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An Open Letter to the Non-Profit Sector: Let’s Build the Community of our Dreams

Hello Dear Nonprofit Chairs, Directors, Managers and Staff,

I’m writing to you today to invite you to join me and more than 100 other nonprofit organizations at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI).

Let Me Introduce Myself

If you don’t know me, I’m someone who has been here with you in the third sector for her entire professional life. Starting with the Canadian Children’s Health and Environment Network, I was part of the team of activists who banned BPA from baby bottles. I am honoured to be one of the founding co-chairs of our beloved Ontario Nonprofit Network. When CSI needed to figure out how to buy our first building — a true community asset! — I turned to our friends in the co-op movement and together we created a powerful new tool for the non-profit sector: the Community Bond. You may be reading this email using technology provided by TechSoup Canada, an international organization I helped bring to Canada by incubating it at CSI. In recognition of my work to encourage sharing and collaboration, I was awarded an Ashoka fellowship. My kindergarten teacher would be so proud of how far I’ve come…

This is all to say, I have always worked hard to bring us together, building and fostering the connective tissues, to empower us with the tools, and ultimately contribute to the resiliency of our sector so that we can get to greater impact — organizationally and as a sector.

The Centre for Social Innovation was Founded in a Time of Crisis

Most people know me for my work co-founding, building, and leading the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI). Some of you will be too young to remember this, but 16 years ago, when we opened the first CSI, it was because we were a sector in crisis. Various governments had spent nearly a decade hollowing out civil society. Funding was scarce, and shrinking, and everyone was looking for ways to survive. It was a situation that demanded new ideas, collaborations and models. This moment of disruption was the genesis of CSI. Of CSI’s founding 14 members, 13 were non-profit organizations who came together to share an office. We alchemized the crisis into the creation of the largest social innovation community in Canada, and from this community, incredible people and organizations have advanced countless solutions to address the complex issues our societies are facing.

We Stick Together

As a sector, we are in crisis again. And it challenges us to bolster our visions of the future with the necessities of now. Since the COVID pandemic hit, we here at CSI — with tremendous support from our board — have been doing our level best to take care of our members. Before there was any government relief in sight, we took a big risk and announced that, in every CSI location, rent would be pay-what-you-can. A community rent pool based on one of our core values: together or die. Did your landlord do something similar?

Let's Build the Intentional Community of Our Dreams

Despite our rent pool, we have lost some wonderful organizations. Some have called it quits, many have just moved home to wait out the pandemic. We feel comfortable and safe where we feel at home.

And it is precisely that image, the safety of home, that I want to evoke to my NPO friends when I ask you: come home to CSI. Let us welcome you into our warm, brick-and-beam communities. We have safe spaces for you. We have offices of all shapes and sizes, one for every budget. They are clean, they are sanitized, they are full of smiles behind safe glass walls. They are the right size for you now. They are flexible and will adapt to your growing or shrinking. And most importantly: they are already full of your nonprofit friends and family. There are more than a hundred nonprofits already here who understand you, who want to help you, who want to dance with you when you nail that next grant (and might even help you do it). Let’s build the community of our dreams.

My Promise to the Sector

My promise to you is this: we will do all we can to help you get here. We will do everything in our power to match your space and budget needs. When you pay your rent now, where does your money go? Who does it sustain? Do they care about you? Would they risk it all to get you through to the other side?

We will. We have. We are your community-owned home.

Send us an email with what you’re looking for, and let’s get the conversation started.

Tonya Surman
CEO, Centre for Social Innovation

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