliding, and individual organizations may have to shut their doors. On the other hand, charity and government funds will continue to come through in some form, even with the sector increasingly under the microscope. I’m being somewhat flippant here, but in many ways non-profits haven’t faced the same degree of challenge as our colleagues in arms and in suits.

Are there any terms that we use regularly that have a non-profit or for-impact origin? One that comes to mind is program evaluation, with Michael Quinn Patton noting that “Evaluation, like the urban poor, grew up in the projects – large government structures aimed at concentrating limited resources on seemingly unlimited problems”1. We don’t have straightforward metrics of success like territory held, market share, or financial bottom line (pervasiveness of the overhead myth notwithstanding). Building better communities and changing people’s lives requires a different approach, one that both provides accountability and facilitates learning.

Again, I’m not advocating for us to drop useful military and business terms from our vocabulary. Instead, let's be aware of where those ideas come from and what baggage they bring, recognize our own contributions, and continue developing our own ideas – perhaps in the near future we’ll start seeing non-profit terms enter others’ lexicons!

What are some other terms that have a non-profit origin? What for-impact ideas are ripe for introducing to other sectors? Share below or on Twitter!

  1. Patton, M.Q. (1994). Developmental evaluation. Evaluation Practice, 15, 311-319.

News – Flurry of Events and Road Trip!

As far as I know, Saskatchewan does not have a resident gopher to prognosticate on our weather chances. We’re pretty sure that, flirtations with spring-like weather a few weeks ago aside, winter won’t be leaving any time soon – it’s -23 as I write this, with the windchill making it feel like -32! Fortunately, the sun is out, the sky is clear, and there’s plenty happening in Saskatoon to keep busy and warm.

More events!

Lots happening in Saskatoon this week!

Station 20 West, a great community space in the west end, is holding a Winter Celebration open house this afternoon from 3-6. The event includes music, food, kids activities, and an opportunity to connect with the organizations that call that space home.

Also today, the Children’s Discovery Museum is hosting an open house to discuss the ideas for their new space at the Mendel Art Gallery, opening in 2017. The event takes place at the Mendel from 10-8, with presentations at noon, 4:30, and 7pm.

Previously mentioned in my last news blast, a reminder about the Saskatoon Food Bank and Learning Centre’s Community Engagement event happening Wednesday, February 4 at Station 20 West from 10-1 and again from 5-8.

Sheena Greer is hosting another #sknpchat this coming Thursday, Feb 5 at 11am CST for Saskatchewan based nonprofits on the topic of corporate partnerships. I’m sure that non-Saskatchewan Twitter peeps are welcome, as long as you can properly pronounce and spell “Regina”.

Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation is hosting their annual awards gala this Thursday at the Roxy Theatre on 20th Street West. I know two of the recipients via the Two Twenty, namely the Poverty Costs Campaign (an initiative of SFBLC, Upstream, and the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition) and Reyn Lauer, and I can’t think of who else would be more deserving! Free and open to the public (RSVP’s appreciated). Doors open at 6 and the program starts at 6:30.

NextUp, a youth leadership program, is hosting a Human Library – instead of taking books off a shelf, you engage in conversation with human “books” and get to hear their stories! The theme of this library is “History of Women and Transgender People Making Change in Saskatchewan”, and will take place at Station 20 West (lots of events there!) next Monday, February 9, from 6-8:30pm.

Last but not least, Innoweave has some webinars and online workshops coming up in the next few months, including on Social Enterprise and Collective Impact. Some of the events require registration with dates coming up soon – see their Events page for more details.


Saskatoon Community Foundation is accepting applications for their Youth Empowerment Saskatoon (YES!) grants, with priority given to projects focusing on Support for Economically Disadvantaged Youth, Arts and Culture, Healthy Living, Youth with Disabilities, Social Support for Youth, or Education and Employment. Applications are due March 1.

Leadership Saskatoon has opened nominations for their Community Leader award – more details available on their site. They’re also starting to accept applications for their Leadership development program – I was part of the 2013-14 cohort and it was a great opportunity to reflect on my leadership journey, stretch my abilities, and learn from individuals across the public, private, and nonprofit spheres. The deadline for the application is June 1, but if you’re interested, best to apply soon as possible.

Finally, a quick reminder about the Social Innovation Residency application that I wrote about a few weeks ago – it would be great to see some Saskatchewan-based innovators in the inaugural cohort!

Strong Roots on the Road!

Are you a non-profit based in Winnipeg ? I’ll be in town next week, primarily for a family visit but I’m also up for connecting with individuals or organizations for conversations around evaluation, social innovation, social enterprise, or non-profit capacity building in general. Have coffee, will chat!

Anything I missed? Upcoming news to share about happenings in Saskatoon? Let me know!