Our Story and Impact

How it All Got Started

CSI’s story begins in 2003 when a handful of visionary social entrepreneurs came together to solve what we referred to as the “photocopier problem”. Too many organizations were working in isolation, paying too much for equipment and substandard facilities. They asked, “what might happen if we share?”

Part of the answer came in the form of the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina Avenue in Toronto. With generous support from co-founder and landlord, Urban Space Property Groupand donors, the Centre for Social Innovation Spadina opened its doors to 14 founding members in 5,000 sq. ft. of space in June 2004 – one of the very first coworking spaces in the world! 

On This Page

Our Workspace Journey

The model worked. 14 members grew to 25 with ‘virtual tenancy’ (later coined ‘coworking’). We embedded diversity into our DNA with founding members including the African-Canadian Social Development Council, Documentary Organization of Canada, Stephen Lewis Foundation, Corporate Knights Magazine, the National Anti-Racism Council of Canada, the Sustainability Network, and the Ontario Presenting Network.

In 2007, CSI expanded upstairs growing to 14,000 sq. ft. and to 150 members. We invested in community animation of social entrepreneurs: this helped build bridges between nonprofits and small-to-medium enterprises that wanted to change the world. We fostered collaborations, networks, animating learning and connections, and honed our community building craft.

In 2010, CSI bought its first building, 720 Bathurst, a 36,000 sq. ft. building opening its doors to another 175 organizations. We did this by demonstrating new community finance models are possible by pioneering community bonds

Between 2010 and 2014, CSI’s operating budget grew from $400K to $6M, from 5 staff to 50 and from one location to six. After opening CSI Annex in 2010, we opened CSI Regent Park in 2012, CSI New York in 2013, partnered with Innovation Works in London, Ontario and finally bought our second building – 192 Spadina – a 64,000 sq. ft. brick and beam beauty in 2014. 

During that time, we raised over $7.5M in community bonds from over 400 community investors (including seven charitable foundations!) to owning and operating 100,000 sq. ft. of commercial real estate in downtown Toronto. It’s been a wild ride for a little nonprofit “who thought they could.”

In the early days we developed a theory of change: curated spaces and animated communities foster social innovation emergence.

Our thriving members shared ideas, strategies and experience. It meant collaborating, learning, growing and becoming resilient in ways never imagined in isolation. Since that time, we’ve grown a community of over 6,000 members and alumni, made up of small and medium-sized startups, nonprofits, and charities. Our core principles of social innovation, entrepreneurship, and collaboration have formed the basis of work since day one. We’ve honed our craft: using social innovation to influence policy, markets, & culture change, shift systems, grow jobs, build businesses and deliver huge impact.

Our Theory of Change

We begin at the bottom of the pyramid, focussing on the creation of the physical space. We do this carefully, designing a space that’s functional, whimsical, inviting, and energizing.

The next layer is community. What begins as a group of people looking for a place to work becomes a community through conscious and careful curating and programming. 

These layers form the basis for innovation — the serendipity that happens when you mix the right people, the right values and the right environment; when you set the conditions for social innovation emergence.

CSI’s Theory of Change pyramid with 3 levels. Top level: Innovation. Middle level: Community. Bottom level: Space.

Our Impact

We started with 14 members and quickly became home to over 900 social purpose organizations, but the real work was in fostering, catalyzing, and supporting social impact. 

Our membership employs over 3000 people and generates combined annual revenues of $270 M. Collectively our members created an estimated 300 new jobs per year and every single one of them is a job focused on making a difference. Their initiatives further serve tens of thousands of people in Toronto and around the world. We are so proud of the amazing work that our members do!

Our role is to curate a diversity of values aligned members, foster the connections to reveal the assets in the community, convene to spark and develop new solutions, reduce the friction to increase the trust in order to build social capital (we call this “animation”) and then let them loose!

We’ve learned that some gentle animation can do wonders. In addition to the physical space and a diverse mix of people, it is interventions and learning opportunities that help make connections and stimulate new thoughts and ways of doing.

We bring innovators together with capacity-building workshops, informal social mixers, our online community, and more. We foster individual and collective growth and create an environment that produces original action. Our key is to adopt a light touch. We do not program with an expectation of uniform engagement. We offer opportunities for individuals to ‘find their own level’; to dip in and dip out of the community in a way they find comfortable and natural. And when a new idea begins to surface, that same gentle touch helps it to grow. This is our role within the centre: to animate the ideas that have developed in the spaces we have created, and to nurture a participatory culture where all members feel welcome to bring their ideas and to leave their fingerprints.

Overtime, and when we could find funding, we have increasingly invested in providing direct education and acceleration support to our members. From incubation to education, Social Enterprise 101 to the Agents of Change Program, from Climate Ventures to Social Ventures, CSI has been accelerating our members success directly and indirectly for over 15 years.

