Five Good Ideas ®

Five Good Ideas for building effective relationships between community organizations, governments, and businesses

Published on 23/02/2023

“We couldn’t do it without you!” “Without strong partners, this couldn’t be done.” We use these phrases because they are at the heart of how we work for social change. Social change does not happen in a vacuum. Agapi Gessesse, Executive Director, CEE Centre for Black Young Professionals, shared her five good ideas on how community organizations, governments, and corporations can create ecosystems where everyone benefits from each other’s work, and advances the social change that we all want to see. She looked at the roles that different actors play and how they can best contribute to a common goal.

Session handout

Five Good Ideas

1. Build relationships (strategically)
When it comes to non-profits, both governments and corporations should be at the table and vice-versa. It is essential to understand what each party is bringing to the table. Effective relationships require reciprocity not a one-way effort. Offer and deliver help, connect people with each other, and share non-profit or government information.

2. Make sure everyone is benefitting mutually through the relationships
Spend time with your most important community partners. Your most productive employees and leaders can make the most difference to your organization. These relationships will generate returns in both the immediate and far future. Pay attention to relationships, loyalties, and networks that characterize your community. Recognize the norms, values, and preferences that shape the behaviour of the people you need and depend on through these relationships.

3. Directions must have an ESG plan (ESG stands for “environmental, social, and (corporate) governance”)
Always ensure when laying out tasks that an ESG plan accompanies each task. Try to keep these highly specific and short term. They should be measurable and time-bound for completion. Allow a buffer for corrections.

4. Non-profit organizations should have a government relations plan
The government and your organization are partners and rely on each other in many ways. Governments shape the legally binding frameworks and understanding in which non-profits operate, provide funding, and assist to create enabling policy environments. Meanwhile, non-profits are key government allies in delivering services and helping inform public policy. Given the importance of this, it is essential to have a government relations strategy in place so that your organization can succeed.

5. Determine from the onset what success could look like and how long it will take
Track the time you’re spending on important tasks. This could be difficult because you may be working on multiple projects at once, but it’s important to determine where your time is going to allocate it properly. Create a list of your daily tasks and consider which are the most important. It may be the tasks with stricter deadlines or the ones that take you longer to complete. Success at work includes completing your tasks and reaching your goals, but it also includes the relationships you build and strengthen amongst your peers and partners.



Presentation transcript

Please note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Now, while many of you are dialing in from across Canada, and I believe from the RSVP list, we also have people from other continents.

I’m speaking to you from Toronto, and I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work, and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we’re meeting and connecting virtually today, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy. I acknowledge that I am, and Maytree is, on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississauga of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit, and the territory is also covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampun Belt Covenant, which is an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and Allied Nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce you to today’s session and speaker. Social change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, it rarely happens because one organization or even one sector wants it to happen. Social change most often depends on good, strong partnerships between and among organizations and sectors. To help explain how to build and maintain these kinds of relationships, Agapi Gessesse will share her five good ideas on how community organizations, governments, and businesses can reinforce each other’s work to the benefit of each other and for the common good. She will look at the roles that different actors play and how they can best contribute to achieving social change.

Agapi is the Executive Director of CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals and was named a 2020 Top Black Woman to Watch in Canada. She’s a powerful, influential, and fearless change maker. For over a decade, Agapi has worked to enhance the lives of marginalized youth through her work with Toronto Community Housing, United Way Greater Toronto, and as the Executive Director of POV, an organization focused on breaking barriers for young people in the media and film industries. For her full bio, five ideas and resources, please download the handout in the chat. It is now my pleasure to welcome Agapi. Agapi, over to you.

Agapi Gessesse: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited about this session. I want to acknowledge Black History Month and it being a time to celebrate Black folks’ achievements. I’m very happy to be here this month, specifically, to be able to share some of the thoughts that I have around five good ideas. I also recognize that there are going to be organizations that are doing all types of work, and so I’m going to try my best to speak to that as I also speak to the experiences that I have in my current role.

1. Build relationships (strategically)

My first good idea is about building relationships. I put in brackets “strategically” because I think oftentimes when we talk about strategic partnerships, it almost sounds disingenuous, and I want us to think differently about that when we’re talking about strategic partnerships. There’s nothing wrong with being strategic. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about who you want to be friends with, or who you want to partner with in a very different way.

