The funder’s view: Three Suncor employees share their stories

This article is the fourth in a five-part series on Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo.

SUMMARY: Cathy Glover, with Suncor Energy Foundation, explains how a confluence of forces, including the desire to make an impact with a signature cause, began the then-10-year-old foundation’s journey to Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo. Kim Nordbye and Bryan Jackson, two Suncor Energy Inc. employees, were seconded to the cause. Nordbye, who spent nearly four years as SPWB’s project manager, reveals what the experience taught her. Bryan Jackson, currently on secondment to FuseSocial, SPWB’s “backbone” organization, outlines how the organization’s programs work together to strengthen Wood Buffalo’s “social prosperity sector.”

RÉSUMÉ: Cathy Glover, de la Fondation Suncor Énergie, explique comment un ensemble de facteurs, dont le désir de produire un impact grâce à une cause emblématique, a aiguillé le parcours de la Fondation, commencé dix ans plus tôt, vers Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB). Kim Nordbye et Bryan Jackson, deux employés de Suncor Énergie inc., ont été affectés à la cause. Mme Nordbye, qui a été pendant près de quatre ans gestionnaire du projet SPWB, révèle les leçons qu’elle a tirées de cette expérience. Bryan Jackson, présentement affecté à FuseSocial, organisation centrale de SPWB, souligne comment les programmes de l’organisation se complètent pour renforcer le « secteur de prospérité sociale » de Wood Buffalo.

How Suncor became involved with Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo

By Cathy Glover

Where does inspiration come from? How do ideas come together to create a new way of thinking about the work that you do? The Suncor Energy Foundation board and staff have been thinking about how to do things differently for many years now. There were a number of disruptions or catalysts that pushed us along our way, and quite honestly, I know that there will continue to be new ideas and new learning that will continually inspire us along this journey.

There have been many great conversations and explorations into the direction that this journey is taking us. There are three that stand out for me. In 2002, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer published an article in the Harvard Business Review. It talked about the competitive advantage of corporate philanthropy and started us thinking about what difference we were making by simply responding to requests for funding. We started to ask ourselves how we could address business issues like attraction and retention of employees through a more strategic granting program and if we did, what benefit might that have to the community?

That led us to the Tamarack Institute in Waterloo, and leaders there such as Paul Born and Mark Cabaj. We contracted some research from Tamarack, an organization that doesn’t do corporate work, but is a non-profit organization that is all about collaborative community impact. We asked them to investigate where there might be an opportunity for Suncor to really move the needle on an issue. Full disclosure: this was in the time that everyone was looking for signature causes (think CIBC Run for the Cure, or Dove’s Self Esteem program) and we were trying to find ours. What they recommended was a focus on sustainable communities and introduced us to the application of systems thinking and the adaptive cycle to how we interact with community.

In 2008, as we headed towards our 10th year of operating the Suncor Energy Foundation and we were preparing for one of our board meetings, we found another “aha” and a new catalyst. We had found the book Getting to Maybe by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton. On page 47 was the paragraph “Let’s imagine the example of an experienced leader of a major philanthropic foundation. The philanthropist and her trustees have recently completed a strategic review of the foundation’s mission and have decided they want to support significant social innovation but aren’t sure how to do it. Given the chance for a conversation, here is what we would tell her.” And what followed was a road map that helped us on our way and new people to meet and have stimulating conversations with. It led us to the development of what was to become Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo and to be able to bring together our funded partners in two separate “Gathering” events.

In 2009, we partnered with the University of Waterloo to help us to build the capacity of the non-profit sector in Wood Buffalo to address quality of life issues. We undertook this work with the understanding that we were going to support a process of social innovation rather than a specific program. What started as the Waterloo Wood Buffalo Capacity Building Initiative became Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo and for the next six years we continued to work with the community to innovate new ways to approach issues and challenges, to learn, to create and to build a network that would have the resilience to tolerate change.

These thought leaders continue to inspire us today. Concepts like shared value, collective action, systems and design thinking, resilience, and social innovation are all coming to the forefront and changing the way in which we are interacting with community and within our company.

The Gathering events in 2013 and 2014 brought some of these inspirational thinkers together with many of our community, industry and Suncor colleagues to share their knowledge. Following the Getting to Maybe road map we brought together those that were capable of tipping a system and who were excited to learn from one another and to explore new ways to look at issues. These events brought together individuals and organizations that were really already thinking about social innovation. They were all dealing with different issues, but they were thinking about the complexity of the issues in a similar way. As someone said “these are my peeps”.

For us, this is a logical step in the journey. How do we share the inspiration and learning that we are gaining with others? How do we test what we are learning and doing to ensure that it does make sense to our partners? How do we build on these ideas to create real change and tackle re


Trusting relationships build healthy communities

By Kim Nordbye

In November 2011, I was seconded by Suncor Energy Inc. (Suncor) to a project that at the time was called the Wood Buffalo Community Building Project, now Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB). Nearly four years later, after my return to Suncor in January 2014, I find myself constantly reflecting on my time with the project.

I came to the project with all kinds of ideas from the business world, from my experience living in Fort McMurray, and from working with communities in Wood Buffalo and Calgary through my Suncor roles in stakeholder relations and community investment. I felt I had a pretty good sense of how important the sector is to community and the challenges they face, but I quickly learned that maybe I didn’t understand as much as I should.

