Building from the Roots Up

As noted in the Strong Roots story, over the span of my career I have found myself working in different fields – ranging from youth development to disability research to immigration – but throughout I have always kept a soft spot for cities, and more specifically, their neighbourhoods. Fortunately, I have been able to combine my passion for things urban with my career through work and volunteer opportunities, starting with my first job in the area of community development and community-based research. The summer after my first year in grad school, the community association for the neighbourhood I lived in received funds from the municipal government to hire summer students to support their work through preparing grants, investigating potential structures for their organization, and assisting with outreach and community research (hmm, sounds a lot like the services I provide today!).

Working with this group of committed volunteers was inspiring in many ways, but three lessons come to mind today:
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News: Saskatoon Capacity Building Grant

Programs and services may be a non-profit’s bread and butter, but these organizations also need to develop their own capacity to make a sustainable difference in our communities. Strategic planning, training, volunteer management – these facets of non-profit organizational life may appear mundane but are essential for long-term survival. Unfortunately, there are few grants that provide dedicated funding in this area, but registered charities in Saskatoon now have one more option.

The Saskatoon Community Foundation has announced a new granting program, the BHP Billiton Capacity Building Program. The Community Foundation has previously provided funding for capacity-building projects as part of their Quality of Life granting stream: with this new program, applicants no longer have to choose between capacity and funding for core programs and services. The details are not yet up on the Foundation’s website, but the information I received indicated that the application deadline is October 15 – I’ll update this post and the Grants section of the site when more details are available. In the meantime, you can contact the Saskatoon Community Foundation directly for more information.

Update: I’ve heard from the Community Foundation that the grants information page will be updated soon, but in the meantime you view the application by clicking “Apply Online” from their grants page and logging in to your account. If you don’t have an account already, you can set one up via the same link.

Strong Roots is all about capacity-building, so if you’re thinking about how this grant could be used to help develop your organization, drop me a line!

Building Social Enterprises

If you were following Strong Roots’s Twitter feed yesterday, you probably noticed that I was at a workshop on Building Social Enterprises for non-profits. Hosted by the United Way of Saskatoon and Area and Affinity Credit Union and featuring David LePage of Enterprising Non-Profits (enp), the day provided some great food for thought for non-profits interested in starting a social enterprise as well as outlining the steps to move from an idea to reality.

The idea of social enterprises run by non-profits is not new or unusual. Examples run the full gamut of business ventures including museum and hospital gift shops, theatres, credit unions, recycling depots, thrift shops, cleaning agencies, dental clinics – name any sector and you can probably find an example of a social enterprise. What differentiates these businesses from the traditional model, besides the fact that they’re run by non-profits, is the focus on creating a broader impact in the community beyond narrow economic measures. Whether it’s expanding job opportunities for individuals traditionally un- or under-employed, decreasing social isolation, building cultural capital, or encouraging environmental sustainability, social enterprises aim to make a difference.

A quick note about definitions, since the concept of “social enterprise” is growing in popularity. LePage defined the term as only those businesses run by a non-profit, whereas others would expand social enterprise to include for-profit ventures with an explicit social mission (what LePage called “socially responsible businesses”). Personally I’m in the latter camp and consider Strong Roots Consulting as a social enterprise, despite its structure as a for-profit company (look for a post on this topic in the future!), but I can understand where the presenter was coming from.

I won’t go into too many of the details from the presentation here as enp provides a great resource, the Canadian Social Enterprise Guide, as a free PDF through their website: instead, I’ll highlight some key ideas and insights that I took away from the presentation.

Oreo vs. Pesto

At the heart of social enterprise is the focus on both financial and social returns on investment, or making a difference and a profit. There are two approaches to take towards meeting those goals, the “oreo” model and the “pesto” model. Some ventures will clearly separate out the financial and the social impact: for example, a company may donate a portion of its profits to charity, or a non-profit may run a business for the primary purpose of providing resources for its programs and services. In this model you can look at the the profit and the social purpose separately, just like the cookie and the filling are different parts of the oreo.