In the social service sector, nonprofit organizations, charities, and grassroots organizations, we’re looking at very complex social issues. These are issues that are affecting our world. Maybe we’re tackling it locally, but it could be something that is affecting us globally as well. These can include complex issues like the environment, social issues, human rights, animal rights, and poverty. These are large problems that we’re trying to tackle in the small silos of our own organizations. In order for us to be able to solve these problems (some of which might not even be solved in our lifetime) we need to start thinking about how we can collaborate. No matter what issue we’re facing, we’re not going to be able to do it alone.

So thinking about who your strategic partners could be is key to trying to solve these issues faster than we might be able to do alone in a silo. I have the honour and the privilege of being the Executive Director of an organization here in Toronto called CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. We focus on workforce development. We try and get Black youth, specifically, from the back of the unemployment line to the front. In a systemically racist system, how can we get folks to the front of the line? The way that we need to do that is to think much more strategically about our approach. Building strategic relationships has been the core reason for our success to date.

When we think about strategic partnerships, these involve government, corporations, and our organization as community at the table. These three entities are so important because they are going to ensure that we have end-to-end opportunities for our young people. It’s one thing for us to support as a community, to make sure that their life stabilization is in place, and to provide the wrap-around supports, but we also have to be feeding into a larger system. That way, when our youth are at the front of the employment line, there’s someone there to help them navigate into the space. Once they leave our doors, the control of the process then goes to the corporations that are hiring them.

We are solving a problem for government. Canada has a large labour shortage issue. How are we going to be able to fill that gap? We’re either going to be able to fill it through immigration, or we’re going to be able to fill it through young people. Black youth are an untapped resource to fill that gap for the government so that our economy can run. I’ll explain this through practical examples throughout my presentation. We provide programming in the entertainment industry. In all of the industries that we work with, we look at data and evidence to see if there are actual jobs in the area.

Either they’ve publicly said they want to fix a diversity issue in their industry, or they actually have a labour gap that needs to be filled. And if they have both, that’s even better. The entertainment industry is an example of that. Here in the city of Toronto where we are located, we were able to work with we were able to reach out to the film commission’s office. In most cities, the film commission’s task is to generate business for the city. Getting TV shows and movies to come to their city and film, brings revenue and jobs into the city. In Canada, you cannot run a deficit as a city. So you need that business to come in to feed the local economy.

One of the issues that the City of Toronto was having was doing what they call “missionships.” They go to Los Angeles and other cities where there are a lot of producers and folks who are looking to create films or TV shows, and they try and bring home business. So they pitch the unions, the Film Commissions Office, to recommend Toronto as a great place to come and film. A problem the City of Toronto faced was number one, there wasn’t enough studio space.

Industry insiders said – “Great, we’d love to film in Toronto, but you need more studio space.” Secondly, you have a severe diversity issue. We want to have diverse crew when we’re coming on sets, and we want to be able to reflect the city. And unfortunately, for let’s say the unions, your membership is not reflecting that. If we were focusing on a topic that was really integral to the Black community or the Asian community, we want to have folks from those communities on set, and you wouldn’t be able to necessarily produce that, right? Those were the two things that folks were saying is prohibiting them from being able to come to bring business to the city.

IATSE, which is the local film union, was also concerned about finding diverse talents. How are we going to be able to work together? So we identified a couple of opportunities for our E-trades program, and now we run five programs in the entertainment industry, all of them are designed to fill labour gaps that we see. So I’ll use out E-trades program as an example. This includes carpenters, electricians, set designers, and all of the positions that make a production run.

This program is beneficial to all involved parties because the film commission’s office is able to demonstrate that they’ve created a program, alongside a local community organization, that’s going to find needed talent. They can also say that alongside the union that’s going to train that talent and be able to set them up to become members. That way, when film industry professionals come to Toronto, we’ll be able to identify folks from diverse talents. We’re diversifying our talent pool and therefore we’re actively doing something about a lack of diversity and creating a plan over the X amount of years to be able to generate more folks who are not already in this industry, to enter it.

