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 Group, and 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!
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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.
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 includes over 3,000 people and generates combined annual revenues of $270M. Collectively our members create 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, we have increasingly invested in providing direct education and acceleration support to our members and to ventures across the country. From incubation to education, Social Enterprise 101 to the Agents of Change, from Climate Ventures to Social Ventures, CSI has been accelerating our members success directly and indirectly for over 15 years.