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Imagining a brighter post-pandemic future


There are great disparities in our communities that COVID-19 has only made worse. Neighbourhoods with higher numbers of poor, racialized and newcomer residents have had nearly twice the COVID-19 infection rate compared to the general population in Ottawa. The historic effects of institutions not equitably serving racialized people, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and others, means that crises hit these populations harder.  

And the financial, cultural and social costs are on all of us to carry.   

We know that 1 in 6 people with disabilities live below the poverty line. In some areas of Ottawa, as many as 30 per cent of people are living on a low income. The employment rate among Indigenous people is more than 10 per cent lower than non-Indigenous and non-visible minority groups. 

While this is true, we are also entering a decade of record investments in our communities. Over the next 10 years, Ottawa can expect more than $12B of investments in infrastructure projects: LRT stages 2 and 3, the Ottawa Hospital, the new Ottawa Public Library plus the billions of dollars that are spent in any given year.    

We have choices to make: will we gradually return to the ways we did business and built relationships before COVID-19, with the result being that many people are left out, or will we reimagine our communities to more equitable for everyone?    

  • Imagine if we could seize this moment to close the employment gap between able-bodied people and people with disabilities by setting equitable employment targets.  
  • Imagine if we could close the wealth gap between Indigenous peoples and settler Canadians by investing in Indigenous-owned businesses.  
  • Imagine if residents could reap the benefits of new development projects in their neighbourhoods because our supply chains source goods and services locally first.    

On October 19th, United Way East Ontario gathered more than 120 key organizations, community leaders, government officials, businesses, and others together at the East Ontario Economic Recovery and Inclusive Growth Summit. At this event, powered by RBC, participants discussed the tools we can use to make those aspirations, and many others, a reality.  

When we buy local, when we build inclusive workplaces, when we hire from underrepresented groups in the labour market, and most importantly, when we work together with a social justice lens, we can reduce inequities for marginalized groups, repair relationships, and rebuild systems that create prosperity.  

This is known as community wealth building, and we believe it is one of the key tools we can use to move the mark towards stronger, healthier communities where everyone can thrive.  

Here’s what we covered at the Summit:

The role of the marketplace in community wealth building

Keynote speaker David LePage, Founder and Managing Partner at Buy Social Canada, set the stage by explaining the concept of a social value marketplace, and how it differs from our current economic systems.  

When we buy and sell goods and services, we exchange value. And when we assess how the purchasing of those goods and services can contribute to bettering our community, in addition to their cost and quality, we can strengthen the social fabric of our communities and create opportunities for everyone.   

“It’s a journey. It's not straightforward and it’s not always an easy journey. But when we put these pieces together, we can create a social value marketplace. Where and when does your journey begin?”

David also focused on busting myths related to community wealth building: 

Key concepts ↓

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

Social value: The impact of an activity on a community or individuals within the community. It can include outcomes like greater employment and skills development, living wages, reduced environmental impact, equity, and overall community wellbeing

Anchor institution: Large public or non-profit institutions that are geographically tied to the community they serve. This may include organizations like hospitals, school boards, universities, municipal governments and more.

Social procurement: Buying goods, services or infrastructure that contributes to community wellbeing and resilience. This could include purchasing goods and services from suppliers that have a social benefit or incorporating employment goals into infrastructure/procurement contracts.

“We lower our quality of work when we purchase from social enterprises.”
Community wealth building does not mean giving up on quality and cost: it just means that we add the consideration of social impact to our buying.
“Governments can’t do social procurement because of regulations and trade agreements.”
You may not be able to limit who bids on procurement, but you can add social value outcomes to your goals.
“We would have to spend more to create social value.”
As more businesses are building community wealth, there is more evidence that social value can result in savings, not cost increases.

Imagine: A major sporting event is coming to town. The organizers know they will need 100 bouquets of flowers to give to coaches and athletes throughout the duration of the event. They have a choice of sourcing the bouquets from a major out-of-town garden centre who has provided for similar events in the past, or a local florist that employs people with developmental disabilities. Both businesses provide their services at a competitive cost. By choosing the local social enterprise, the sporting event organizers are supporting meaningful employment for marginalized people, a strong connection to the community where the event is held, local economic development, and a fantastic event. This is community wealth building.   