2. Make sure everyone is benefitting mutually through the relationships

So in that example, we looked at three partners. This brings me to my next good idea, which is that all of the involved parties are mutually benefitting from that partnership. When we’re bringing together corporations (in this case, IATSE), when we’re bringing folks together, we want to create a mutually beneficial arrangement. When nonprofits ask for things, we’re used to asking other parties to write us a cheque out of the kindness of their hearts. We also talk about the issues so that people can empathize with our cause. This means we have to lean on their good nature, right? We’re saying, “You see that this is an issue and we’re hoping that you’ll be able to support us.”

This means we have the mentality as a nonprofit organization that we’re just happy to be in the room, someone’s supporting us, and we’re super excited. But we don’t have to take that approach from folks who are putting money out of their hard-earned dollars and putting it towards our causes. It’s not necessarily the best way to engage with government and corporations. When you’re talking about mutually beneficial arrangements, it’s not just you, or just the government or the corporation doing a favour for the constituents that you’re serving. Whether you call them clients, or as we do, we call them members at CEE, it’s not that they’re doing a favour for your membership. If it’s mutually beneficial, then you’re entering into an arrangement on solid footing and therefore you can build your relationships in a much different way.

Thinking of ourselves as the inferior party coming into a situation doesn’t serve us well. We have to see that we offer just as much to government and corporations as they can offer to us. As a society, we view the party with the money as being more powerful. But we should also be valuing our assets, like the expertise that we’re bringing to the table about animal rights, human rights, and the environment. We understand the issues that government and corporations are trying to address themselves. Your organization’s knowledge is just as valuable as the financial power that government and corporations can bring to the table.

When we think about the government, for instance, we often think about politicians making campaign promises to create more jobs. In my organization’s case, we’re the ones who are going to create more jobs. Reality is that they make the promises, but then, community organizations and nonprofit charities are then left to fulfill that promise. After politicians make the promise and make the money available in their budget, they put out an R.F.P. or a grant call out, and our organizations try to be the ones to fulfill that promise of more jobs that the government has made. So, we are all on equal footing and we’re mutually benefiting from the relationships that we’re building. I’ll talk a little bit more about government in the next idea.

It’s really important to think about how the value that we’re bringing as the nonprofit sector, and making sure that in any relationship we nurture, we don’t only look at what is it in it for us. Instead of looking at available funding and trying to figure out how much money is available for a particular cause, we should really be looking for strategic partnerships and relationships, trying to find a good fit for what your organization is trying to accomplish. Ask yourself who would be able to help further your agenda, and could you help them move their agenda along as well. Sometimes we might be strange bedfellows, but we actually could have the same values and goals.

I’ll build on the example that I used about IATSE. This is another example that demonstrates how much corporations can benefit. When CEE started looking at the entertainment industry, one of the areas that we looked at was VFX (visual effects), which is post-production, for instance creating explosions. We reached out to some VFX post-production houses and asked them where they had skill gaps. One organization we talked to, Spin VFX, said that they have tapped out of the Canadian market in terms of using freelancers and talent to be able to teach a particular program called Nuke. That’s a computer software program that does compositing. They had been outsourcing most of that work to the United States. It was costing them a lot to use freelancers south of the border because the talent wasn’t available locally.

Our response was to ask them how many young people they could you hire full time, if all of them were ideal. They said to start they’d probably be able to hire 12 young people. Collectively we found out that Humber College runs a two-year program teaching Nuke. We worked with Humber College and with Spin VFX to build a curriculum to build the idea skill set for a young person to be hired at Spin VFX. Humber College helped us create the technical work. Spin VFX helped shape the program as a realistic course to make graduates employable in their company. It was also an opportunity for Spin VFX to have employee engagement opportunities. Some of their employees come in as instructors and mentors to talk the young people through the curriculum.

As the students entered into the full-time roles, they had mentors who they were already familiar with, because they had already interacted with them. The inclusion part of this conversation was naturally being developed through the relationship. When young people ended up entering into the workforce at that Spin VFX, it was clear that they were able to integrate much better than they otherwise may have.

We received funding from the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan, which the Ontario government created to address the issue of Black youth unemployment. This meant that the government was able to provide funding for the VFX program at Humber College. So, this example demonstrates all parties working as a community to bring talented young people to the table and give them the skills they need to thrive.  The partnership of CEE, Humber College, Spin VFX, and government funding benefitted everyone.

