Capacity Waterloo

On the back wall of the tiny office Capacity Waterloo shares with its non-profit counterpart, Social Venture Partners at the Accelerator Centre is a soaring wall mural that serves as daily inspiration for the organization's small team. It keeps them dreaming big.

The mural is the product of a branding workshop held back in 2011 with key stakeholders, just as Capacity Waterloo was finding its sea legs. Conducted by executive in residence Matt Miller, the workshop used familiar childhood toys, and creative questioning to extract from attendees - all respected philanthropists and business leaders - what Capacity Waterloo's brand was meant to be.

Cathy Brothers, Capacity Waterloo's Executive Director in Residence's eyes sparkle as she recalls the memory. " We had some really heavy hitters of the community in that room, and here we were throwing questions at them such as, if we were a colour, what would we be. It certainly forced these Type A personalities to look at the world in a new way."

Looking at the non-profit world with new eyes is exactly the mandate of Capacity Waterloo. Originally formed as a five year project to better understand what tools, strategies, education and support non-profits needed to become stronger, Capacity Waterloo has evolved today into a Federally incorporated non-profit itself, with a mission to encourage risk-taking, boldness and innovation within the non-profit sector, and to champion and support non-profits in making bold social change.

"Early on we were able to determine that the non-profit community faced some challenges that money alone could not solve," explains Brothers. "In our survey of non-profits we learned that there are priorities around board development, and board training and education; CEO professional development and mentorship as well as peer support from like minded colleagues."

Education and resources existed for these organizations, but tended to take a rear-view of what's been done in the past, succeeded and failed. Capacity Waterloo wanted to shift that focus - helping non-profits look ahead and see what is possible, not just what has been done.

Says Cathy Brothers, "We wanted to inspire our non-profits to be bold, to take risks, to have the courage to do what has not been done before. I like to say we want to look out there on the lunatic fringe, because that's where we'll find the inspiration to make a real difference in people's lives."

The last three years have been full of bold decisions and initiatives for Capacity Waterloo's small, six-person team.

One of the most impactful programs initiated by Capacity Waterloo to date has been the launch of its Storytelling Initiative - aimed at helping non-profits use words, pictures and emotions as a communications strategy. Working in partnership with the Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation and the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation, through bootcamps and workshops featuring such celebrated storytellers as American writer, producer and orator Andy Goodman, and a team of photo journalists from National Geographic, Capacity Waterloo has inspired hundreds of non-profits to radically alter their communication tactics and infuse story-telling methods into their day to day work.

"There are tremendous expectations on non-profits to show the results of their work. It is front and centre in non-profit priorities. And that has typically been conveyed through research. But numbers don't move people, and all the research in the world won't get you anywhere if you don't tap into emotion. The challenge is to take that intelligence and combine it with storytelling to make it more persuasive, more appealing to people's hearts, to promote growth and make change," says Cathy Brothers. A research and development bootcamp built around design thinking is now in the planning stages, aimed at pushing non-profits to leverage research to bring about big change.

Another remarkable achievement for an organization just three years old is Capacity Waterloo's Board Match Program, launched in partnership with Manulife Financial. The program helps Manulife Financial employees and executives with specific skills connect up with volunteer opportunities in agencies that could use their help. By the end of 2012, 42 Manulife Financial employees were involved in the Board Match Program, and 31 had found compatible matches on non-profit boards. The program is so successful in Waterloo Region, Manulife Financial is now looking at extending it through a pilot project in Toronto in the Fall of 2013.

Always looking ahead for the next thing to tackle, the Capacity Waterloo team has its eye on the issue of board governance. "The current model for Board Governance as required by Canadian legislation is a stretch to fit the needs of every non-profit," explains Cathy Brothers. "You have the very large organizations out there - as big as many public corporations, and then you have the small guys - 50 percent of non-profits today are completely run by unpaid staff, with limited capacity to attract and train good board members. I think we need to shake up board governance and look at new models. I'll be a big hairy challenge, but we like that. Let's take it on and see what we can change."

The team is also looking at injecting its form of bold thinking into the ways non-profits partner, merge and form alliances. Also on the horizon, like every other start-up at the Accelerator Centre is a graduation from the facility in the near future. But the Capacity Waterloo team is not straying far. Brothers and the team plan to make a move into the new International Business Centre in the David Johnston Research + Technology Park which should open its doors in 2014. It is planning to expand its physical footprint in the new space and open a Social Innovation Lab, built on design thinking principles, where non-profits can gather and explore bold new ideas.

"We've loved being with the technology world at the Accelerator Centre. It's like playing tennis with someone who is better than you. You have to keep upping your game," chuckles Brothers. Learning a few tricks from the start-ups around them, Capacity Waterloo heavily employs modern social media tools, and multi-media in its programs and in its own communications.

Purposefully incorporated at the Federal level, Cathy Brothers can see a day in the not too distant future where Capacity Waterloo expands its reach to serve the non-profit community across Canada.

"We are passionate about wanting to give non-profits their rightful place in society. They are not some bargain basement poor cousins to other businesses. Non-profit organizations are major employers. They address issues that matter to all of us. And we need to help raise the profile and respect for non-profits here in Waterloo Region and across Canada. We want to give them the tools to be stronger organizations, to better tell their stories. It's part of trying to change attitudes toward non-profits and celebrate their accomplishments. We want them dreaming big, then making it happen."