The other approach is to blend or integrate the pieces so that they’re inseparably. A social enterprise that hires former gang members to provide them with employable skills or sells fair-trade goods exclusively as part of an international development mission marries the financial and social: you can’t separate out the components any more than you can remove the basil or pine nuts or garlic from a pesto. Neither approach is automatically better than the other: it all depends on your purpose in starting the business.

Know Your Motivation

The reason for starting a social enterprise will generally fall in one of three categories: filling a community need in the market, advancing the mission of the parent non-profit, or contributing to the parent’s financial sustainability, or in simpler terms, market, mission, or money. Great social enterprises may end up contributing to all three outcomes, but it’s more likely that one of them will be the primary motivational driver, particularly in the start-up phase.

An exercise from the workshop clearly demonstrated the importance of being clear on purpose. Event participants were divided into four groups and tasked with developing a business plan for a thrift store (or at least starting a plan, since we only had 15 minutes!). The catch was that each group had a different motivation for launching the store: employing people with disabilities, earning profit for the parent organization, selling affordable clothing and household items in a low-income neighbourhood, or providing employment training for newcomers to Canada. My group was assigned the last one in the list, and while we included considerations around language support and teaching workplace cultural norms, we soon drifted to thinking about other goals. Should our store sell business attire at low cost for immigrants seeking work? Should we partner with international development agencies to share resources and build mainstream community interest? Could this business contribute back to our agency’s bottom line?

At some point, our group realized that it would be very difficult to incorporate all of those ideas and still have a business that was even remotely financially viable. Listening to the other teams present, it became apparent that purpose drove all sorts of “on the ground” decisions from business structure to location to human resource practices: for example, a venture to generate profit may attempt to limit staff turnover, while our concept would include exit or graduation policies so that new participants could continually enter the program. The store selling items to low-income families would try to keep prices as low as possible, in contrast to the enterprise employing people with disabilities that wanted to provide a living wage. As the business became established, the other goals could potentially be added but the primary motivation would continue to guide operational considerations and planning, particularly in the face of challenges and dilemmas.

Planning for The Long Haul

As LePage pointed out, a social enterprise is not a silver bullet or a quick and easy source of cash. Just like a for-profit business, there’s a start-up phase that can last up to five years before the model stabilizes sufficiently to generate regular returns (financial or social). A non-profit interesting in taking this route needs to do a lot of planning and preparation work, starting with developing internal buy-in and capacity, brainstorming business ideas, and ensuring that these opportunities are aligned with their strategy and mission.

A particularly important task is conducting a feasibility study: can your idea become a viable business while meeting the desired social outcomes? LePage shared an example where he was part of a small group planning a garden centre in an inner city neighbourhood. At this stage of determining feasibility, it soon became apparent that, outside of those leading the project, very few people in the community were interested in gardening. Morale of the story? It’s important to know and engage with your community!

Once feasibility is established, drawing up a business plan can help bring the details into place and serve as a tool for management, communications, marketing, and raising capital. One notable divergence from the traditional business plan is the inclusion of cost calculations associated with the social mission, such as providing supports to employees or accepting lower profit margins on the products and services sold. Since social enterprises led by non-profits can rely on support from their parent organization, these resources can also be included in the plan: on the flip side, the plan also has to consider what risks it poses to the parent, such as affecting its reputation or financial picture.

The Road Ahead

I greatly enjoyed attending the event, and not just for the extensive knowledge and personal experiences shared by the presenter (though that was definitely appreciated!). It was encouraging to see representatives for a wide range of non-profits at the presentation and to hear stories about social enterprises in the works, as well as the support and interest of the host organizations. Today I chatted with some colleagues who are interested in moving forward with supporting social entrepreneurship in Saskatoon: stay tuned!

Quick plug – Strong Roots Consulting works with non-profits and social entrepreneurs alike to support project creation and development, from planning and building the case to evaluating your efforts and helping you adapt in response. If you’re interested in starting a social enterprise and need a hand, let’s talk!

News: Cornerstone of the Community

The Saskatoon Community Foundation has opened nominations for their Cornerstone of the Community Award. The award seeks to recognize a resident of the Saskatoon area who has demonstrated a “significant history of service to the community” through volunteerism, building community partnerships, contributing leadership or mentorship, creating a sense of community, engaging in philanthropy, or other forms of service. Personally, I can think of several deserving individuals – I’m happy that I don’t sit on the nomination committee, as it would be difficult to pick just one winner!