Out of the 12 young people in the program, 11 of them were hired on full-time when the program ended after six months. This not only benefited our members because they were able to gain a valuable skill they’d have forever, but also, they were able to gain employment, not just in a job, but a career. Spin VFX was able to benefit by filling their labour gap within their organization with talented young folks. We were also able to benefit from the Ontario government because they were fulfilling the promise that they had made to their constituents about addressing Black youth issues through the Black Youth Action Plan.

So, this is a prime example of all everyone at the table benefitting from the outcome and the efforts that were taking place. No one was doing anyone else a favour, everyone was equally benefiting. Every party involved was able to look back and say they worked together create good, not just for themselves and their members, but also for our society at large. Building relationships that are mutually beneficial is going to be very important as we start to think about how we’re renewing our social contract.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been thinking about how we want to recover differently, how we want to come out of the pandemic bigger and better. It’s going to require us to think about the social contract, and to understand what mutually beneficial relationships actually look like. We need to think outside of the box of the traditional way of finding employment for young people. This usually involved asking employers directly if they would please provide an opportunity for one of our young people. In reality, we’re doing the employer a favour, and this traditional approach diminishes the value of the young people that we’re promoting because they are brilliant, they are great, they’re willing to work hard, and in this case spend six months of their time gaining skills. We don’t want to diminish the effort and the value that they bring to the table either. We have to reframe how we’re having conversations around mutually beneficial relationships.

3. Directions must have an ESG plan (ESG stands for “environmental, social, and (corporate) governance”)

My next good idea is that corporations should really start to think about ESG and creating and investing in an ESG plan. For some of you this might be a new concept, but ESG really stands for environmental, social, and governance. When we’re talking about environment, we’re talking about climate change, energy and fuel, environmental compliance, greenhouse gases, pollution control, all water use, waste and recycling, the same conversations we’ve been having for decades and ringing the alarm saying our earth is in dire need of our attention at this moment in time. Then there’s social, and that’s really about social impact. Diversity and inclusion, employee relations in the environment, justice, health and safety, human rights, non-discrimination, security, training, and education. Even look at our workplace, these are things that folks are demanding their organizations step up and start to pay attention to.

For corporations, this is not likely going to be something that can be ignored for very long. When we talk about governance, these all really tie into each other when you’re talking about your board diversity, your ratio between men and women, your visible minorities, your folks from the LGBTQ community, all of these things fall into, and can intertwine into each of these. So really looking at the ethics of the organization, executive compensation, which is a huge conversation that we’ve been seeing. Political lobbying, risk management, all of these things are things that corporations really need to start paying attention to. All of these things are good business. It’s not about just doing the right thing. The conversation around doing the right thing is just doing it just to do it because it’s the right thing to do, that can just get thrown out.

It is good business. It actually has proven to improve the bottom line. We have to really move away from it being a conversation about the right thing to do and understand that this is what is going to make or break the future of a corporation’s revenue, their reputation in communities with their consumers, and also with their investors. If you look at ESG, the premise of it is really simple. If you were an investor and you wanted to invest in a startup, they would produce an ESG score and then you would decide, “Do I want to invest in this company? Are they a sustainable company moving forward? Are their ethics good? Are they going to have social impact? Are they going to ruin the environment? Are they going to make things worse?”

In Canada, we are often having this conversation without even knowing it. We’re constantly having conversations about how our need to address climate issues, how to make decisions around interacting with our environment and with Indigenous folks. That’s a conversation that we’re having, but we’re not necessarily demanding that corporations have an actual plan. You can’t do one without the other. They have to be able to be intertwined. When we were talking about this originally, that’s what this ESG score was looking at: how is this a sustainable company? Are we going to want to invest in them in the long term? And what my personal hope is, and I think where we’re going as a country, we start to look at a retail level, at a consumer level. We need to be concerned about where we’re putting our money. And you see that in the next generation.

They want to know how you’re using the money, how is it sustainable? People don’t even want to go to coffee shops that don’t have biodegradable utensils and cups. These are things that people are starting to wake up and think about. The next generation will likely not tolerate bad practices in any of these areas. So, it’s going to trickle down not at a large investor level, but at a consumer level. Consumers want to make sure that they’re spending money in the right places, with companies that care about the environment, about society, and also that their governance is well done.

