In a month that has been filled with trauma, grief and pain for Indigenous peoples and the Muslim and LGBTQ2S+ communities, we have deepened our resolve to confront hatred in our own communities and ensure that everyone feels welcome and safe.
One way we can do this is by prioritizing the health, wellbeing and success of people who have been sidelined by the pandemic as we move towards an economic recovery.
The charitable sector has overcome significant barriers over the past year to keep up with digital transformation and to continue working on the chronic issues that challenged our communities over the past year. Social services are tired, burnt out, stretched thin, and yet we recognize that we can’t go back to doing business the same way as before the pandemic.
Our COVID-19 Community Response Table will take a hiatus during the summer months, but United Way is committed to empowering the community sector to keep pushing forward: we can’t afford to lose momentum in turning what we’ve learned into something more positive for the future.
By early July, United Way East Ontario will invest $2 million into Local Love in a Global Crisis to continue responding to the urgent needs created and amplified by the pandemic. Ottawa Community Foundation similarly has $2 million to invest through its spring grant process, signaling a continued effort by funders to coordinate and address ongoing challenges.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO
United Way East Ontario
In partnership with Nanos Research, we will work with the COVID-19 Community Response Table to capture ideas and reflections of the past year, and consider how the group can deliver a post-pandemic plan that prioritizes success for the most vulnerable populations.
At our latest COVID-19 Community Response Table meeting, attendees focused on strengthening community wealth building principles in our communities, empowering anchor institutions and the charitable sector to champion an equitable economic recovery, and bringing along other key stakeholders on this journey.
We heard from Brian Gilligan from Ottawa Community Housing, Caroline Arcand from the Prescott-Russell Employment Services Center, Michael Murr from the Centre for Social Enterprise Development, Hailey Hechtman from Causeway Work Centre and Adam Melnick from the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario. Each expert highlighted how the community sector can strengthen social innovation opportunities by working with anchor institutions.
This conversation around community wealth building and social innovation isn’t new for our table, but it has reached new urgency as more and more vaccines are administered, and the economy in Ontario starts to reopen.
How can local anchor institutions support community wealth building initiatives?
Vice-President, Community and Tenant Support
Ottawa Community Housing
Brian Gilligan, the VP of Community and Tenant Support at Ottawa Community Housing, noted that community wealth building is a leadership decision: you have to make the choice that your economic activities will also have social benefits. Social enterprises are not charities, they are businesses – so ultimately they must perform to their expectations. But Brian also said that many social enterprises need time to grow, and it’s an opportunity to create a relationship with a business as they increase their capabilities.
Brian’s other recommendations are to assess your organization’s activities that do not require a high level of training or education, like cleaning or groundskeeping, and see how you can employ underrepresented groups to do that work. “It’s about starting something small and growing it. At the most senior levels of an organization, you need to decide that this is something you want to do, and then everything else will fall into place.”
Rally the community to solve a problem
Caroline Arcand, the Executive Director of Prescott-Russell Employment Services Centre, shared a case study of how different organizations can band together to solve a problem with a social enterprise.
Recycle-Action started when a business called the municipality to ask why there wasn’t an option to have recycling removed from the business in the same way they could have garbage removed. Groupe Convex saw a business opportunity and purchased a cardboard bailer, a paper shredding vehicle, and a building to house recycling machinery and address the identified gap in the community.
To make Recycle-Action happen, Groupe Convex rallied the regional and local governments in Prescott-Russell to fulfill procurement agreements; funders like Ontario Trillium Foundation, Community Adjustment Fund and Prescott-Russell Community Futures Fund to support the start-up costs; local schools, businesses, farmers, social services and families to use the service provided; and employment service providers like Eastern Ontario Training Board and Prescott-Russell Employment Services Centre to connect underemployed groups with the opportunities available at Recycle-Action.
Now, 60 per cent of the workforce at Recycle-Action is comprised of people living with an intellectual disability, and for each dollar invested in Recycle-Action, there is a social return of $13.
