Victoria Social Innovation Centre - a new model for Vancouver Island

Surviving is important, thriving is essential.

Most gardeners know that choosing the right pot size will determine how a plant succeeds. If you plan to grow a tree, and you want it to thrive, you'll need to create the optimal conditions and you'll need to plan for its growth. In the non-profit sector, when funders only allow for very small allowable administrative budgets, "finding the right pot" often means a "small pot" which undermines its long-term outcomes. If an agency doesn't have adequate space, it cannot propose for larger more efficient programmes. 

As capital grants have become as rare as unicorns and because they are invariably tied to agency financial contributions, the dream of adequate agency space is very challenging. If one provides services in Vancouver, Toronto or Victoria, Canada's three highest cost real estate markets it can feel like an unwinnable battle.

This was the situation of my medium-sized settlement agency, 30 years old and still renting in a volatile real estate market - very vulnerable to a rent increase that would shut us down.

The Victoria Social Innovation Centre was a concept that was pursued by my agency with three other respected agencies, all who never had owned administrative space. Our initial partners were: a family counselling centre; an anti-poverty advocacy agency; and a social planning council. We initially banded together to propose to convert a long-time socially-purposed municipal building that housed a childrens help group for five decades. Ultimately the cash-strapped municipality saw dollars and planned to use the building to gain leverage to build a new municipal fire hall. "Sorry NGO sector, you may have invested millions in developing the building, but we are taking it back 20x the size of what we initially gave". The problem of rampant fiscal restraint is that every level of government begins to feel under the gun, they begin making short-sighted, fear-based financial decisions.

Undeterred, we approached a local foundation to assist us create a strong Social Innovation Centre model. The Foundation responded by offering a $10,000 research grant. We used this to create a bullet-proof model. 

Because of that modest investment from the Foundation, a local credit union helped us locate a 15,000 sf socially-purposed building that was being sold. Not unlike Tolkien's 'Fellowship of the Ring', our fellowship ended up with two agencies who stayed together. My settlement agency and the Family Counselling agency. 

Why did we stay together and take the risk? Our Boards were prepared, our financial status was sound, we had a strong plan. The most important factor was likely that the credit union believed in us and were sincerely committed to the benefit of supporting social services in thier community. They financed our project 100%.  As I write this it is important to recognize that the overtures I made to a core federal funder for partnership only yielded a response commenting whether we could continue to offer services if we moved. Creating a collaborative innovation centre to ensure program stability was clearly not a concept that was not as a priority.

So what is the Victoria Social Innovation Centre? It is a separate non-profit agency that holds and manages a 2.6 million dollar real estate asset for its member agencies. How many agencies can participate? As many as can fit. There is no 'too small'. How is space used? Each member agency has a core administrative space for their staff offices. Each member needs a proportion of the entire floor plan. All other space is either "shared" space or "share, bookable space". Each agency pays a square footage cost for their administrative space. The ration of that space compared to other agencies is the ratio in which they share all costs and also have access to shared bookable spaces. What is a shared bookable space? We all need group workshop areas, we all need instructional rooms, we all need interview rooms, we all need Board Rooms. Each agency must book these rooms for programming. If more time is needed beyond your agencies ratio of use, then an small additional fee is levied. This way, services can expand and contract based on operational tempo and programme beginnings and endings.

It is important to know that this is a building ownership model. The resident agencies all control the building via the Social Innovation Centre non-profit board. voting proportionally to their interest. As the building is paid down, the equity stays with the Social Innovation Centre and provides value for all members. If an agency closes or leaves, the equity stays with the Social Innovation Centre and the benefit is passed to remaining members and new members. This is a critical feature because it will encourage maintaining good neighbor relations and future mutually-beneficial collaborations.

What is also achieved is a leveraging of risk. If the roof fails, all agencies are interested and will be working together. The model also radically increases efficient use of space. In a non-profit, the  maximization of modest advantages is how we stay viable. 

That is the business end of things.

What will create the most significant benefits is co-locating compatible non-profit, human serving agencies. Our clients can find more services in a hub model; we can refer far more easily; there can be better anonymity and privacy for clients seeking services by health and mental health agencies. With the continual collaborative conversation between agency executive and management we can more easily pursue collaborations that enable us to create new and visionary programming. This means we can more easily share strengths, leverage use of our specialized staff and bring in emerging agencies who will add to our abilities.

As the federal government explores social innovation it is critical that they begin with a serious budgetary commitment because the show does not begin if no one is paying. In our case, we gained fantastic support from a credit union, but we will be paying, and we should be paying for ownership of our asset. Be very aware that asking a non-profit to contribute large percentages is the wrong way to proceed. If a financial institution did not need to do this, the powerful federal government should not have to. To arrive at that destination, the process should begin with the business strategy of protecting a federal investment. Our capacity as non-profit human service organizations is the result of three decades of federal investment. Our strength is your strength. Wise federal investment means assisting us increase our viability by controlling our administrative costs, rent being the most difficult for us; especially in high market regions.

If our story is a rare one, it is solely because the federal and provincial governments have not taken adequate consideration of securing their investment in the human services sectors. The "take-away" story is that we achieved this with no public help. We created a plan because an excellent local foundation understood our value and had faith in our excellent record of fiscal reliability. The investment came from another non-public organization committed to maintaining human services.Is this how things should be in Canada? No. Is there a role for the federal government to create better models of securing their service partners in non-profit agencies? The answer is a very big 'yes'.

Consultation has concluded