At the height of a global pandemic that has limited access to food for many Canadians, Scott Langill, Tiffany Neufeld, and Patrick Cloutier took on a unique opportunity: a food-security focused disrupt-a-thon hosted by Calgary’s Social Impact Lab.
Having seen first-hand the impacts of food insecurity through their work in the healthcare system, Langill and Neufeld, who are both nurses, entered the disrupt-a-thon in July — similar to a hack-a-thon, but without a focus on technology — and were joined by Cloutier, a mechanical engineer. They came up with the SolFood project — a sustainable urban farmhouse, which earns revenue through the sale of its produce and invests profits into creating a community space for food education.
After winning the top spot in the competition, the three co-founders are now tapping into the expertise of United Way of Calgary and Area, its Social Impact Lab and their networks to make SolFood a reality — a timely innovation given the pandemic’s impact on food security.
But Langill also knows these are not new problems. As a pediatric nurse, he began visiting elementary schools in Calgary back in 2010 and noticed that children “often didn’t have lunch. My bias said it was [their] families who didn’t provide for the kids,” Langill shares.
While some families didn’t have enough food to pack lunches, other times, different issues came into play. For instance, he learned that many parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, and relied on their older children to get their younger siblings ready for school. The older children, sometimes only 10 years old, would often forget to pack lunches for their siblings.
“I began looking at food systems differently,” Langill says. Together with Neufeld, Langill began brainstorming solutions to food insecurity in Calgary, which is what eventually led them to come up with SolFood.
SolFood’s business-based solution to a social problem is one of many projects supported by The Social Impact Lab, which was established in 2017 under Beth Gignac’s leadership when she joined United Way of Calgary and Area as the COO. The Lab, a collaboration between United Way and design firm J5, fosters an environment for actors in the social sector to create new social enterprises.
While United Way had been working on causes like financial empowerment and boosting high school completion rates, there was no formalized methodology or dedicated team within the organization to design these solutions. The Social Impact Lab became the space to work on those causes, and shifted how United Way invests in the community. While the organization will continue to disburse its funds through grants to local agencies, the Social Impact Lab has pivoted United Way’s community investment model to include investment categories focused on collaboratives, initiatives, and innovation. Grant funding is primarily programming-based, while innovation funding is more flexible and can include solutions like apps, for instance.
Gignac says organizations have to focus on programming to serve people in need, and many don’t have resources to rethink or innovate on their approach. She says such programs are critical to communities and will continue to be funded, but that United Way is increasingly drawn to fund innovative processes that focus on whether organizations are moving the needle, with others, to achieve success on more systemic problems, like whether they are making progress toward food justice. Sometimes, Gignac explains, these achievements can’t be measured in ways organizations might be accustomed to, as they involve strategy, creative work, collaboration, and solutions, which have been the focus of the Lab.
In an effort to encourage collaboration over competition, the Lab brings together both non-profits and businesses working on similar issues to develop new solutions together. “I think it’s in our name — United Way… Bringing people together and joining resources is the future. We are all working in a tight resourced world and competition isn’t improving resources.”
During the pandemic, some social impact organizations are collaborating to meet demands under financial and resource strains. There is precedence for this, as the 2008 recession resulted in some non-profits merging to survive.
Many Canadian charities are also experiencing reduced revenues, while demands for their services soar, prompting calls for additional funding from the government. Imagine Canada, an organization which represents 170,000 social good organizations, states that “much more government stimulus is needed to ensure charities and non-profits survive the pandemic,” estimating that fundraising and charitable donation revenues alone will decline by a range of $4.2 – $6.2 billion in 2020. James Gamage, director of innovation at the Lab, explains that while competition for resources has only become more pronounced during the pandemic, the social sector was already strained, due to prior economic downturns. “Even pre-COVID, in this city, we were going through relatively tough economic times,” he says. “In times of necessity you need to think differently to make existing resources stretch.”
One of the ways The Social Impact Lab convenes organizations is through a 12-week program called Inspire, which uses design-thinking principles to help social innovators build new social impact solutions. The Lab, which offers the Inspire program quarterly, has also offered it to other members of the United Way Centraide network. “The whole process of iterative design has been valuable to them in thinking about problems they face in the organization on a day-to-day basis,” Gamage says. He says this approach challenges the traditional way of thinking about problems, by focusing on the “user” (or as some non-profits would say, the beneficiary or client) at the centre of the solution design, and reiterating based on their feedback, instead of using a top-down approach to determine solutions.
Gamage says many of the solutions formed during education programs and disrupt-a-thons have the potential to be stand-alone social enterprises, adding that the Lab may incubate businesses in the future. In the meantime, The Social Impact Lab is looking at scaling. Gamage is in discussions with several other United Ways about rolling out some of the Lab’s programming to different cities in Canada.
He says scaling the Lab’s approach to problem solving will provide “the opportunity for the social sector to think differently about the challenges they face” — which during the ongoing pandemic, could help catalyze a more resilient sector and recovery response.