You might be wondering what this has to do with nonprofits and corporations working together? Much like we just talked about with government, they make promises for corporations if they pay attention to where things are going, they start to adopt ESG plans and strategies, and then they are going to need our help. There’s no way that social impact and environmental impact can be implemented in silos within corporations. They’re going to need to look outside of their organizations to see how they could have a larger impact. If you look at a lot of large organizations in the last couple of years, they have created foundations, and are reaching out to nonprofit organizations to see how they can strategically align with other organizations that are going to further those plans.

The nonprofit sector is going to play a large role in fulfilling the same promises that corporations are making to their consumers. We should be available and ready and know how to navigate the issues when they need us to help them fulfill the promises that they’ve made. We also have to be mindful that all of these topics intertwine. When we’re talking about the environment, this also will speak to organizations that are working on environmental issues. We often think of social issues in a very linear way, but they also affect human rights and animal rights. Any organization that’s working on a cause is going to likely find themselves in a place.

If all corporations adopt this attitude, then they’ll easily find alliances in any given space. I also encourage nonprofits to reach out to organizations that are aligned with the work that they’re doing. If the company doesn’t have an ESG plan or social impact plan, you could also assist them in setting one up. The biggest issue that I see is that corporations just have no idea where to start. They might have a demand and pressures externally telling them that ESG has to be a priority, but they just have no clue how to start one. Reaching out in this context is a mutually beneficial, because they can grow, you can see how you can assist them, and they can reciprocate by assisting you in your endeavours moving forward.

When we’re talking about social and environmental issues going hand-in-hand, we’re often looking at human rights and the environment. Even though they’re both problems that we want to solve, they also clash. I’ll use the example of solar panels. Yes, we need solar panels, we want to be able to generate energy in sustainable ways, but at the same time, the material that is needed to create solar panels can collide with human rights issues, because the regions where the minerals are being collected use unethical methods, in terms of poor work conditions, or forced labour.

We need to strike a balance between the desire for solar panels, and the need to uphold human rights. So even though a corporation might want to further their efforts in environmental consciousness, it also could collide with their social impact values. Those are the complex issues that we need to be able to put our heads together to solve, in a way that is beneficial for all areas of the plan.

4. Non-profit organizations should have a government relations plan

The next good idea that I want to discuss is that nonprofits should have a government relation strategy. It does not need to be complex. Often, people are intimidated by the idea of government relations.  Thanks to Maytree Policy School, I learned the ins and outs of how government works, and how it connects to the nonprofit sector. One of the things that I would really encourage nonprofits to do is figure out the basics. It doesn’t need to be a big strategy. You don’t have to have policies that you want to change in the next 30 or 60 days, you really just have to build a relationship.

All of these good ideas are all intertwined with each other. When we’re building a relationship, your government relations strategy is exactly that. Find out who your local counsellor is. Who’s your local MPP? Who’s your local MP? Invite them out to your office. Show them around. Let them know you exist, because it’s through relationships that opportunities are going to arise. If they don’t know that you exist, when they make campaign promises, they need to know that your organization exists, and can fulfil promises that they make. You should also be approaching government with what you can do for them.

This is an example relating to elections.

If you know that there’s an upcoming election, find out who your representative is. As soon as they gain their seat, you should send them a letter introducing yourself. In my case, “Hi, I’m Gessesse, I run CEE Centre.” Tell them what you’re about. Let them know that you’re excited to see that they won your riding, that you’re writing to meet with them, and just tell them what your organization does. If it’s an MP or an MPP, usually the other thing that I would strongly advise is that as soon as the MPs are announced, shortly after, send a congratulatory letter to them. Look at the mandate letters that come very shortly after. When the ministers are selected, they usually have a mandate letter, which is pretty much their work plan for the next four years.

You should be looking at those mandate letters and reading them based off of the ministries that you’re aligned with. If you’re working on environmental issues, then you’re going to go and look at that ministry. If you’re working with children and youth, or women, you’re going to read those mandate letters and sending a letter of congratulations. Your letter can acknowledge that they’ve become the minister of that ministry. Tell them that you read through their mandate letter, and these are the ways that you think you could be able to support the work that they’re doing. That is what’s going to help you build relationships with organizations as you move forward.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. You just need to build relationships, and those folks will introduce you to other folks. If you do have a policy, that’s an entirely different thing, but this is really just having a strategy of your own. If you do have a policy, then there are ways that you can build a campaign around that, but just being able to build relationships with your local politician is going to be key to your success as an organization, and be able to take advantage of some of the opportunities that can arise.