Champions in action

Many businesses, anchor institutions and governments have already begun building community wealth through their business practices—creating demand for social value. The following organizations spoke about growing social value:

Cameron Love, President and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) 

Plans for the new Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital are underway. This $3 billion project will transform healthcare and drive massive economic growth, community growth, and job creation. This means that equity and inclusion will be top of mind for TOH as they hire to build the campus and staff it in the years to come.  

Cameron spoke about how COVID-19 highlighted that the social determinants of health (things like employment, education, race, etc.) have had a huge impact on how different communities and groups have experienced the pandemic.  

With those learnings in mind, Cameron noted that the construction of the new hospital has the potential to address some of these disparities as they prioritize hiring Indigenous people, women, new Canadians, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups.  

Buying/shopping local: By supporting locally owned businesses, the buyer increases local jobs, strengthens entrepreneurship, preserves local character, and keeps wealth within the community.

Social enterprise: A business created with the primary goal of achieving a social, cultural, or environmental mission. Social enterprises generate their own income and reinvest profits back into the mission.

Community benefit agreements: Specific, enforceable, negotiated agreements between leaders of development projects, governments, and community members/groups with an intended positive outcome for the community.

“As one of the largest employers and drivers of healthcare in this city, how do we play a much greater role from a social responsibility perspective? It’s critical that we build a stronger healthcare system, support the local economy, and make Ottawa a prosperous city that’s inclusive to all.”

Jennifer McCabe, Business Analyst in Supply Services, City of Ottawa 

Jennifer authored a recent City of Ottawa social procurement strategy. She started by noting that the “what” and “why” of community wealth building is easy to see, but the “how” is not always clear. Jennifer stressed that not knowing how to do it shouldn’t be a barrier to trying things out. 

She stressed that both leadership and implementation are important to social procurement and community wealth building. Tools like bylaws and policies help employees carry out the action of social procurement, but vision and strategic direction from organizational leaders makes it a priority.  

As a municipal government that spends public money to buy public services, sustainable and social goals are important to measure because they have a direct impact on the community. Jennifer acknowledged the social procurement journey for the City of Ottawa will continue to evolve as they identify pain points and opportunities for improvement.  

Nadim Ladha, Human Resources Business Partner, RBC  

“Helping clients thrive and communities prosper” is RBC’s mission statement, and Nadim notes that this makes social impact an important part of the bank’s work.  

RBC’s supplier diversity program is a facet of community wealth building that helps level the playing field for diverse businesses. Businesses working with RBC must meet a set of diversity targets, incentivizing their suppliers to represent the communities they serve. 

In addition to supporting the growth of diverse businesses, RBC’s workforce is diverse in itself: 54 per cent of the 86,000 people working for RBC are women, and 40 per cent come from Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities—one of the highest percentages among private employers in Canada.  

Nadim notes that there are social and economic benefits to having an inclusive workforce. Setting targets is one way RBC prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion in their work. 

Supporting the ecosystem

The supply side of community wealth building includes businesses that provide goods, services, and social value; and the connectors that support themEmpowering these organizations is critical to building community wealth 

Marco Pagani, Ottawa Community Foundation 

The Ottawa Community Foundation supports social enterprises as one way to address social challenges that have been made worse by the pandemic.  

OCF also works to bridge the gaps between philanthropy, private businesses, and governments. By strengthening collaboration, we can all work better together towards shared goals.  

“We have a well-intentioned but loose collection of siloed organizations trying to make society better. How can we be more intentional and deliberate about this work?"

Michael Murr, Centre for Social Enterprise Development 

Michael noted that businesses are evolving from having corporate social responsibility targets, to directly embedding social value in their business practices. CSED helps the social enterprise ecosystem in Ottawa reach its full potential by stimulating market demand and providing business support to help social enterprises grow.  