To nominate someone for this award, download and complete the form at the link above. Nominations also require two letters of support and a one-page writeup explaining why the nominee is a Cornerstone of the Community. The due date is in in exactly one month, Thursday, August 15, at 4pm: winners will be announced at the Mayor’s Cultural Gala on September 21. For more details, please contact the Saskatoon Community Foundation directly.


A week or so ago, I received an email out of the blue from a manager who works for a local non-profit agency. She was interested in social innovation and had done some work in that area, and recently learned about the First Tuesday session I had hosted in January on the topic. We met for coffee and had a great conversation, coming up with some ideas on how to promote and support social innovation in Saskatoon. Our next step was to reach out and connect with some other people locally who might be interested in helping out with the planning: although I was already expecting a positive response, I was a bit surprised by the strength of interest expressed and the ease by which we were able to convene an in-person meeting (past experience in the non-profit sector has taught me that finding a date and time for everyone to meet is easily two-thirds the battle!).

This experience of going from a couple of blog posts and a one-off session on the topic to finding an ally, developing some concrete ideas, and quickly connecting with a group of co-conspirators reminded me of the concept of emergence, as described in Getting to Maybe. One of the social innovation examples that the authors drew on was Irish rocker Bob Geldof’s work organizing the Live Aid concert to help alleviate famine conditions in Ethiopia. In describing his experience, Geldof noted that once he started on the project, momentum and energy flowed in, almost beyond his control. “No one particularly stood in my way,” Geldof recalled; “On the contrary, doors impenetrable a week earlier swung open effortlessly.” In Getting to Maybe, this and similar experiences are held up as examples of emergence. Based on ideas from complexity science and in contrast to traditional views of the heroic individual or the deliberate plan that is followed inevitably to a logical conclusion, emergence recognizes that disparate actions from a variety of actors can unexpectedly come together and multiply one’s efforts. New and surprising outcomes often result, while cause and effect can become hopelessly tangled.

In a similar vein, this developing movement on social innovation in Saskatoon has demonstrated emergent properties. Did I plan that my blog posts and the First Tuesday session would be found by someone who would contact me, and that we would subsequently find such a good reception amongst others? Although I may have hoped for such an outcome, I saw my work as simply laying the ground and waiting to see what happened. The situation could have turned out differently – someone else could have contacted me, or perhaps at a different time, or maybe someone else in the city might have started something similar that I would have learned about later and joined in. On the other hand, it would be foolish to think that I had no impact, that this issue was fated to happen regardless of my individual action. If I didn’t write those posts and hosted that discussion, would anything have happened?

Although emergence can seem like something inherently uncontrollable, there are some means to encourage it, or at the very least to be prepared to recognize and act on the opportunities that come along. Getting to Maybe articulates a number of principles in this regard, several of which jump out at me: speaking passionately about the issue, practicing and developing the expression of one’s vision, and supporting intense interactions, networking, and information exchange among those who are interested. I think I was (unconsciously) following those principles through writing on this blog, holding the First Tuesday session, developing my own learning and understanding on the topic (such as by reading and commenting on Getting to Maybe), and building connections with like-minded people in Saskatoon.

Going back to our ideas and plans, I’m going to hold off on sharing specifics for the time being because we’re still very much at the beginning stage: I’m hoping to have something more concrete to announce before the end of the month. That being said, if you are interested in supporting and promoting social innovation in Saskatoon (especially if you are or have connections with powerful strangers), please drop me a line! I think there are some real possibilities here, and I’m excited to see where this venture will lead.

The Co-Working Life

December marks the five-month anniversary of Strong Roots Consulting (five months and one week, if you use the July 11th date of my first post), and six months since I moved back to the prairies after living in Ontario for twelve years. There are many factors to credit for my surviving and thriving through these twin life changes of moving to a new city and making the jump from regular employment to consulting, but today I’d like to pay homage to where I work, The Two Twenty coworking space.

