Atlantic Ecosystem Building: Interview with Chelsey MacNeil
For CCEDNet’s December communiqué, we spotlighted Common Good Solutions (CGS) a member organization based in Halifax. Melissa Sinfield, CCEDNet’s Regional Initiatives Manager, interviewed the president of CGS, Chelsey MacNeil.
This interview is also the first in the series of blog posts on “ecosystem building” – a core focus of CCEDNet’s Regional Initiatives Program.
From September 25 to 27, 2023, approximately 170 social purpose organizations and change makers from across the Atlantic region came together in St. John’s NL to connect and work towards building a stronger regional ecosystem. The Inaugural Atlantic Social Impact Exchange Summit that brought these networks together was organized by one of our members, Common Good Solutions (CGS), and was supported by CCEDNet’s Regional Initiatives Program. The summit is part of CGS’s ecosystem building approach which is now moving into the next phase of the project, hoping to build off the momentum of over 170 participants to generate stronger lasting connections and shared vision.
Why Ecosystem building in the Atlantic matters
Melissa Sinfield, CCEDNet’s Regional Initiative Manager: What does ecosystem building mean to you?
Chelsey MacNeil: Ecosystem building in Atlantic Canada is a deliberate effort to cultivate interconnected relationships, resources, and opportunities within the region. This approach is crucial for constructing a bottom-up, generative strategy that addresses the unique challenges and opportunities in Atlantic Canada. By providing mechanisms for collaboration and coordination among diverse stakeholders, including NPOs, entrepreneurs, investors, government entities, and community organizations, ecosystem building creates an environment where initiatives can take root, blossom, and make a lasting impact.
In the Atlantic Canadian context, a bottom-up approach underscores the importance of community-driven solutions, leveraging the strengths and insights of individuals and organizations within the region. This not only enhances the region’s resilience and self-determination but also ensures that the ecosystem reflects the diverse needs and aspirations of its communities, contributing to sustained growth and positive impact. An ecosystem can challenge traditional power structures, democratize access to resources, and promote collaborative decision-making, thus generating a more inclusive and equitable ecosystem.
A project sparked by pressing challenges
MS: What was the spark that ignited this project you are working on?
CM: The spark that ignited this project was the recognition of opportunities amongst challenges within Atlantic Canada. The motivation is the desire to address the pressing challenges facing the region, including aging populations, healthcare issues, housing and homelessness, economic stagnation, demographic shifts, and limited philanthropic resources. The project’s driving force is the commitment to create a coordinated, inclusive, and innovative ecosystem that empowers individuals and organizations in Atlantic Canada to access the resources, capacity, and support necessary to drive positive change. This project is grounded by the belief that by strategically working together and addressing the unique needs and aspirations of the region, Atlantic Canada can achieve sustained growth and make a significant positive impact.
On Pan-Provincial ecosystem building in the Atlantic
MS: Your ecosystem building project is a bit unique in that it involves building a Pan-provincial ecosystem network. Can you speak a bit more on this?
Our ecosystem building project takes a unique approach by focusing on building a pan-provincial ecosystem network within Atlantic Canada. While many ecosystem-building initiatives concentrate on a single city or region, our project seeks to unite all four Atlantic Canadian provinces (Newfoundland & Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) into a cohesive ecosystem. By breaking down provincial silos and creating the conditions for collaboration at a regional level, we can address shared challenges and leverage common opportunities.
The network is intended to facilitate the exchange of knowledge, experiences, and learnings among provinces. It allows stakeholders to benefit from the successes and innovations of their counterparts, leading to a more comprehensive and effective approach to ecosystem building.
By pooling resources and expertise from multiple provinces, the pan-provincial ecosystem network becomes a more powerful force for advocating for policy changes, attracting investment, and driving social impact. This collective strength enhances the region’s capacity to address complex challenges.
MS: Are there any challenges you have encountered so far?
CM: During the early stages of our ecosystem-building project in Atlantic Canada, we have learned a lot. Coordinating efforts across four distinct provinces with varying policies, priorities, and politics requires ongoing communication. Ensuring inclusivity for all regions and communities, including underserved or remote areas, poses difficulties that demand additional planning and resources. Mobilizing the necessary resources, both financial and capacity, is an ongoing challenge, as building a sustainable ecosystem requires consistent investment and a long view.
We also recognize that engaging diverse community organizations and building trust necessitates time and effort. An iterative approach that allows for adaptation and flexibility is essential to overcome these challenges and refine the ecosystem-building strategy.
Naming the Atlantic Social Impact Exchange Summit
Editor’s note: One component of this project has been the inaugural Atlantic Social Impact Exchange Summit designed to bring together actors from across the region.