5. Determine from the onset what success could look like and how long it will take

My last good idea is to determine what success could look like from the outset. One of the reasons why I use this as an idea is that you don’t have to always get things right. If you’re mutually benefiting from a relationship, you can learn together. From the outset, it’s important for you to set expectations, make sure that your values are aligned, and also keep an open line of communication. As a sector, we’re very risk adverse to having conversations around things that are not necessarily going well. Most of the time when we know that something’s not going well, it’s because we found an alternative or a way that we could do things better. I think it’s best to be able to, from the onset, have a conversation and be transparent about what it is that you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for a long-term relationship with a corporation, then you can just say that. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten into meetings with folks, and I say, “I’m looking for a long-term partner in this.” This work is not going to be done in a year. We’re looking at generational change in Black communities. That’s not going to happen overnight. I need a partner who’s going to stick this out with me for at least three years. Give me three years to figure things out and work alongside you, so that we can learn from our lessons, et cetera. You need to be able to have the courage to have that conversation because if you set yourself up and say, “I’m going to be able to do all of these things in one year.” It’s not realistic, no matter what sector you’re in, it’s going to take time, is going to take investment. It’s just the reality of the situation.

We continue to set ourselves up as a sector by making these huge promises, doing so much with so little, and then what ends up really suffering in the end is the goals we had. If you’re trying to fight environmental issues, then are you going to be able to fulfill that to the best of your ability? Likely not. For us at CEE, are we going to be able to place our young people into careers, when we’re working folks who are younger, furthest from the labour market in a one-year span? No, it’s going to take time and investment and you should not be scared to let folks know that that’s a reality that you’re dealing with. So being able to let your partners know that from the outset.

I will also say for corporations in particular, when they’re entering into a partnership conversation, even if they have an ESG plan, not to be so prescriptive around what that looks like. Don’t come into the conversation and tell a nonprofit or charity, “Well, this is what we’re looking for and we want to run it this way.” I’ll give an example. We had an organization come to us, a very large organization who clearly had the means and the ability to be a partner. They said, “Okay, well, we want to run programs where folks will work in a retail store.” Well, one of the things that we work on is high-paying jobs, upward mobility, and we want it to place young people in careers, not just jobs. We have rejected other opportunities that we thought would be good for business because we’re not only looking at what’s beneficial for us, but we’re looking at what’s beneficial for them as well. And those folks said, “Okay, that’s great. Well, we don’t have any money.”

So don’t be prescriptive and be prepared to offer resources. You have to invest. Obviously, we’re investing our time, our efforts, our young people, our staff to be able to bring an asset to the table. Corporations also need to think differently about nonprofits as well. Don’t come in thinking you know what’s best for our community, how to do it, and how you would like to see it. The way that your world works, and the way our world works are very different. Acknowledge where each other’s strengths are, and being able to look at what success is going to look like from that perspective.

I really encourage folks to keep an open mind and also: know what you don’t know. Go into the conversation knowing this is not your lane. Just like for our sector, your profitability is not our lane. Community is our lane. We understand it. We know the folks that we’re working with on the ground and trust that and allow us to be able to guide you through that. So with that being said, I’m going to hand it back over to Elizabeth for any questions. Thank you for your time.

Elizabeth McIsaac: That was terrific, Agapi. Thank you so much. I just thought that was such a great overview of how to build relationships and the importance of relationship. It’s so central to making, as you said at the beginning, really complex and difficult issues that it’s not a single act that’s going to change it. It’s a lot of different players and figuring out how to row in the same direction. I think your focus on ESG is a great place to set those values down so that’s where you’re headed. While you were still speaking, there were already questions coming in.

The first question was, “Thank you for highlighting the important role that the nonprofit sector plays in meeting government mandates. What feedback back would you have for government departments to better engage nonprofits?” So, you spoke a bit about how different groups need to see from each other’s point of view and understand how the others are operating and getting that sort of fluency in both organizational cultures is critical. What’s the feedback for government departments to better engage nonprofits and others to ensure that they create a mutually beneficial relationship, particularly in policy development? So what do they need to think about when they bring nonprofits to the table?