For those unfamiliar with the idea, coworking is basically shared office space. For a flat fee (daily, weekly, or monthly), anyone can gain access to a coworking room set up with desks, tables, armschairs and couches: amenities include wireless internet, a kitchenette, free drip coffee (there’s also a great coffeeshop, Collective Coffee, on the premises for fancier caffeinated beverages), a set allowance on their black and white printer, storage lockers, and access to a meeting room. Those on the unlimited monthly tier can also get a key to the premises for 24/7 use (access is otherwise restricted to the coffeeshop hours).

The advantages to this type of work arrangement go far beyond these tangibles. By lowering the financial and logistical barriers for space (the most expensive tier is only $200 a month, no lease or long-term agreement required), the space attracts a variety of people: new and established entrepreneurs, students, university professors on sabbatical, and people new to town looking for somewhere more congenial to working than a coffeeshop or library. The building also houses more traditional office space, with tenants including media companies, web developers, an immigration lawyer, a real estate agent, and several non-profit organizations. Staff from these companies will sometimes come out and work in the coworking space for a change of scenary, and many will use the kitchenette facilities for lunch. In other words, there is a wide range of individuals and organizations working in a space conducive to chance encounters, conversations, and networking – perfect for someone like me who’s just starting in town and in the industry.

From my relatively-short time in this space I’ve made a number of connections both professional and personal, and I can honestly say that I’m more productive here compared to working from home. Being at The Two Twenty has also provided me with some insight into the interaction of work and space, particularly for non-profits. A common metaphor in that sector is the danger of “building silos”, where organizations isolate themselves and miss the potential benefits of pooling knowledge and resources with other groups. Silos in this analogy are usually viewed in terms of organizational practices and the influence of historical interactions: for example, two groups may ignore the potential to work together because of a past conflict, even though the circumstances have changed and the principal actors in that past incident are no longer involved with either organization! However, silos can also be created and sustained by physical and spatial factors: a space like The Two Twenty that encourages informal interaction can help break down barriers and encourage the sharing of information, and ultimately the development of collaborations and longer-lasting relationships.

Co-working and hub spaces like The Two Twenty are still a relatively new phenomenon in North America, so the availability of such spaces and how they’re set up may vary widely from city to city. Also, the model may not be amenable for all types of non-profit organizations, such as those that provide direct services to a large number of clients. That being said, non-profits should keep watch for opportunities to “break out” of their silos and connect with colleagues from other organizations, even those outside the specific area of focus: these connections, even just over a cup of coffee, can spark new ideas and lead to creative solutions for those complex issues we see in our communities every day.

Site Update – Evaluation, Grants, and More Resources!

Strong Roots is continually evolving, so it makes sense that the website would reflect that change too! The section formerly known as Community-Based Research under Activities has been renamed to Research & Evaluation. The rationale for this move is explored in a previous post, but what it comes down to is that I see all of my work (not just research) at Strong Roots as being grounded in the community, and I’m becoming more comfortable with the “evaluator” title, as long as that word is footnoted with an explanation of what evaluation is to me.

On that note, besides getting a new title, the Research & Evaluation section has been expanded to further explain my approach to those activities and also links to resource pages on participatory research methods and a new one on developmental evaluation. If you’re at all wondering how research and evaluation can help your organization, take a look at those pages and drop me a line!

Under resources, the Saskatoon Grants section has also received some TLC to make it easier to navigate. Grants are now listed on separate pages by the type of funder (Collaborative Funding Partnership, Government and Foundations, Non-Profits, and Corporate – the last one includes some new additions to the list). I struggled with how to best sort these funding opportunities; my decision to go by type of funder came from the ease of categorization compared to other schemes such as type of projects funded, which could lead to the same grant being listed multiple times and be subject to change if an organization’s priorities changed. I’ll try this method for now, but may change it in the future if I figure out a better way. Of course, if you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments below!

Funders’ Forum (part 1)

Last week, I attended a forum highlighting grant opportunities for organizations based in Saskatoon. Speakers from seven funding agencies provided an overview of their respective grant programs, with time afterwards for questions to the group and general networking. Although I imagine that this idea of bringing funders and non-profit organizations together is not new, it was the first time that I had attended such an event: as someone new to the city, it was a great opportunity not just to learn about the opportunities that existed but also to meet with representatives from non-profits in the audience.

Before provide some information about the grants available, two take-aways from the event to share:

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