State of the [CSI] Nation

It’s been a while since we last heard from our CEO, Tonya Surman. Considering all the changes that have been happening around here—for example, did you know we’re hiring for a new COO and CPO? —we thought it was time for a check-in!

Don’t just do something! Stand there!

I often find myself reflecting on CSI and my 17 year journey as a social-entrepreneur-turned -founder-and-CEO. Given the rapid and relentless impact of Covid-19 these past several months, I’ve been doing a lot more reflecting than usual, reflection that is actively repositioning and building CSI for what’s next. 

What’s next is CSI doubling down to prove that solutions for the Next Economy are possible. We’re building Canada’s social innovation ecosystem to unlock the earliest stages of enterprises, transform the humans leading these enterprises, and provide a ladder of support that helps them advance and accelerate their solutions from idea to impact.

Proud and Grateful

In March 2020, Covid-19 forced CSI shut its doors for the first time ever. Ironically, we were ‘designed for contagion’ which is great for building social capital but not so good for preventing the spread of viruses. During the first few months of the pandemic, we were stunned, scared, and uncertain. Over the past year (thanks Covid!), we’ve lost 38% of our members – those early stage initiatives that are so vulnerable and often led by some of our most ‘at-risk’ people. It was devastating to see what you, our members, had worked so hard to create, start to crumble.

But our community came together with the creation of our Community Rent Pool, and with the support of the federal wage subsidy, some savings that we had squirreled away, and a diversified revenue stream (TechSoup Canada and CSI Accelerates) CSI continues to navigate through the pandemic. And while we have lost a lot of members, we’ve kept many, many more. We haven’t had to lay off or furlough any staff. We’ve built new partnerships. We’ve strengthened and diversified our Board. These are all things for which I am enormously grateful for and proud of. 

Covid forced us to catch up with ourselves 

Once out of the initial crisis response mode, we had a chance to check in and make sure that we were going in the right direction. Covid has forced us to make some tough decisions. We were forced to close our CSI New York location and move our amazing NYC community online. We also were forced to close our CSI Regent Park location and pivot our work to become more community facing as we look to open the CSI Community Living Room on the ground floor of the Daniels Spectrum and deliver our Every One Every Day program in partnership with Artscape.

For the last 17 years we have been catalyzing, supporting, and inspiring social innovation, but let’s be honest, most people really saw us as the ‘cool, beautiful, hippie coworking space’ in downtown Toronto. (I mean, they’re right, we are pretty beautiful.)

But is that enough to drive the change we want to see in the world? The answer, in truth, is no.

From the Sidelines to the Centre

During our 17 years, we have been pushing, promoting and nudging people towards social innovation, a concept which remains vague and high level. We’ve also been supporting social entrepreneurs… why? Because we believe those idealists with drive and passion are just the right breed of mix – visionary, opportunistic, and pragmatic – to be able to radically redesign business models that put people and planet first. 

But you know, despite progress, social entrepreneurs and social enterprise have been side-lined from halls of power. “Oh look at those nice nonprofits dreaming up those neat little community bonds! How quaint!” or “Maybe the government can create a nice ‘sector’ fund for us and we can have access to… what? 0.001% of the budget?” Maybe I sound harsh, but social enterprise is not enough. Yes, it is important in and of itself, but social enterprise is NOT ENOUGH to fundamentally change our systems.

Re-think, Redesign, Re-set

We know we need a radical redesign of our economic system… our system is flawed. It is built on colonialism, discrimination, sexism, classism, and an unsustainable expectation that our planet will survive our object and relentless abuse. 

I’m horrified by how disconnected we are to the very thing that sustains our life – Mother Earth. No one can deny that we exist at the behest of this great life-giving entity. No religion, culture, race, or creed is exempt from this fundamental relationship – with the air we breath, the water we drink, and the soil that provides us with our sustenance. Every culture in the world goes back far enough to recognize this profound relationship. Many of us are so lost in our digital worlds that we forget what makes us happy: the wind in our hair, a smile from someone we love, relating to each other. 

With Covid, the Earth gave us a ‘time-out’ and sent us to our room to think about what we had done to her. And now, as a global society, Covid has revealed the most vulnerable and once so revealed, we can no longer ignore the vast inequalities. In some respects, the Earth has given us this amazing opportunity to re-think, re-design and re-set our systems. 

Ok, that was a rant. Sorry! Back to my story.

Social Entrepreneurs and Capitalism… right! Oh yes, and CSI. 

So here’s the deal. We need to work together to build the NEXT ECONOMY. We need to take what is good about capitalism – the democratized meritocracy, self-organizing nature, and energy – and we need to make it better. We need to build circles into every design of every system that we create. We need to build a regenerative, equitable, and prosperous economy for all. 

And here’s the exciting thing: the Next Economy is already emerging, with inspiring examples from around the world showing us the way. The Next Economy is sustainable, people-centred, circular, just, participatory, and equitable. It is conscious and caring and it is inclusive: building community wealth, health and wellbeing. We are seeing every sector confronting these challenges – from farming to finance and everything in between.

From local to the global, the Next Economy movement has the potential to redefine success, reshape markets, respect the planet’s capacity to regenerate itself, and create an economy that benefits everyone. 

It’s up to us to be the designers of our economies – to build intentional economies that reflect what we really value – people and planet.

So, that’s what we are doing, and what we want to do more of. We’ve thought about it a lot and let’s face it: CSI, along with so many others, has been working on this for decades and we are finally seeing the mainstreaming of these ideas! It is working! The public and private sectors are finally building ESG’s, clean tech, and so much more. We’re doing it! 

We need to keep supporting the world to embody these values into every decision. We need deep diversity. We need to practice inclusion in ways that may be awkward and painful for some. We need to see across differences and learn to listen better. We need to get outside and listen to how the trees can speak to us. We need to relearn what it is to build true relationships and meaningful communities that we can rely on. We need to remember how to play and bring joy back into our lives. We also need to reclaim our agency and see that we have to power to redesign our economics to be caring and circular when we work together.

CSI is putting everything that we’ve got into Proving that the Next Economy is Possible. We are building social innovation labs mixed with entrepreneurial energy to co-create the business models of the future. We are supporting the humans that are at the earliest stage of their entrepreneurial adventures, often welcoming people who feel unwelcome elsewhere, providing them with the education, acceleration, and catalytic services and supports. We are focusing on Climate Ventures, Social Ventures and Community Wealth. 

We want to collaborate with the people and organizations which share our values and we want to focus on solutions. We ain’t that keen to argue. The challenges are too urgent and the stakes are too high. Instead we want to continue to be generous with each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and focus as we always have done, on building real hope, inspiring possibility and demonstrating lasting solutions. 

Wild-eyed still, even 17 years later… let’s see what we can do. We know what we need to, so who wants to help us actually do it? 

Keep Reading
orange shirt day
September 30 is Orange Shirt Day and Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It’s a day to honour the survivors and victims of the residential school system and reflect on the atrocities Canada committed against Indigenous Peoples.
inclusive economies
Meet the SI4 Fellows who are working with the Inclusive Economy Network to implement inclusive practices in London, Kingston and Windsor.
election coverage
We asked what our members are reading (and writing) to make an informed vote in the lead-up to the election. From housing to health to climate, here’s what some of them had to share.
Become A Member