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Solutions Cafe Blog

This June, CSIT held its first rendition of their ‘Solutions Cafe’ with the support of ABSeed and CSpace. It was a unique event where nonprofit organizations, budding tech companies, and community leaders came together to discuss digital transformations and the benefits of working together towards shared interests.

As a hub for social entrepreneurship, the Centre hosted the event with the hopes that a dialogue centred around positive change could be opened between the nonprofit and the technology organization sides; two groups who carry a lot of potential together but unfortunately do not really interact with each other outside niche projects and movements.

It is important to create a middle ground as the first step towards social innovation is a directive that all parties within the tech atmosphere are on the same page regarding the growth and wellbeing of the ecosystem that we all share, and how the sharing of resources could mutually benefit everyone. While the work across all nonprofits is important, it is just as crucial to recognize that money can be a huge deciding factor in the approach that nonprofits have in the various aspects of their society and community. In a similar fashion to privileged groups, it is ironic that nonprofits can and tend to ‘hoard’ what little funding and resources they have, and outside partnerships with others, the resources tend to stay within the shared immediate circle. The same could be said for investors and funders alike, outside their circle of nonprofits who follow along with their exact interests, they tend to not branch outside what is familiar. In the Solutions Cafe this reserved nature from both sides was addressed, along with the challenges that come with digital transformation and the role that everyone can play towards social innovation.

As a shared space between the two sides on ‘tech’, the main focus was the overarching challenges that either side might face when dealing with the other, and what were the steps towards digital transformation both individually and collectively.

With the underlying consensus that open communication was a huge factor to play towards a positive change in digital transformation.

When asked of the challenges that came along with the transformation to the digital age, both Ian Russell (StructureAbstraction) and Doug Watson (VolunteerConnector) both had a unique perspective. Where Ian Russell acknowledged the monumental cost that it would take to change the overall working system, especially as a nonprofit. Doug Watson brought up a re-evaluation of both tasks and security in the transition towards digital transformation. He acknowledged that while technology and ‘charity’ can go hand-in-hand, funders do not necessarily think that technology is crucial for charity which makes it so that there were inaccessible funds for nonprofits. Secondly, in regards to the nonprofits, Doug mentioned that the use of the word “volunteer” could scare those with skills to help drive the movement due to the association of unpaid, free labor that runs cognizant to it. This is especially unhelpful as those with the necessary skills, education, background, and the willingness to help should be rightfully compensated for their valuable time and resources. As for the latter mentioned ‘security’, Doug can be quoted as saying: “to build a platform in Calgary, there is always the risk that someone will get in from the outside.”

Following up with a scenario based question from the audience was: in the instance that a tech company works alongside a non-profit organization, what should be done when the nonprofit work no longer coincides with the mandate of the funders? How do we help the organization and the funders see “eye-to-eye.”

Ian made a good point to funders having to acknowledge that projects are really a continuous journey, and cautioned that “no adaptability is NOT sustainable”. This was a warning that while the immediate results of the work from both sides isn’t exactly to the ‘code’ of either organization, the overall outcome will be beneficial to both as long as each side follows alongside the journey. Doug acknowledged that there is a difficulty of putting the client into the middle of your solution, when they might not have the necessary experience, or the right mission statement. However, funding focused towards specific missions helps alleviate the tension on all teams and will put everyone on the same page.

Last question pertained to the immediate challenges that either side might face. Doug started off with the perspective from the side of a nonprofit organization and said that there is an issue of communication of selling an idea to funders, he mentioned that his company, VolunteerConnect, employs a colleague to act as a mediator between the two sides. They act as a go-between due to the ‘language barrier’ that exists between them and placate the need for a translator to relay information and both of their mission statements. There was also a suggestion from Doug that having an external tech partner would be beneficial as they can provide a new perspective, outside of a funder or a nonprofit way of thinking as both parties are/can be too absorbed in their own ambitions.

Ian followed up with several suggestions such as “...treating nonprofits as experts within their own sectors. Facilitate discussions between funders and nonprofits. Build a shared ecosystem.”

As a final piece of advice to the audience, Doug recommended that if nonprofits are committed to a long-term engagement, move away from the custom built system in order to account for growth. And Ian counselled that nonprofit organizations look into A.I. tools and consultants that can advise how to get things running.

From the discussion and Q&A panel, it is clear that there is no side that has no capacity for growth and change. From both perspectives, they view the other as non-yielding and unadaptable to projects outside their individual mission prerogatives. Both organizations can stand to learn to adapt, whether it be through internal examination or the hiring of an intermediate consultant to bridge the gap in communication, mission statements, and overall goals for the future. However, both sides recognized that working together could progress positive changes outside of what they could do alone, and that a middle ground for discussion and collaboration is needed.

With a resounding ‘yes’ on the question of “Will you attend future Solutions Cafe?”, and an average of 1.6 out of 5 [1 being excellent and 5 being poor], the first rendition of the Centre’s Solutions Cafe was a huge hit! The overall feedback was that this was a groundbreaking opportunity for a facilitated middle ground, and the networking and the connections was the best part of the event. And the insight into both perspectives was considered invaluable. However, there is always room for improvement as the need for more discussion time, and designated time for networking would be appreciated. There was also a good point in which the discussion themes could be presented throughout the room, giving the audience the chance to think on their answers. An introduction to the panelists and participating organizations would also be valued.

The Solutions Cafe was a necessary and fulfilling step towards future collaborations with nonprofits and funders, and also a leap forward towards social innovation in Calgary’s tech atmosphere.


Chelsea Tolentino is the Project Assistant at the Centre for Social Impact Technology, and is currently a Computer Science student at Athabasca University.

“When I first broke into the tech industry, it was at the recommendation of a friend. I hadn’t the faintest idea of the career paths that were under the umbrella of ‘tech’ and had no idea how to even get a foot through the door. I was incredibly lucky to have someone recommend a boot camp, which led me to start teaching myself the basics, and getting started on some projects.

I’ve always had an affinity for creativity and designing. This is why putting in the effort to organize and code web pages and projects as a career has brought forth a sense of satisfaction that I was previously missing

Even with the support system that I have around me, I understand the hesitation that one might feel when jumping into an entirely new industry. One might ask: “Where do I even begin?” “Is there anyone, or anyplace that will help me?”, all of which are completely valid inquiries.

Here at the Centre for Social Impact Technology, I’m hoping that those who are interested in, or even curious, about the various tech branches, are able to get a better understanding of what exactly they are stepping into along with the necessary support they might need.”

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