A sense of place and the potential for connection: How geographic networks address local challenges and build stronger communities

Many non-profits contribute to local networks to influence change at the community and regional level. These geographic networks advocate and lobby for change; they are entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative, and are intermediaries that bring diverse local interests together. There are clear opportunities for networks of non-profits to play stronger leadership roles at the geographic level in communities.

Many non-profits contribute to local networks to influence change at the community and regional level. These geographic networks advocate and lobby for change; they are entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative, and are intermediaries that bring diverse local interests together. There are clear opportunities for networks of non-profits to play stronger leadership roles at the geographic level in communities.

This is the third article in our series about the role of networks in the non-profit sector. The series is published as a collaboration between The Philanthropist and the Ontario Nonprofit Network. 

Non-profits work with others all the time – whether it is with an organization down the road or with another member of their professional network. They partner, share, and collaborate. While this organization-to-organization approach brings real benefits to local communities, there is growing interest in collaboration that is enabled and supported through a diverse network of non-profits – one that has potential to bring system change. The recent article by Liz Rykert, as part of this series, set out the many benefits and potential of a network approach. This article will delve deeper, using the examples of five regional non-profit networks to show how geographic networks are helping to address today’s big problems.

Interest in geographic non-profit networks is growing

Some people think that the problems we face today can best be addressed at a local level, where knowledge and relationships can be leveraged to develop innovative and creative local solutions (Baldwin and Bradford, 2018). Traditional problem-solving approaches haven’t worked, and stakeholders are increasingly responding to complex issues by using local networks and relationships to change systems. Although this interest in “new localism” has focused on the local municipal, city, or community level, the system-oriented approach also applies to regional and even provincial spaces. Stakeholders describe new localism leaders using action-oriented language: change catalysts, civic entrepreneurs, and institutional intermediaries (Katz and Nowak, 2018).

There are parallels in new localism to the non-profit sector. Many non-profits contribute to local networks to influence change at the community and regional level. These geographic networks advocate and lobby for change; they are entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative, and are intermediaries that bring diverse local interests together. There are clear opportunities for networks of non-profits to play stronger leadership roles at the geographic level in communities.

Geographic networks play roles similar to other networks – they convene, engage, collaborate, raise awareness, promote understanding through research and engagement in policy, tell stories, and celebrate. They engage members that share a common focus on the community, but many have diverse interests and approaches.

Although the geography is fixed, the network itself evolves and different interests come together around different opportunities or issues. Rykert (2018) referred to networks as creating space for “perpetual novelty and innovation.” Their value and impact far exceed their activities, projects, and initiatives and is demonstrated through their work in capacity-building, connection, and community building.

Geographic networks evolve based on the needs and resources in their community, but they share some elements in common. Examples of Canadian non-profit networks in Calgary, Edmonton, London, Chatham-Kent, and Toronto illustrate the role that networks play in developing non-profit capacity, connecting within and across sectors in the community, and influencing public policy and responses to issues.

Geographic networks exist across the country

Both the Edmonton and Calgary chambers of voluntary organizations were established in the early 2000s after earlier efforts to develop a province-wide network organization failed. This work inspired stakeholders in both cities to pursue the development of local geographic networks. Russ Dahms, executive director of the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (ECVO), remembers, “a dozen or so non-profit sector leaders from different types of organizations were seeing each other at lots of different meetings. The province was making changes at the time that were causing grief and had implications for non-profits. The idea was raised to create an organization to deal with broader issues like volunteerism, education, training, and advocacy.”

ECVO claims to be a bit like Switzerland – they are a convenor, orchestrate conversations, design processes, and facilitate – with content from the sector. When Dahms talks about leadership it isn’t from the traditional sense of ECVO leading others; instead, it is grounded in the network version of leadership, where leadership is shared and distributed among others. ECVO, with many years of experience as a network leader, finds that this approach to their work gives far better results. They “lead, build capacity, and give voice to issues” by bringing groups together across the non-profit, public and business sectors to develop new alliances and to generate support for action, policy, or program advocacy (ECVO, n.d.).

The Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO), established in 2004 to build capacity by strengthening local organizations and the sector and address larger systemic issues, doesn’t specifically use the word “network” to describe itself. However, David Mitchell, its president and CEO, notes, CCVO is “a networked organization . . . that seeks to represent and reflect the views of the broad non-profit sector.” CCVO is part of, and connects with, other networks in Calgary and beyond, as well as the public and private sectors.

Meanwhile, London’s Pillar Nonprofit Network brings a “network mindset” to get “non-profits to think across the sector” rather than in their separate silos, explains Michelle Baldwin, executive director. It developed in 2003 based on a community volunteer summit that identified the need for an organization to build partnerships, develop capacity, be welcoming to newcomers, and enhance the credibility and accountability of the sector. The vision is of a “network that weaves together and is highly connected,” strengthens the voice and impact of the sector, and plays a leadership role in the community. She notes that there is real value to crossing sectors, working together to think differently and solve big issues. According to Baldwin, focusing on a local geography gives the “opportunity to get people excited at giving back to at the community level” and the ability to “leverage knowledge and assets of the region.”

Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, executive director of United Way Chatham-Kent and chair of the Chatham-Kent Nonprofit Network (CKNN), further reflects that “no one understands the community better than people in the community.” She explains that stakeholders established the network in 2014 “to give voice to the hundreds of non-profit organizations who strive – daily – to improve the quality of life of Chatham-Kent residents . . . and to showcase the value of the sector” through cross-sector partnerships, coordinated responses to issues, and awareness-raising about the importance and value of the sector.

With more than 9,000 non-profits, it is surprising that there has been no “network” organization to connect and support the sector in Toronto. Inspired by the Ontario Nonprofit Network, a handful of leaders have been trying to change this, creating the Toronto Nonprofit Network (TNN) to “bring a Toronto non-profit lens to policy development and analysis,” according to Rob Howarth, executive director of Toronto Neighbourhood Centres. The vision is for a “network of networks” model – a network that will engage existing non-profit networks in Toronto in identifying and working together on issues that they are passionate about. Howarth, one of the TNN leaders, describes TNN as “a container to make sure the sector is informed and engaged.” TNN will facilitate, enable, connect, and convene, with an emphasis on supporting collective thinking and problem solving – but the agenda must come from the sector.

The five geographic networks describe their role as including capacity development, connection, and community building, with many initiatives illustrating more than one of these roles.

Geographic networks build capacity

At the local level, geographic networks build capacity by sharing resources, contributing to local knowledge through research and surveys, and providing community-wide support and services. CCVO gives “voice” to sector issues through an Alberta non-profit survey and other research, including a recent report on adaptive capacity and thinking differently. ECVO is involved in many capacity-building efforts, including cohort-based leadership development and an intensive four-day training program to enhance local capacity for brokering partnerships. Pillar offers leadership and board development, training, and workshops on a wide range of topics.

Networks also build capacity through their issue-based work. They promote a better understanding and awareness of critical issues like decent work, inclusion, volunteer screening, and social enterprise, and they engage non-profits in shaping and influencing policy at the municipal and provincial levels. For example, CCVO is focusing on on healthy non-profit workplace issues that it will use to inform advocacy leading up to the 2019 provincial election in Alberta.

Capacity building takes place through many other initiatives. ECVO includes Volunteer Edmonton as well as the Alberta Community Support Network, a pro bono consulting service for non-profits. Innovation Works, an initiative of Pillar Nonprofit Network, is a lively social innovation centre that promotes shared learning, collaboration, and innovation. Reach Hire is a CCVO initiative that connects job seekers with jobs in the non-profit sector.

Like the others, CKNN provides training and support to non-profit organizations to develop capacity. However, in contrast to the other networks, it focuses its education efforts on youth. The organization promotes a better understanding of the sector through a specialist non-profit major program in a Chatham-Kent high school, increased access to volunteer opportunities for youth, and an ongoing relationship with local educational institutions. It also offers a student bursary for post-secondary studies related to the non-profit sector.

