Recently, I sat down with Robert Nichols, a consultant here at Common Good Solutions and one of our longest-running team members. We spoke about his beginnings with a social enterprise and one of his favourite projects to date: the DirectioNS Council’s Scaling Up project, which took place this year. You may have seen one result of that work: the Big Red Chairs at Sobeys locations across the province.
Back in 2014, Robert, like many recent graduates, was looking for work, and found CGS through a job fair at the Cunard Centre. Brown eyes laughing from behind stylish glasses, he told me that he wasn’t confident at first about getting the job.
“I was like, ‘there’s no way I’m going to get hired on,’ you know, they wouldn’t be hiring junior staff full-time. Which they weren’t.” Nonetheless, CGS co-founders David Upton and Andy Horsnell gave him a chance as a part-time contractor. “It was really a very good faith effort on their part to hire me on.” Robert has a background in English and Economics, but considered himself inexperienced, with little business knowledge to speak of at the time.
“It seems it’s been a philosophy of Dave and Andy’s,” he continued, “to take people they see some potential in and throw them into the deep end a little bit”-- a process Robert referred to as lending confidence (and something that I myself am all too familiar with). “When someone is new and they don’t have much confidence, Dave or Andy or any of the other staff, in many cases here, will give you a bit of confidence so you can get by until you have some of your own.”
But it hasn’t just been CGS team members who have offered opportunities for young people, and people of all abilities, to develop personally and professionally. “Both the clients in the social enterprise sector and the staff at CGS have been very good at making the space for that to happen.”
One such client is the DirectioNS Council, a collection of 29 agencies across the province that focus on providing employment for people with intellectual disabilities.The Scaling Up project, led by CGS, came from the DirectioNS agencies’ recognition that the organizations who make up the Council have wanted to offer more meaningful, productive work for participants. A goal directly following from this recognition was a desire for an increased capacity to take on large-scale opportunities.
“There had been an awareness that things were changing in the sector,” Robert explained, “and also an awareness of the [DirectioNS Council’s] potential in the province as social enterprise leaders. And so collectively they had a vision for something that was a lot greater for the participants and for the province.” Where the Council brought the desire for something better for the sector overall, CGS provided the business tools to achieve those results.
In a series of sessions led by Robert and Andy, directors, staff and participants from all twenty-nine DirectioNS members worked together towards the generation of one or more collaborative social enterprises directly involving multiple agencies. One of the ideas that came out on top would become the Ability Wood Products Co-op--a new legal entity formed and held by six DirectioNS member organizations.
Considering the successful results so far, Robert stressed the sheer magnitude of the collaboration. “It’s just been this massive thing, on a scale that’s unprecedented across Canada or even worldwide, to take almost thirty organizations who are fairly independent and enable them to work on something together.”
The timing of the venture couldn’t have been better, as the contract with Sobeys was offered just as the team was fully coming together. “If not for the work done under the Scaling Up project, the conversation [with Sobeys] wouldn't have gone anywhere, because the organizational capacity to respond and the production capacity to deliver just wouldn't have been there.” No one agency, he insisted, could have met the need on their own.
So, could collaboration on such a scale happen again?
“I think the precedent has been set on collective action, and I think should another opportunity like this arise in another area--people having seen the success of the Ability Wood Products Cooperative, they’ll be much more likely to jump on board and work together on it.”
With the Big Red Chairs delivered for July 1st, Canada Day, that particular contract came to a close. These days, Ability Wood is working with the support of CGS, focusing on their internal development, coming up with operational policies and looking to secure future customers. Their relationship with Sobeys, being so firmly established from the outset, may see expression in further projects.
For Robert, his experience with the DirectioNS Council and the Scaling Up project were transformative toward considering not only what teamwork and collaboration may do, but what they require. “You can’t move forward until you’ve got relatedness, you’ve got connectedness. I’m becoming increasingly aware of the need for that if you want to get anything done. You have to try and do things together.”
If you are running a social enterprise and need help achieve large-scale results like these, get in touch and our consulting team would be happy to help!
Written by: Sam Krueger
Sam Krueger is from Toronto and lives and writes in Halifax. He has spent the summer conducting research at Common Good Solutions HQ for the Social Enterprise Network of Nova Scotia, and is excited to bring a voice to the office, its people, and Nova Scotia’s social enterprise community.