Prescott-Russell Employment Services Centre
Centre for Social Enterprise Development
Michael Murr, the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Enterprise Development, stressed that the starting point is to recognize “every purchase we make, as an organization or as an individual, has an effect, whether intended or not.”
Echoing Brian, Michael said the easiest first step is for organizations to assess what they spend money on and look at opportunities to source products and services from social enterprises (CSED recently launched an Ottawa social enterprise directory to make this easier).
Michael recommended amending purchasing bylaws, testing pilot projects with social enterprises, but overall: changing the organizational culture around the understanding of “best value.”
Staying focused on impact
Hailey Hechtman, the Executive Director at Causeway Work Centre said an important step in adopting community wealth building initiatives is for the sector to have a common understanding of what the expectations are of social businesses, and what success looks like.
Causeway, which fuels several social enterprises, empowers social businesses to meet demand from the community in creative ways. Since many social enterprises start small, Hailey noted that there may be opportunities for those businesses to collaborate to meet large contracts or grow their work together to align with increasing demand.
Hailey also talked about how social businesses need to look outward to see what the community needs, so they are prepared when businesses seek out community wealth building opportunities: “How do we engage with our community and find out where their interests lie? What strengths and experiences do people already have, and how can we develop [social enterprise] opportunities based on that?”
Hailey and the other speakers stressed that social enterprises are not charities, they are businesses, and they need to be able to adapt and grow as the market does.
Causeway Work Centre
Setting the example
Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario
Adam outlined how, when anchor institutions come on board with community wealth building principles, “they quickly become the foundation of local, sustainable and inclusive economic development.”
Adam mentioned the importance of developing a system around community wealth building where the practice becomes normal, and he stressed that anchor institutions are best positioned to lead the way and set the example for others. Because they have fixed assets, spending and operations, they can easily provide sustainable employment for people that are often faced with precarious work.
“We have to do much more than train, we have to get people opportunities to be gainfully employed.”
What is the most important thing we can all do as next steps?
Michael Murr: “The most important thing is that we are deliberate, we are intentional, and we are strategic.” For Michael, the action comes in three areas:
- Create market opportunities and demand
- Make sure social enterprises have capacity, skills and training to be effective businesses
- Collectively make the decision to take action and build a better community
Caroline Arcand: “My advice would be to never have lunch just by yourself. We should gather, talk about this, be involved, and get engaged in the business community. Community organizations have to get their mindset around the business of doing business.”
Hailey Hechtman: “The most important thing we need to be doing is communicating on both sides. Communicating as anchor organizations and business, what we’re looking for and what we need, and as social enterprises and social organizations, what we can bring to the table.
Adam Melnick: “It always seems to be that someone is waiting for someone else. There’s a lot of great work going on in individual organizations or even in small collaborations. But let’s take the stronger leadership and coordination to show [the anchor institutions] they have all the support they need and beyond. Then we’ll watch the tidal wave of workforce development, economic recovery and support come to the Ottawa region.”
The path forward
Now is the moment to mobilize our communities and municipalities to leverage and invest in community wealth building initiatives. We must draw upon the large talent pool of underrepresented groups, push large anchor institutions into action, and focus on strengthening small, local, social businesses.
United Way East Ontario’s strategy for the upcoming year includes:
- Bringing together a table of champions to develop a community wealth building engagement strategy with anchor institutions and government. This will include defining common outcomes, measurement tools and definitions of success.
Senior Director, Community Initiatives
United Way East Ontario
- Convening anchor institutions from across our region in the fall of 2021 for an educational summit to commit to community wealth building principles. These anchor institutions would then join the champions table to continue this momentum.
- Continuing to engage with and support the efforts of the Ottawa Community Benefits Network, and Centre for Social Enterprise Development, including advocating for upcoming infrastructure projects to commit to community wealth building principles and tools.
- Continuing to invest in social enterprises and other community wealth building activities to advance the equitable economic recovery in East Ontario.
Our communities have the mechanisms, support systems and networks to build stronger, healthier, more equitable communities now and over the long term. We must use the tools at our disposal to act, and the time is now.
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 unitedwayeo.ca/covid19.