Geographic networks facilitate connections

As explained by Pillar founding board chair, Willy Van Klooster, society needs to have three strong pillars – private, non-profit, and public sectors. “Our primary focus is the middle pillar. We will make our dream a reality by increasing the visibility, credibility, capacity, and professionalism of the voluntary sector. We know our sector – the middle pillar – is essential to a civic and just society” (Pillar, n.d.). Pillar supports strong local non-profit sector leadership by connecting the pieces, engaging the public and private sectors, and encouraging thinking from a system perspective. Baldwin reflects that “this is what differentiates us from other networks.”

Historically, groups working with human service non-profits in Edmonton found that organizations were often in competition for resources and staff – there was no human service umbrella organization to bring them together. ECVO developed Creating Collective Capacity in response. This multi-year initiative is supported by sector-based working groups to connect human service non-profits, support innovation and engagement, and shift attention from individual agencies to a community and systems approach to addressing issues.

Kim Broadbent, former network coordinator, described recent efforts to draw a network map in Chatham-Kent as “a constellation of stars…there was a lot of stuff going on.” As a connector and convenor, CKNN brings non-profits together with government and businesses to build relationships through opportunities like the Mayor’s Community Leaders Cabinet and ongoing partnerships that focus on youth and newcomers to the community. The annual Network Conference explores issues and promotes collaborative problem-solving within the diverse rural and urban non-profit sector.

The emerging Toronto network has brought together a loose steering committee of about 60 people. Meetings have engaged interested non-profits in a process to identify the top 10 issues as well as priorities for the network. Action groups have been formed for each of the priorities, connecting those who are interested in advancing a particular issue.

Geographic networks build community

Geographic non-profit networks play a key bridging and bonding role that builds local community. They provide a way for stakeholders to convene and engage around local issues, develop common agendas or goals, and leverage their collective experience, knowledge, and assets for community benefit. Geographic networks positively influence municipal and provincial policy and practice as well as that of funders, which, in turn, strengthens local communities. Community building can take other forms, including special projects, working groups, community planning, and bricks and mortar initiatives. Innovation Works, mentioned earlier, is a 32,000-sq. ft hub in London that has connected entrepreneurs, business innovators, and the non-profit sector and provides a much-used space for community gatherings. VERGE, a London social finance program, also builds community by connecting impact investors to contribute to local social and environmental enterprises.

Positive network impact

Although geographic non-profit networks work within a clearly defined area, it can be difficult to attribute cause and effect and show that network efforts directly led to a specific outcome or impact within that local community. Most of the networks use quantitative measures about reach and engagement and there is increasing attention being paid to developing qualitative measures that let the networks tell stories about their impact.

Measuring impact takes a lot of investment of time and money. It is hard for non-profits and even harder for geographically focused networks and capacity building organizations. “When Pillar hosts a workshop, how do we know that the organizations and participants have used the material and content” asks Baldwin. “Now we do a three-month follow-up that asks about the ideas that they have used, the unintended consequence and what has changed.” A big supporter of developmental evaluation, Pillar wants to build impact and outcome measures into new initiatives. It is doing regular “follow-up, sending out messages saying, ‘this is what we are doing based on your feedback and input’” explains Baldwin.

Despite the challenges with measuring and demonstrating impact, there is obvious appreciation for the work of geographic non-profit networks.

Mitchell knows “that there is strong value in policy and research work” and wants to strengthen CCVO’s influence and impact. Many local non-profits are reviewing their codes of conduct and harassment policies. With help from legal, HR, and other experts in the community, CCVO is considering the development of a standard code of conduct that the sector can adapt and use. There is a similar opportunity with environmental scans. Non-profits do scans as part of a strategic planning process. CCVO plans to prepare an environmental scan, to be updated regularly, that could be used by other non-profits. This would reduce the effort that they have to put into this part of the planning process and provide a comprehensive resource based on quality local research and analysis to inform non-profit strategy development.