CSI Fast Facts & Timeline

  • The first coworking space in Canada!
    We opened our first space in 2004 with, just a handful of tenants. This brought co-working to Canada — and maybe the world! (Though we called it "virtual tenancy.") We turned a $572 surplus in our first quarter.
  • The world had some catching up to do.
    Preceding coworking space IPOs by about 15 years, our co-founder and CEO Tonya Surman walked around with a handful of cheques we couldn’t cash. No banks would open an account for us. We went to Alterna Credit Union: they helped.
  • We bought our first building!
    In 2010 we bought a beautiful brick and beam building at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor. CSI Annex is 36,000 sq. ft. and houses over a hundred social purpose organizations and hundreds of events each year.
  • Open sourced our business model.
    In keeping with the spirit of scaling our impact, CSI open sourced our business model in their highly sought after publications that have been downloaded by 10’s of thousands of readers and inspired a seismic systems change in how our world works.
  • Our members sometimes outgrow us.
    Over 5,000 organizations got their start at CSI including Spacing Magazine, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, and Well.ca. We love when members outgrow us!
  • Joining the Regent Park community.
    Our first real neighbourhood expansion, CSI RP brought us face-to face with community. This dynamic space has been home to dozens of members including PeaceKeepers, Bear Standing Tall, CAIC, Circle in a Square and more.
  • There's strength in numbers.
    The CSI Community is home to nearly 1,000 non-profits, charities, and social ventures. Our membership employs over 3000 people and generates combined annual revenues of $270 million.
  • We incubate game-changers.
    Over 5,000 organizations got their start at CSI including Spacing Magazine, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, and Well.ca. We love when members outgrow us!
  • CSI in the Big Apple.
    In May 2013 we opened a CSI location in New York City at the Starrett-Lehigh building, a bright, vibrant 24,000 sq ft home for change-makers working across sectors.
  • Knowing who we serve.
    In 2016 we did the first demographic survey of our community. We have used this data to identify and address the potential barriers for groups and individuals who are currently underrepresented at CSI.
  • The power of Community Bonds!
    We own two of our locations, thanks to having invented the Community Bond, an innovation in social finance that allows a nonprofit or charity to leverage its supporters to pursue its mission, build its resiliency, and create more vibrant communities.
  • An innovative volunteer program.
    Every year over 100 people from a hugely diverse background go through our Desk Exchange Community Animator program. One of our first DECAs is now our Chief Community Officer!
  • We launched the Common Platform.
    In October 2020, amidst a pandemic, CSI’s community moves online to a new platform dedicated to amplify the work of social innovators and entrepreneurs.
  • We said goodbye to CSI NY and CSI RP.
    With the global pandemic ripping away thriving business models, CSI makes the difficult call to close 2 of 4 spaces and focus on accelerating social impact in New York City and Regent Park.
  • Support from the get-go.
    Our Agents of Change program has supported hundreds of of startups, including Project Wildfire, City Innovation, Youth Entrepreneurship, Food Security, Community Health, Nadia Hamilton - Magnus Mode, Theresa Corozon - Socialite, Ran Goel - Fresh City Farms, Ryan Dyment - Toronto Tool Library, Matt Blackett - Spacing Magazine, Jordyn Lexton - Drive Change, Maayan Ziv - AccessNow, Luke Anderson - StopGap just to mention a few.
  • Incubation and Trusteeship
    Cofounded and incubated the Ontario Nonprofit Network, representing over 40,000 non-profits across Ontario and has advanced important public policy issues on behalf of the sector.
  • Making access a priority.
    In addition to our own wheelchair accessible spaces, we helped accelerate both The StopGap Foundation (which offers free removable wheelchair ramps to business owners), and the Access Now app. We’re also the home of Accessibility Ontario.
  • Affordable software for Canadian charities.
    In 2007, CSI helped establish TechSoup Canada, which has resulted in 21,000 Canadian non-profits, charities, and libraries receiving over $273 million worth of software and hardware donations.
  • Advocating for change.
    Co-Chaired and advocated with the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, the foremost voice driving policy for the social enterprise sector in Canada.
  • A space for climate innovators.
    Our Climate Ventures program is home to the entrepreneurs, innovators, and advocates working on climate solutions and climate justice. From farming to fashion, our members are building the low-carbon economy and a better future for all.
  • A charitable undertaking.
    In 2016, the CSI Institute was created to lead our research and education work. It is host to Social Innovation Canada and our Next Economy Campaign.
  • Our national network of innovators.
    In 2018 we helped launch Social Innovation Canada, connecting social innovators across the country, in partnership with Radius SFU, ABSI Connect, Social Enterprise Centre, CSI, MIS and Inspiring Communities in order to build the capacity of social innovation practitioners to help people, organizations and systems problem-solve better.
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