There are more than 125 social enterprises in Ottawa providing anything from food, accounting, language services, cleaning, property maintenance and more. These businesses know they must be competitive in the market to meet their goals. CSED is one of the key connectors to help social enterprises find buyers in the marketplace.  

Martin Adelaar, Ottawa Community Benefits Network 

The Ottawa Community Benefits Network advocates for social value to be included in large infrastructure projects. They target initiatives like the Lebreton Flats redevelopment, the new Ottawa Hospital and the joint Ottawa library to follow community benefit agreements (CBAs). 

CBAs are agreements between the community and the infrastructure project that stretch every dollar to have the biggest social impact possible. Some outcomes a CBA might advocate for are: 

  • Local hiring and job readiness programs for equity-seeking groups
  • Local procurement of goods and services from social enterprises in the construction and staffing process
  • Affordable and sustainable housing included in residential developments
  • Community amenities like parks, community centres, daycares etc. built into commercial developments
  • And much more. 

Kelley Lemenchick, Renfrew County Community Futures Development Corporation 

The Renfrew County Community Futures Development Corporation works to build employment opportunities in Renfrew County by supporting local businesses to grow and be successful. The Corporation spearheads projects that attract investments and social value to the County.  

The Corporation also strengthens social enterprises by offering low-interest loans. Without the restrictions of a typical lender, the Corporation has flexibility to support the growth of businesses that show real value for people in Renfrew County.  

Ian Bingeman, Ottawa Community Foundation 

Ian spoke about how charities and non-profit organizations can play a leadership role in the economic recovery. As a sector that lost 40 per cent of its revenue during the pandemic, charities must find more sustainable ways of making social impact possible.  

By working with social enterprises to connect businesses with areas of need in their communities, the Ottawa Community Foundation and the philanthropic sector can help build community wealth without relying on short-term grants for financial stability.  

Henry Akanko, Hire Immigrants Ottawa 

One of the top three challenges businesses faced before COVID-19 was access to talent. We continue to see marginalized groups face high levels of unemployment exacerbated by the pandemic, and we also see businesses experiencing challenges in finding new staff.  

Employment initiatives powered by United Way East Ontario address a variety of those challenges:  

  • Hire Immigrants Ottawa brings together employers, immigrant agencies and stakeholders to enhance employers’ ability to access the talents of skilled immigrants in the Ottawa area.  
  • Employment Accessibility Resource Network brings together employers, service providers and other partners to increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities and promote inclusive and accessible workplaces. 
  • Indigenous Employment Advisory Leadership Table works alongside local Indigenous communities to bring together employers, stakeholders and Indigenous youth to better understand labour market issues and solutions in East Ontario.   
  • Partnering for Success in Youth Employment brings together employers and community partners from the non-profit and private sectors to improve entrepreneurial skills and employment rates for youth. 

Moving from vision to action

The network of social enterprises, diverse businesses and partners supporting their success is strong in East Ontario. We also have a growing group of champion organizations who are living into their values, and are spearheading community wealth building.  

United Way East Ontario’s networks are vast and include connections to many sectors, industries, businesses, governments, elected officials, social services and community leaders. This puts us in a unique position to bridge the gaps between these players and help remove the barriers we may have in building community wealth.    

We are ambitious in our goals, and we are eager to solve problems. The East Ontario Economic Recovery and Inclusive Growth Summit was one step toward building a more prosperous future for everyone. Here are some steps we can continue to take: 

Where to start: 
  • Audit your current purchasing processes to identify areas where community wealth building might make sense within your organization 
  • Stay connected with United Way to continue conversations about building community wealth  
  • Attend United Way’s spring webinars to understand how to incorporate community wealth building principles in your organization (links to come – keep an eye on our Events page) 
  • Order your next meal from a local business 🙂 
For organizational leaders: 
  • Join United Way East Ontario’s community wealth building champions’ table to share best practices, challenges, solutions, and case studies to help organizations put community wealth building into action. 

To stay in touch and hear about upcoming opportunities to build community wealth, please contact Kelly Mertl:




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