Through SPWB, I learned that traditional ways of companies giving money to community are not necessarily the best at helping a community address its needs. I learned that perhaps more important than money is the need to support, foster, and build relationships and trust within the nonprofit sector and between sectors. What soon became evident through SPWB was that without healthy relationships and trust, the social sector could not work together to build its capacity nor could it work with the other sectors to build quality of life in Wood Buffalo. The success of this project comes from the relationships and partnerships fostered between very different people, organizations, and sectors. The success also comes from working together, rather than in silos, towards a common goal of building the capacity of the community benefit sector to be better equipped and positioned to deal with the unique issues and complex challenges we face in a region that faces constant and sometimes rapid growth and change.

Through SPWB, we demonstrated the value of building relationships, collaboration, and collective impact with unusual partners as a means of more effectively addressing the complex social challenges in community. We connected, supported, learned, acted as a catalyst and worked with some unusual partners to help us get closer, together, to solving complex social challenges.

What I also learned through SPWB is to be comfortable with discomfort! There were lots of questions around what Suncor was up to with this project and there were doubts that I, as an industry person, could really understand the nonprofit sector’s needs and concerns. In the end, through many tough conversations and lots of listening, we were able to show the benefits of going beyond traditional community investment through this creative approach that challenged our traditional roles as a funder, challenged us to become active participants and challenged the social profit sector to work with us in a different way. Through SPWB, we showed that businesses can and should be a part of addressing and solving social challenges. In the end, we all have a common goal to have the best quality of life possible in the communities where we work, live and play.

Loops are the answer: What was the question?

By Bryan Jackson

My first career was in building computer process control systems for large industrial processes. It instilled a deep understanding of complex systems and the need to provide feedback loops to ensure the process stayed in control at all times. Little did I suspect as a young systems engineer that those skills would be so applicable to the social-profit world. Recently I’ve been given exactly the opportunity to apply those skills through a secondment to FuseSocial.

Building sustainable systems is a challenge that all businesses are intimately familiar with. In the resource-strapped social-profit sector, this challenge is amplified many times over. Throughout the life of the Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB) project, the focus was to be on driving capacity building and social innovation. Generating new ideas and creating a neutral and safe place, SPWB was a convenor of conversations aimed at engaging participation from all stakeholders. These ideas created organizational changes designed to strengthen the sector by providing it with a backbone organization and by holding “feedback events” to see if any course corrections were needed on its journey.

Through SPWB, three existing social-profit organizations discovered they had synergy and were open to the concept of merging to form a new backbone organization that would continue to build and enhance capacity with the Wood Buffalo social-profit sector. They formed a new organization, FuseSocial, that could look at and support the sector in a unique manner. Our mission is: “Every day at FuseSocial, we inspire the social-profit sector and community to push boundaries that maximize all of our potential.” Rolled into this new organization was the stewardship of both the Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards and ConvergenceYMM events and a newly developed community strategic plan, more commonly known as the Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap.

Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards, ConvergenceYMM, and the stewardship of the Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap are examples of feedback loops. Each undertakes specific tasks with specific goals, but together they support the long-term objective of social prosperity in Wood Buffalo. That is, they are feedback loops for the whole SPWB system.

Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards support capacity building and recognition. They are a celebration of the social-profit sector’s brightest and best. A panel-judged selection of nominees is narrowed down to six category winners, who each receive a cash prize to donate to the social profit of their choice. National keynote speakers, an introduction by the Mayor, and an evening of networking follow an Oscar’s-like awards presentation and set the stage for individuals to be formally recognized for their efforts in the community and contributions to social prosperity. The event re-energizes and formally recognizes core contributors from a community sector that has often felt marginalized despite being an integral part of the community.

ConvergenceYMM supports shared learning and facilitates an ongoing conversation among social-profit agencies, the private sector, and municipal and provincial governments. The event is an annual pulse check and key course corrector for the sector. Although still in the “forming” stage (following the “storming” stage but before the “norming” stage), this event focuses on targeted educational sessions, group discussions and, of course, networking. The event inspires and challenges participants to explore complex problems, expand thinking beyond traditional solutions, and discuss what’s working and what isn’t.

The Wood Buffalo Strategy Roadmap supports, directs, and informs social innovation. It’s where the rubber meets the road. It is a clear, community-developed collection of outcomes geared toward facilitating a high quality of life for the people of Wood Buffalo now and for future generations. Multiple players, including a variety of social-profit organizations, worked to develop the roadmap that now guides the direction and measures the results that the social profits are experiencing in their efforts to tackle some of society’s most challenging issues. The roadmap also depicts gaps in progress, supports course correction, and details the flow of money.

FuseSocial is the outer loop which is tasked with increasing the collective impact of the social profits by becoming a backbone organization that collaborates to guide vision and strategy, support and identify aligned activities, establish shared measurement practices, build public will, advance policy, and mobilize funding. It should be noted, however, that building a backbone organization is not for the faint of heart. The development has many unique challenges not faced by other social-profit agencies. It requires funders to take a leap of faith and have the virtue of hurried patience. We have been fortunate to have the Suncor Energy Foundation as such a funder. Our partnership with the University of Waterloo, a notable research institution along with a remarkable community in Wood Buffalo, also combined to create an ideal climate. From the beginning of SPWB, the focus has been on the end: “We all have a common goal to have the best quality of life possible in the communities where we work, live and play.”



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