The Pipeline: Using business as a catalyst to address community issues
Throwing money at a non-profit has traditionally been the way businesses give back to their communities. Corporate sponsorships, paid volunteer time, or placing a donation container at the company’s reception desk used to do the trick. But, in an economy where consumers and employees are more socially-conscious than ever before, and where the success of businesses and the communities they serve are so intertwined, tossing money around simply doesn’t cut it. That’s where The Pipeline at Volta: Social Innovation Training has a significant role to play in helping business leaders tackle community challenges.
“Through the Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre (SMUEC), we realize that all of these organizations have really strong resources internally that they use to solve their everyday business challenges or growing their business,” Matt MacPhee, Senior Project Manager and one of two facilitators of The Pipeline, said. “So we thought, why not give them the opportunity and the tools to look at their community problems like they are already looking at all of the organizational challenges that they do so well at solving.”
The program’s other facilitator and Project Manager at SMUEC, Mitch Harrison, added, “We recognized a need within the economic development scene in general, where a lot of these different non-profits or community organizations would have a series of tools that they would be applying to different participants within their region. Whether that’s to loan services or for ideation techniques and tools, there was never this one tool to help them start from scratch on exploring a challenge they feel passionate about,” he said. “Then to be able to go through, step by step, to come up with a testable solution that they can lead – that fits within the description of generating revenue while also having that positive impact – is key.”
Because there is rarely a single solution to solve what are often complex issues, MacPhee and Harrison explained that is why a post-secondary institution is the right place to help create such meaningful change for businesses and the community.
“Particularly, the Entrepreneurship Centre is really well suited for this kind of engagement because we have our roots in academia; we understand needs assessments, and we know to look at community problems from a multitude of different angles because oftentimes, it’s not just one thing that leads to a problem. There are a lot of different things that go into it,” MacPhee said.
MacPhee has been a consultant at the Entrepreneurship Centre for almost 10 years, working with high-growth businesses to help them with their business models, identify their user groups and provide the specific information they need to be successful. He is also a part-time faculty member at SMU in marketing, management and psychology.
Harrison was one of the students that helped spearhead The Pipeline for the university when it was in its infancy. Not only did he help develop it, he was one of the participants that saw value in this type of training for the development of his own social innovation tool, and for others’.
“Because we’re also practitioners working with community groups, we understand how to mobilize people, how to show people what resources they need to use to solve problems and where we come from a business background, we know the business models and being sustainable are probably the most important part of all of these community solutions. It’s important that they can operate without government funding, so that they can operate without corporate donors,” MacPhee said.
But launching a social innovation tool isn’t something that companies can just start doing without any direction or guidance. That’s where MacPhee and Harrison started thinking about how the program’s framework could give business leaders the tools they need to solve problems that better their communities and make a greater impact. So, when the need was identified, Saint Mary’s University and Volta partnered earlier this year, to provide a space for innovative minds to collaborate on projects in their semi-private office located in the Volta Co-Working Space, and also to extend programming like The Pipeline to established companies in the community.
“We’re extending now to provide a unique type of training; it’s about leveraging your resources to tackle a community challenge,” Harrison said. “It’s definitely grown since it first started , but the process remains the same, with a heavier emphasis on what businesses have at their disposal to work with.”
A notable success story from The Pipeline based at Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre, MacPhee said is Square Roots, the Positive Impact Award winner at Volta’s inaugural Ecosystem Impact Awards in June 2019. Their use of The Pipeline framework had multiple parties reaping the rewards of their solution.
“One of the biggest successes from the program was a company called Square Roots, which is an Enactus-led initiative where they go out and source farms – mostly in the Annapolis Valley region – to identify what produce they are just letting rot in the fields because its either not visually appealing or it doesn’t fit the market characteristics needed for large grocery chains,” Harrison said. “So they pay the farmers a particular rate for their produce that would otherwise rot, and then they created a community hub network to distribute the vegetables throughout rural Nova Scotia and Halifax as well.”
It was particularly successful because it began with a group of students who wanted to do something about food waste, but they also recognized the need for food security programming as well.
“So they were able to create that network, where they are pulling this second- rate produce from farmers that would get wasted completely, providing a revenue stream for them and re-distributing that through community franchise networks in the rest of the province,” MacPhee said.
But now that the program’s framework has been fine-tuned, the duo are eager to help existing business leaders shift their mindset to a community focus. Participants will be equipped with the tools they need to launch a social innovation that fits their passion, while growing their business’ bottom line.
“Now, the whole idea with The Pipeline is that it lets organizations treat community problems like business problems,” MacPhee said. “One of the foundations of this program is that we’re giving these community groups permission to look at these challenges in a different way, realizing that they are already good at these things they do day-to-day in their organizations, so why not do the same things in a community-minded project?”
The Pipeline is a six-week workshop, consisting of two group sessions and one-on-one follow ups. Participants are provided tools and resources to help define and create a solution for a community challenge they would like to work on personally or within their organization. After teaching the framework for The Pipeline and how to put ideas into action, each of the participant’s challenges are presented to the group as a collective brainstorming exercise.
“Everyone that’s in the room will have their own resources and their own perspectives on things to share, even though we expect each organization to come in with a pre-identified challenge, oftentimes we get the other participants to offer their solutions so it’s more like the entire group working together to look at how to potential solve each of the challenges brought forward,” Harrison said.
Otherwise, when it comes to actually facilitating the sessions, both Harrison and MacPhee both said they take a less formal approach to teaching, and agreed that the less talking they do and more action from the participants is important.
“We will walk them through the framework approach that we’ve developed and hopefully, after that first day, they come up with a wide range of testable solutions to pursue, which we develop further after that six-week period to a point where, afterwards, after a ton of discovery, refinement and testing, they get to a point at the end where we can have, hopefully, some launched initiatives come out of it,” Harrison said.
The next round of The Pipeline at Volta: Social Innovation Training kicks off on September 19. To save your seat in the program, register on Eventbrite.
“I feel like we’re on the right track to do a lot of really special work,” Harrison said. “I’ve got a real good place in my heart for this type of training and I hope to see it continue and grow.”