The executive director of ECVO is often invited to represent the sector at various tables. While these invitations get Dahms “into meetings and events where he can articulate the value of the sector,” he is cautious about representing the sector. Instead he focuses on making the connections so that non-profits can tell their own story. Dahms was pleased when the City of Edmonton hosted a session exclusively for local non-profit leaders as part of the consultation related to the city’s 2050 vision. ECVO plays a role at the provincial level to engage deputy ministers and other non-profits in regular discussions about issues of common interest. It also co-chairs a provincial procurement advisory table that has engaged a group of 20 or so non-profits from across the province in discussions about the provincial contracting and procurement process.

Engaging in public policy

Advocacy and raising awareness of the sector is important to Pillar, “Like a duck floating along the water and paddling like mad underneath, we work hard behind the scenes to ensure non-profits have a voice in issues affecting the sector.” (Pillar, 2016). Pillar influences provincial policy through participation and leadership in a wide range of initiatives on volunteerism, community hubs, and community economic development and municipal policy related to neighbourhoods, children, and planning. The Pillar Community Awards celebrate community and non-profit success, promote learning, and connect close to 1,000 people.

Baldwin notes that Pillar also brings a “network mindset” to its work and tries to get “non-profits to think across the sector.” This whole sector effort is evident in an ongoing project with the London Youth Advisory Council, the Ontario Nonprofit Network, and Ignite NPS, which explores next generation governance and seeks the views of incoming leaders about how non-profit governance needs to change to attract and retain them.  Pillar has been leading board diversity projects with a focus on visible minorities and underrepresented groups to better promote equity and inclusion, and “ensure that diverse voices are being heard and valued,” says Baldwin. Western University researchers contributed research to establish baseline measures for non-profit boards.

CKNN works to influence municipal policy and practice. Its participation in the Mayor’s Community Leaders Cabinet brings an important voice to that municipal table. A partnership with the Chatham-Kent Workforce Planning Board produced a study of the non-profit workforce, based on the more than 550 non-profits in the area. These results informed some of the later CKNN initiatives in capacity building, education, and community relations and informed advocacy efforts with funders and policy makers. CKNN was active in promoting a better understanding of the non-profit sector during the municipal election in 2014 and has plans to continue this work leading up to the October 2018 election.

TNN has a clear focus on the relationship with the municipal government. The impetus for the TNN came from a City of Toronto staff report that called for a study of the non-profit sector. Howarth and a small group of other leaders hosted a meeting to talk about this. The idea of advocating for a new, “whole of government” approach to working with the non-profit sector municipally was hatched at that meeting. The group prepared discussion papers related to the sector role and relationship with the City and invited input. Stakeholders recognized this as an opportunity to promote a more complete understanding of the sector, to advance the sector agenda, and to engage with the city in co-creating the new policy. Participants knew that they could influence the new policy and work to achieve more in the re-negotiated relationship with the city if they had a clearer and stronger voice. They met with different city departments and helped shape the process, which will continue this fall with the implementation of the new policy framework.

What else can we learn from these geographic non-profit networks?

Collaboration is hard work. Networks aren’t always the right answer for a local community. Mitchell of CCVO explains that a decision to develop a network must be “deliberate” and that the participants need to understand why it is being proposed. Dahms of ECVO agrees that the community “needs to have deep conversations about what geography means for the network…[they] need to be clear on why it is important.”

Geographic networks need an anchor – an organization or leader – that has capacity to support the development of the network, like the United Way Chatham-Kent and their incubation of the CKNN and Social Planning Toronto for the TNN. Networks also need a core group of supporters to share in the development and leadership of the network and to leverage their diverse relationships in the local community to build it. As a network develops its own identity and capacity over time, the anchor and early partners are less important.

Howarth reflects that the network development process in Toronto is “an iterative process that builds on trust.” Trust is a key element in the development of each of the five different geographic networks and in their ability to bring the local community together around shared issues. Vision is the second element: there must be a clear and compelling vision of what the network is, how it will work, and what it will focus on.