MS: I know you were very intentional when naming this Summit, choosing to title it “Social Impact” even though this year’s Summit was heavily focused on social finance. What was the significance of this choice?
CM: The choice to title the Summit as “Social Impact” while focusing heavily on social finance carries several layers of significance. First and foremost, it underscores the broader mission and purpose of the initiative. While the immediate focus of the Summit may be on social finance, the goal is to drive positive social impact in Atlantic Canada. It highlights that social impact is the ultimate point, the “why” behind the entire effort. Finance, while important, is a means to an end – a powerful tool for achieving social impact and addressing the region’s pressing challenges.
Additionally, the choice of this title reflects a commitment to the process to develop the ecosystem with the why in clear view. It emphasizes that the Summit is not just about finance but about generating meaningful and lasting change within the region. It acknowledges that social impact is the focal point, and it can only be achieved when there is a supportive and strategic ecosystem in place to build the culture we want. This ecosystem encompasses capacity building, policy development, and community engagement, all aimed at nurturing a culture of social impact.
Moreover, this title reflects the intention to bring together a diverse range of stakeholders from various sectors, including government, non-profits, businesses, and social enterprises. It signals that the Summit is a platform for collaboration and knowledge sharing, where all participants can contribute to the broader goal of creating positive social impact in Atlantic Canada, recognizing that finance alone won’t achieve the desired outcomes. It’s the collective efforts within the ecosystem that will drive the cultural shift towards social impact.
Early learnings on ecosystem building
MS: Based on this early stage, are there any learnings or discoveries you could offer others trying to build ecosystems?
CM: Even at this early stage of ecosystem-building, there are some valuable learnings and discoveries that can offer insights to others embarking on similar journeys:
- Collaboration is Key: Collaboration among diverse stakeholders is the foundation of a successful ecosystem. Encourage open dialogue, active participation, and shared ownership among all players, including government, social finance actors, institutions, and community organizations.
- Inclusivity Matters: Ensure that your ecosystem-building efforts are inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of geographic location or organizational type. Prioritize diversity in participation to create a more vibrant and innovative ecosystem.
- Leverage Existing Resources and Networks: Identify and leverage existing resources and initiatives within the region. Collaborating with established organizations and networks can accelerate ecosystem development.
- Focus on the Ultimate Goal: While specific initiatives like social finance are important, always keep the broader goal of achieving social impact in mind. Recognize that finance, capacity building, and policy are means to an end, and the end is a positive, lasting impact on the community.
- Learn from Others: Study and learn from other successful ecosystem-building initiatives, both within your region and globally. Adapt best practices and tailor them to your specific context.
- Flexibility is Key: Be prepared to adapt and pivot as needed. Ecosystem-building is an iterative process, and your strategy may evolve as you gain insights and experience.
- Be Patient: Building a robust ecosystem takes time. It requires patience, persistence, and a long-term commitment to the region and its goals.
- Measure Impact: Develop clear metrics and evaluation methods to measure the impact of your ecosystem-building efforts. This will help you track progress, make data-driven decisions, and secure future support and investment.
How it is different from other organizing work
MS: What sets this project apart from perhaps other organizing work?
CM: The uniqueness of our ecosystem-building project lies in its ambition to create a pan-provincial ecosystem network that unites all four Atlantic Canadian provinces, promotes collaborative governance, inclusivity, shared learning, and the collective strength needed to address the region’s challenges and seize its opportunities. This approach recognizes that regional integration is essential for building a resilient and impactful ecosystem.
What sets this project apart from other organizing work is its focus on building a self-directed ecosystem specifically tailored to the needs of Atlantic Canada by those in Atlantic Canada. While many organizing efforts address individual challenges or projects, this initiative takes a comprehensive, long-term approach to create an interconnected network of capacity, capital, and policy that works in concert. We hope to support the continued development of an ecosystem that moves our economy away from extractive approaches to stronger, more sustainable futures for our communities that prioritize people and planet
MS: Recently, we have been talking a lot about finding ways to push the needle for deeper change. Can you speak a bit on this?
CM: The recent discussions surrounding the need to push the needle for deeper change signify a collective recognition that incremental progress may not suffice in addressing the complex challenges in Atlantic Canada. The focus is on achieving transformational impact by adopting innovative approaches and strategies that go beyond surface-level improvements. There needs to be recognition that achieving deeper change is a long-term commitment, demanding sustained effort and collaboration over an extended period to bring about lasting and meaningful transformation.
Thank you Chelsey for sharing your insight and experiences in pan-provincial organizing!