Agapi Gessesse: I would definitely say hire staff who know community well, because the reality of the situation is when you send a letter to your local MP, their staff are the ones reading it. The key to it is going to be those staff. If politicians hire their staff from community who understand their local area, then they’re going to know who those nonprofits are. They’ll be able to reach out to them and build relationships. So I think we put a lot of pressure and emphasis on the figureheads of or government, but it really happens at a staff level. If I were to give advice to a politician, I would say, “Hire staff who know the community so that they can bridge gaps in those relationships.”

Elizabeth McIsaac: Sometimes some of the policy work happens by bureaucrats. Sometimes the constraints of working within bureaucracy hinder the ability to reach out effectively. Is it the same advice? Make sure that you’re hiring, so you’ve got diversity in your ranks, but not just demographic diversity, but diversity of experience that they, as you’re saying, understand what happens in community and how nonprofits work.

Agapi Gessesse: Completely. I think if I would even use myself as an example really quickly, when I started at CEE, the reality of it is different communities respond differently. I’m from East Africa, but CEE was predominantly serving folks from the Caribbean, because most of the staff in the organization were from there. Once we started to diversify the hiring of different communities, that allowed other folks externally to say, “Oh, okay, this is a welcoming place for us.” I think when we don’t have diversity of experience, as well as ethnicity and backgrounds, then we limit our ability to reach constituents. Particularly when you’re talking about government. If your staffing is not reflecting your constituency, there’s probably likely a disconnect.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Here’s a question that builds on that directly. We’re talking about government as a big category. There’s federal, there’s provincial, and there’s municipal. Looking specifically at municipal governments, are there recommendations that you would have for municipalities around community investment and funding programs to make those connections better, and to live out their role in the relationship better?

Agapi Gessesse: Yes, for sure. I could speak to the City of Toronto. I think we’ve done a good job of creating the CABR.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Can you spell that out for everybody?

Agapi Gessesse: The Confronting Anti-Black Racism Department, there’s also an Indigenous department. These departments can connect to particular communities, and I think that is a good way for you to connect and also gain some knowledge about how these levels of government work, particularly at a city level. Often, those folks are going to the province and the federal governments to bring some funding down to the City. So, offering, looking at opportunities, and saying, “Well, you can apply with the City of Toronto for a grant to the province or to the feds.” So really looking at ways that you could also connect and gain partnership so that you can also create mutually beneficial relationships in that way.

Elizabeth McIsaac: I want to build on a couple of your good ideas that had plans in them. So, corporations should have an ESG plan. Nonprofits should have a government relations plan. How important is it to articulate what the goals of the relationship are from where you’re standing? I think that with the ESG plan for a corporation, that’s brilliant, right? Because what it does is it signals where you are at, what you’re trying to change, and what you’re prepared to talk about. You can begin the conversation, perhaps at a further down the road because there’s an external articulation, but from your own experience, how much of the plan is as you’re going through it, and how much of it is you start down this path, maybe you change, but at least where you’re headed because you’ve developed a plan per se.

Agapi Gessesse: Yes, I think you have to look at it like a strategic plan. You have your overarching goals, which are like we want to be able, let’s say to diversify our funding base. There are so many avenues that you’re going to take to be able to get there, but at the end, you want to diversify your funding base. I think making these types of plans available on your website is so key to signal to folks who are not already in your sphere, what your plan is, and then they can say, “Oh, well that’s part of our plan as well.” This would encourage collaboration with you. How you get there sometimes is going to be a rocky road. Any new relationship is going to be, but I think if you have already set out what your main goal is going to be, how you get there, you might pivot, you might move off track for a moment and come back, but as long as you have mutually agreed that the main destination is where you’re both headed, that’s the most important thing.

Elizabeth McIsaac: You’ve talked a lot about the nonprofit sector with government, the nonprofit sector with corporate, the three of them together at a table, which is what I think CEE has done so really smartly in so many ways. What about among nonprofits? The next question is “what is your assessment on the coordination and collaboration of nonprofits that work with Black communities?” So, I think with Black communities, but also more broadly, but just that within the sector itself, are there things that you think have worked really well and what else can we be doing there?