Timing is also important. Non-profits have many demands on their time and many already contribute to professional or service networks. They need to see “what’s in it for them” before they will put time into another network.

Networks face the same, but different, challenges as other non-profits. Funding for network level capacity building is limited. Dahms explains that “it’s hard to have profile. Non-profit networks aren’t as visible as direct service; they are behind the scenes. Investors want to give money to direct service and supports.” While they play an important role in supporting, connecting and developing the sector, it is hard for them to attract attention and successfully secure grants or donations. Fundraising can put geographic networks in direct competition with their network members.

Funding to develop a new network is even more limited. Chatham-Kent secured five-year funding to develop the network but must now find ongoing funding; Toronto hasn’t been able to secure development funding and has struggled to support the early network development.

With limited capacity, geographic networks must say “no” to interesting work and requests for their time and instead focus on activity that brings the greatest impact for the network and the community. Locally-generated strategic priorities inform these tough choices.

The networks also struggle with membership and articulating the value proposition. Non-profits and individuals will attend events and workshops but are reluctant to join as members. Also, while the networks are successful at engaging social service and health non-profits they are less successful at connecting with non-profits from sports and recreation, arts, the environment, and other sectors that are often staffed by volunteers or part time staff.

Optimism about the future

The leaders of the five networks are hopeful and optimistic about the future. Geographic networks will continue to be important as “natural connecting points,” according to Baldwin. Pillar is encouraged by its past successes but is mindful about being strategic to increase impact – to maximize the positive impact of the sector and across the pillars. Dahms expects that there will continue to be a balance between “what matters on the street to non-profits” and the bigger sector or system picture. And he notes that “there is room to start to talk to the corporate community” about the role that they can play in supporting community building. He envisions a broader ECVO role in “brokering relationships.” Mitchell, sums it up when he says, “we want to explore what we can do more effectively together than we can do alone.”

Local networks will continue to build and leverage relationships within the diverse non-profit sector and across the sectors to develop capacity, facilitate connections, and build strong local community. Raynor et al. (2015) present a useful way to think about this evolving work. They describe three levels of capacity building: capacity 1.0 focuses on individual knowledge and skills development; capacity 2.0 targets effectiveness and improving functionality at the organizational level; and capacity 3.0 is about the systems or movement level.

All the networks, including the emerging Toronto network, seem to be focusing on 3.0 and positioning the sector as part of a complex and dynamic local, geographic system. They want to engage, leverage ideas, and develop capacity within the sector and across sectors. This includes harnessing the new localism forces to bring a more systems-oriented approach that engages diverse constituents to the complex issues, promotes equity and inclusion, and measures impact.

And it’s working. In different ways and through different initiatives, these networks are having impact on government policy and practice, community awareness of the sector, connections between sectors and with other non-profits, and in building capacity and inspiring innovation.


Andrews, B. (2013, November 25). Nonprofits are big business. The Chatham Voice. https://chathamvoice.com/2013/11/25/non-profits-are-big-business/

Bradford, N. & Baldwin, M. (2018). New civic leadership for mid-sized cities: Pillar Nonprofit Network in London. Evergreen. https://www.evergreen.ca/downloads/pdfs/2018/BRADFORD_Fleck_Evergreen-Mid-sized%20Cities-Series%20Design_WEB.pdf

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Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations. Website. http://ecvo.ca/

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Pillar Nonprofit Network. (n.d.). Website. http://www.pillarnonprofit.ca/about-us

Raynor, J., Cardona, C., Knowlton, T., Mittenthal, R. & Simpson, J. (2015). Capacity building 3.0, How to strengthen the social ecosystem. Briefing paper. TCC Group. http://www.tccgrp.com/pdfs/11-18-14_TCC_Capacity_3.pdf

Rykert, L. (2018). The connections between us: Learning to leverage the power of a network approach. The Philanthropist.

Toronto Nonprofit network. (n.d.). Website. https://www.torontononprofits.org/


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