The power of a network: responding to the funding challenge

By Mike Morrice, Executive Director, Sustainability CoLab

When I led the team that started Sustainable Waterloo Region in 2008 – and launched the Regional Carbon Initiative (RCI) in the process – we needed to raise enough seed funding to give us time to build up ongoing program revenue, from sources like membership fees, sponsorships and event attendees.

While mired in the financial crisis, it wasn’t an easy go by any means. But after 11 months we put together $200,000, $140,000 of this from grantors (the rest from corporate sponsors), and launched the RCI in June 2009. It then took us four years to build up revenue to the point where the RCI was breaking even, and just in time for this original ‘sinking fund’ to have fully sunk.

Fast forward 7 years: of the $140,000 from that original seed funding that came from grantors, how much came from those who are still funding climate change work today? Only the $24,000 we received from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.


Mike Morrice and Lisa Chapman (Sustainable Waterloo Region) with seed funding from 2009.

The Province’s “Community Go Green Fund” no longer exists. The City of Kitchener’s Local Environmental Action Fund (LEAF) not only no longer exists in Kitchener, but wasn’t widely replicated by other municipalities across the province. The Government of Canada’s EcoAction Fund still exists, but is not prioritizing climate-change work.

Now that I’m focused on supporting community environmental organizations across Ontario to replicate the success of the RCI, it should be no surprise that putting together a similar amount of seed funding in each community has emerged as a critical challenge for each of CoLab’s Network Members.

In response, many of our members are more reliant on Trillium. And a silver-lining: Trillium has increased its support significantly. As is true across many sectors, Trillium is filling the gap. For example, Sustainable Kingston recently received $150,000 for their program, the Green Economy Collective. This is 2/3 of what we recommend they raise prior to launch and more than six times what the RCI received from Trillium back in 2008.

In the face of this seed funding challenge, last fall we began to question how CoLab could evolve to meet this challenge. When we first launched last January, our focus was purely on providing our members the supports they need to launch and grow their programs (for example: coaching, resources, partnerships, peer learning)

And while this role remains critical, as we began to investigate what more we could be doing to support the whole CoLab Network, serendipitously, some powerful new research from Stanford came our way. Using a term they coined – Collective Impact – back in 2011, a group of researchers cited 6 functions that a ‘backbone organization’ like CoLab should be supporting. The final point on their list? Mobilizing funding.

This was all the validation we needed. We quickly began on two tracks: one, to begin putting our existing energy into fundraising for the CoLab Network. And two, to re-organize and find new money to give us more time to do more of the backbone functions described by Stanford.

On the latter, we adjusted an existing staff member’s role to be focused solely on delivering member benefits; a task no less critical than it had been to this point. We then created and fundraised for a new role to support the rest of these backbone functions.

On the former, we revamped our corporate sponsorship structure to allow for CoLab to act as a “flow through” for CoLab Network sponsorship: giving sponsors one simple point of contact with CoLab, while on their behalf we negotiate exposure through each of our Network Members’ programs. TD was the first to take us up on this, flowing $25,000 in sponsorship through the CoLab Network, and putting a matching $25,000 into CoLab – getting us closer to hiring our hoped-for new staff role.

I also began speaking with both the provincial and federal governments, knowing they have a vested interested in our programs scaling across Ontario: more measured GHG reductions, increased business profitability, and more investment in the low-carbon economy.

I’m now glad to share our first government investment of this kind: the Province of Ontario has committed a new $100,000 to the CoLab Network. $12,000 is being made available to each of our Network Members, for them to accelerate the launch or growth of their target-based sustainability programs.

Altogether then, over the past six months we’ve been able to direct $109,000 to our Network Members’ programs, which they in turn have been leveraging to build confidence & increase investment from their local supporters, including a total of $587,500 from Trillium over the same period. This is the power of a network.

Meanwhile, with additional support from the Ivey Foundation, at CoLab we have hired Jon-Erik Lappano in the new role described above. He and Nabeel (our Member Experience Manager) provide the balance CoLab needs to both address member needs directly, while also leveraging the collective value of the CoLab Network.

And so, the adventure continues, and we intend for this to be just the beginning when it comes to fundraising for the CoLab Network. Our larger vision is to hold a $1M+ fund used to incentivize Network Members as they progress through milestones to launch and grow their programs. We also hope to find an ongoing funder for Jon-Erik’s role to support the Network’s collective impact.

All this remains to be seen. We’ll continue to tinker, to listen to our members, and to find new supporters interested in seeing target-based sustainability programs exceeding the results to-date of the RCI in Waterloo Region.

If the past six months have told me anything though, it’s that we’re at least on the right track.

Members of the CoLab Network, including Sustainability CoLab, Sustainable Waterloo Region, Windfall Ecology Centre, Envirocentre, and Niagara Sustainability Initiative

Members of the CoLab Network, including Sustainability CoLab, Sustainable Waterloo Region, Windfall Ecology Centre, EnviroCentre, and Niagara Sustainability Initiative.

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