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Community Update: Paving the way for social innovation


The third wave of COVID-19 continues to hammer our communities, requiring our continued response and attention. But as more and more people receive vaccines, our need to plan for an equitable future beyond the pandemic grows. 

Our COVID-19 Community Response Table met this week to discuss how economic recovery plans, when approached with a social innovation lens, can support stronger, healthier communities.

Since March 2020, United Way East Ontario has led a table of public health authorities, government representatives, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, and many others at the COVID-19 Community Response Table. These organizations are committed to supporting the most vulnerable people through the pandemic and beyond.

Building on our conversation in March about equitable employment, this month’s table attendees heard from experts from Buy Social Canada, the Ottawa Community Benefits Network, and the City of Ottawa about community wealth building and social innovation. 

These industry leaders shared how social services, businesses and government can collaborate to create better outcomes in our communities now, and over the long term.

Michael Allen

By Michael Allen
President and CEO
United Way East Ontario

The table also saw attendees from municipal and federal governments, including Ryan Turnbull, Member of Parliament for Whitby; Marie-France Lalonde, Member of Parliament for Orléans; and Laura Dudas, Ottawa Deputy Mayor and City Councillor for Innes Ward.

Implications for our region from the 2021 federal budget

Marie-France Lalonde
Member of Parliament, Orléans

Over the past few months, we and our partners at the COVID-19 Community Response Table have asked all levels of government to strengthen our sector so we can continue meeting the needs of priority populations. 

Marie-France Lalonde, a continued participant and listener at our table, discussed the 2021 federal budget and how it will affect different groups as they cope with the effects of the pandemic.  

The budget incorporated an equity lens that understands the chronic social challenges that have been made worse by COVID-19. Indigenous peoples, racialized and Black communities, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ communities, seniors, and young people will see an increase in inclusive supports to help them in the short and long term.

We were heartened to see many of our calls to action included in the release of the federal budget, including a $400 million dollar commitment to supporting economic recovery in the charitable sector. We pulled together highlights from the budget that align with our recommendations based on the data, lived experiences and program successes seen at the Community Response Table.

Public policy and community wealth building

“This landscape has to be a woven tapestry of “social fabrics” that really support social enterprises in being successful.”

Community wealth building harnesses the power of industry and business and uses it in a way that creates vibrant, equitable communities. By using tools like social procurement and social enterprise, community wealth building prioritizes the health and wellbeing of underserved populations. 

Ryan Turnbull is a champion of social innovation and former entrepreneur who worked with more than 250 social enterprises to create sustainable, equitable business models. He spoke to our table about the benefits of social enterprise, and how the federal government can help lead the way.

How can we ensure the success of social enterprises?

The 2016 Canadian National Social Enterprise Sector Survey Report surveyed more than 1,300 social enterprises across Canada. There are hundreds of social enterprises already operating in our communities, but they often need financial infrastructure and business supports to be successful.

Social enterprises need access to capital, capacity building (to empower growth and adaptation), learning opportunities (to promote innovation), and a web of partners that can engage and invest in the success of the enterprise, the same way any other business would.

Where does the government fit in?

Community wealth building: people-centred approach to economic development that puts wealth back into the local economy, and places control and benefits into the hands of local people.

Social procurement: evaluating the social value of a purchase in the same way you would assess price, quality, source location, etc.

Social enterprise: a business that has a defined social, cultural, or environmental goal embedded in its mission

In an op-ed published on his website, Ryan addressed the need for sustainable public procurement and how the federal government can lead by example:

“In my opinion one of the most promising and timely policy directions that we as a Federal Government can take is to ensure that we are buying goods and services according to our values. This is referred to as Sustainable Public Procurement. The Federal Government spends between $10-20 Billion annually on goods and services and wields considerable buying power. As a customer, we are one of the largest in the country, which means we have influence to help send a clear market signal with our purchasing decisions. 

Rebuilding Canada’s domestic supply chains and ensuring that they are resilient and sustainable is not out of a protectionism that sometimes plagues these dialogues, but genuinely out of concern for being able to secure essential supplies in times when borders may be shut down or international trade relationships become strained due to scarce supply.”

Understanding social value marketplaces

David LePage from Buy Social Canada gave an overview of the social value marketplace concept. This is a framework that aims to build community wealth by prioritizing people over profit, and focusing on sustainability and equity as key pillars of economic growth.

We exchange value in a marketplace when we buy and sell goods and services. The supply side of the marketplace includes sellers, private businesses, and social enterprises. The demand side consists of buyers and consumers—individuals, businesses, anchor institutions (universities, hospitals, museums, etc.), and the government.

