Change is in the air

By Patricia Henderson - Thursday, January 31 2013

Social prosperity refers to social success, to the creation of thriving, flourishing communities that effectively address entrenched and emerging social issues. It is achieved when empowered communities come together to solve complex problems with creativity.

One hundred people in a room can change the world if they work together. This is the magic behind the innovative and forward-thinking Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo initiative. It all began just two years ago when a few of this country’s and this municipality’s best thinkers came up with a vision for a better and sustainable quality of life for everyone in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

A hugely complex initiative, Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB) is a five-year community-driven partnership between stakeholders in Wood Buffalo, community leaders in Waterloo, Ontario, the University of Waterloo and the Suncor Energy Foundation. In a nutshell, this unique project acts as a catalyst for social change by building capacity in the non-profit sector of Wood Buffalo to improve the quality of life for all.

Suncor Energy Foundation, a private charitable foundation, was the catalyst for this unique idea about seven years ago. Cathy Glover, Director, Stakeholder Relations and Community Investment with Suncor Energy Inc., says, “We feel that community investment is about getting involved, and inspiring ourselves and others to think outside the box about what we want for our communities. So we decided to make investments in change processes rather than projects.”

Glover adds, “If organizations have greater capacity, if Executive Directors stay on longer, if resources can go to programs and services instead of rent and if services and spaces are shared, resources will stretch further. So by strengthening, building and supporting that non-profit sector, there is a powerful impact on a community’s quality of life.”

Suncor already had a strong existing relationship with The University of Waterloo through their co-operative education program so they started there. As luck would have it, that same university is also one of the hubs of social innovation in Canada.

Glover says, “Canadian experts in the field of social innovation, like Frances Westley (co-author of Getting to Maybe – the definitive book on the subject), teach there and their social innovation concepts made sense to us. The University of Waterloo really wants to use their knowledge and resources for the betterment of society, which makes them a perfect partner.”

The city of Waterloo itself also shares similarities with Wood Buffalo because of its transient student population and a history of weathering boom and bust times. Nancy Mattes, Director of Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo, seconded from the Faculty of Arts at the University, says, “Waterloo has reinvented itself time and time again. Once it was a button factory, a whisky manufacturer, an automobile manufacturer, and now a hub of technology. It has a long history of redeploying resources and this has forced its non-profit sector to be more open to change and growth. Funders here collaborate well and have learned to use resources to address community needs in unconventional ways.”

So with Suncor as the catalyst and the University of Waterloo as the backbone, the Wood Buffalo Capacity Building Initiative was formed in early 2011 and eventually became Social Prosperity Wood Buffalo (SPWB). The project recognizes that this region faces unique challenges because the community’s rapid growth means infrastructure and service can’t keep up. Project manager Kim Nordbye, seconded from Suncor, says, “But we know that if we can boost the non-profits, then those challenges will be met, and citizens will be happier here.”

To start things off, 100 leaders from government, industry, the non-profit sector and those benefiting from that sector, got together for a community conversation. Then, partnering with people from Wood Buffalo, Waterloo Region and the University of Waterloo, they held 34 meetings 
over 10 months.

Nordbye says, “This project involves many different players, all having these courageous conversations. People are being brought together who may not have even talked before.” Diane Shannon, Executive Director of United Way Fort McMurray, says, “Nothing like this has ever been attempted before but the model is proving successful so far and will have lasting impact on the non-profit sector. And we need that sector to be strong because it is the root of our community. It attracts and keeps families here.”

SPWB also aligns perfectly with the Municipal Development Plan to build a resilient and sustainable community. Emmanuel Makia, Social Planning Supervisor with the Community Services Department says, “There is no project of this kind in Alberta or, probably, in Canada. And even after just two years, the community itself is so embedded in the process that it doesn’t look like it is coming from one source or another. It feels like something that belongs.” Glover adds, “People, in just a short time, are already thinking beyond their own organization and developing a strong united voice. And over time, the community will take over this work.”

To date SPWB has developed a Framework for Building Prosperous Communities which offers practical strategies designed to build capacity within non-profit organizations as well as a free online Social Prosperity Tool Kit of resources. Conversations are opening about shared-space possibilities (Redpoll Centre, MacDonald Island Park, WB Community Village etc.) and strategies. As well, the whole five-year journey is being documented and carefully evaluated with the hope that what is learned can be used as a creative model to help other communities. Already SPWB has received an Honourable Mention in the Innovation Category at the 2012 Minister of Municipal Affairs Awards of Excellence.

Nordbye says, “SPWB is a good collaborative partnership between industry, the non-profit sector and the municipality. Social change is never easy but SPWB has literally transformed people’s ways of thinking. And the best part is that, from school council to arts groups, we are working with the positive elements of a community that give people happiness. And it’s all being done by incredible, passionate people with an inspiring dedication to community.”

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