David LePage
Buy Social Canada

“We're trying to build a social value marketplace. If we're going to build community wealth, we have to change the framework within which we approach the marketplace.”

Before colonization, Indigenous models of trading worked as social value marketplaces. These models prioritized trading value for value, community to community, without prioritizing profit. Colonization eradicated many traditional trade models, and introduced a capitalist economic system. This system centers profit, and prioritizes personal wealth over community wellbeing.

Our current capitalist marketplace has led to complex socio-economic issues like social isolation, employment challenges, homelessness, and skills and food security gaps. 

Social enterprises are a solution to the supply side of a social value marketplace, since the majority of profits from social enterprises are reinvested in the social mission of the organization. Some examples of social enterprises within our own communities include groups like: 

Committing to social procurement

While social enterprises address the question of supply, social procurement is a solution to the demand side of the social value marketplace.

Every purchase has an economic, environmental, and social impact. When we focus on more than ‘best value for money,’ and incorporate concepts into the buying process like ‘diversity of supply chain,’ ‘ownership by equity-seeking groups’ or ‘workforce development for under-employed people,’ procurement evolves from a financial transaction into a tool for building healthy communities.

Jennifer McCabe
City of Ottawa

“Social procurement is an opportunity for us to be more intentional about the social value that we derive from our purchasing processes.”

Jennifer McCabe is a procurement advisor with the City of Ottawa. She noted two specific ways to integrate social procurement into the City of Ottawa’s existing procurement models: 

  1. Connect the procurement process directly with small businesses, social enterprises, and businesses with diverse owners. To do this, the City recommends amending procurement bylaws, revamping procurement training materials, and developing a communication strategy to help identify social value organizations. 

  2. Incentivize the City’s vendors to invest in positive community outcomes by including social impact businesses in their supply chains. To do this, the City recommends using tools like Buy Social Canada’s Social Value Menu to assess the social value of businesses. 

Jennifer notes that creating a network of social purpose organizations and other City departments is a critical step. This will help them identify the barriers those organizations face in accessing the procurement process, and opportunities for improvement to their social procurement strategy.

The power of community benefit agreements

Martin Adelaar from the Ottawa Community Benefits Network gave an overview of community benefit agreements (CBAs) and how his organization has used them to build stronger communities in Ottawa. 

CBAs are legally binding agreements—typically involving community members, infrastructure developers and government—that establish positive socio-economic outcomes during activities like construction and infrastructure development. CBAs allow communities at the grassroots level to have input into how their neighbourhoods develop and what the outcomes mean for them.

“[Community benefit agreements] offer a whole host of amazing models to deliver social value, in Canada and internationally, and it's an opportunity to think outside the box and be an innovation leader in terms of social value.”

Martin Adelaar
Ottawa Community Benefits Network

As CBAs are unique to each community and its needs, agreements will always look different. Outcomes from development projects can include:

  • Hiring priority or job readiness programs for equity-seeking groups;

  • Social procurement of goods and services from social enterprises during construction;

  • Affordable and sustainable housing requirements in developments;

  • Developments requiring community amenities like parks, libraries, social services, etc. 

The Ottawa Community Benefits Network has been advocating for a Lebreton Flats Community Benefit Agreement to maximize social and economic benefits for the community when that piece of land is developed. Next, they have their sights set on other major developments like the Ottawa Hospital’s new Civic Campus and the Ottawa Central Library. 

The path forward

Over the past year, the COVID-19 Community Response Table has pooled our resources, shared data, gathered input from those with lived experiences, and spoken with one voice to tackle social challenges in our communities. This group has advocated for, reimagined and funded programs, partnerships and policy changes to respond to the urgent needs of the most vulnerable people. 

While the pandemic is not over and its effects will last for many years to come, we must now begin to plan for how we can build a stronger future for everyone. As we start to lay the groundwork for an equitable economic recovery, here are our key recommendations to strengthen this work:

  • Support collaboration between governments, social services and other sectors in order to use existing expertise to shape planning, funding decisions and innovation spaces.

  • Work with all levels of government to incentivize community wealth building initiatives like social procurement models, social enterprises and community benefit agreements.  

  • Advocate for all levels of government to use their services and systems as tools in building an equitable economic recovery. 

As we continue to manage the emergency response to the pandemic, we must also roll up our sleeves to build a more equitable, just, diverse, inclusive recovery. We know this does not have to be at odds with an economic recovery: the two can happen simultaneously in the best interest of our communities. We have the resources and the lessons learned over the past year, now we must forge ahead.

In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to COVID-19. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, please visit




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