Agapi Gessesse: Oh, for sure. One of the areas that we’ve been working on at CEE is what we call sector leadership. With sector leadership, we are looking at how can we support Black-led, Black-serving organizations to do their work even better than they already do. We have historically been underfunded, so how can we, as an organization acknowledge that we are as good as our partners? If we don’t have partners who we can connect with, who are able to have strong operations and not necessarily have to worry about all of those things, then it weakens our ability to also serve collectively together.

Nonprofits connecting with each other is key to the success of not only your individual organizations, but also the mandate that you have moving forward. One of the things that we’re working on at CEE is the ability to connect with other Black-led agencies that are doing workforce development. That is so important because we’re not going to be able to just plot ourselves across the country. We want to be able to help the efforts of maybe grassroots or emerging organizations that are doing amazing work and just need to come along. We want to come alongside them because we’re going to be much more powerful together in terms of our impact.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Terrific. So we have time for one more question and I’m going to take it actually from the chat room. This is Stella. “We have helped out community services department by informing them of community needs, housing, food security, homelessness, but we’re reluctant to ask for resources to assist us in that due to control governments can exert in other aspects of our work speaking publicly.” So that tension between, are you able to speak freely? Do you have thoughts on that or experience in that?

Agapi Gessesse: Yes. I mean the reality is you don’t want to be the “raw-rawer,” right? You don’t want to be the person who’s constantly pointing at the government, telling them what they need to do, because it’s counterproductive. It’s better to approach government, tell them where you see gaps, explain where promises they made are not being delivered, and offer up solutions. It’s much more powerful to work collectively, offer to stand with government, and help them fix problems. Coming from an asset base of how we can help, rather than pointing a finger, is always going give better results, because the government isn’t interacting with you through fear. This is preferable to threatening them, or going to the media with stories about how horrible their party is.

The reality is we should always be non-partisan, because for us, it shouldn’t matter who is in government. It’s about what that current government, whoever they are, is going to do to help us move to social change. How are they going to be able to move what we’re doing forward? If you get caught up in the finger pointing, it enables them to blame each other across party lines and ignore the fact that there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. If you focus on the problem, regardless of who is in power, the problem will persist. Your concern should be pointing out the issue and offering help. Tell government that if they’re interested in help, you’re ready to engage. If they’re not interested in helping, then the problem will speak for itself.

Elizabeth McIsaac: Okay. I’m going to slip in one more question. When you have a corporate partner, sometimes they may begin to go down a line of their corporate strategy that may be counter the values that your organization is committed to, or perhaps not going as quickly as had been the original understanding of how you’re working together. It does pose challenge obviously to the relationship, but is that something that have you experienced or how do you work with them on that to steer back to perhaps where you were in terms of a mutual understanding of that?

Agapi Gessesse: Yes, completely. When you approach partners simply asking for help, you automatically put yourself in the position of receiving whatever support they’re offering, rather than being an equal partner. If it’s an equal partnership, and you’re entering into that very clearly, then you can then point out when they are straying from the agreed course of action in the partnership, precisely because you are equal partners.  That way, both entities are obliged to fulfill their agreed-upon roles in the arrangement. Corporations often bring money to the table, but we are also enhancing their business with the value that we bring. We have to stop shrinking our vision of ourselves in that power dynamic and start thinking about your value to them in the relationship.

I always use the H&M example. The brand advertised a hoodie with the writing “I’m the coolest monkey in jungle” on it, modelled by a Black child. This was extremely controversial, and the Black community boycotted H&M. Critics pointed out that if they had included a Black decision-maker in approving the design of the ad, then it wouldn’t have been released. Personally, I don’t doubt that they had a Black person in the room. But did that person feel empowered enough to say something about it? Did they create an environment where a personal assistant would point out to the creative director of the ad that the image could potentially be offensive to some people? Conversely, if the issue isn’t raised, some corporations may turn to blaming Black staff for not pointing out potential cultural offensiveness. But because we’ve created uneven power dynamics, we may actually deprive our partners of knowledge we can share to protect their organization.

Elizabeth McIsaac: So, there’s a lot in there. There is courage to perhaps say goodbye to the money.

Agapi Gessesse: Yes.

Elizabeth McIsaac: There’s integrity in speaking out when the time is right. All of those things play into it, and that comes out of a relationship that develops over time, and that’s where you nurture it and learn how to work with each other. So, there’s just a ton in there. Agapi, I think we could probably talk for another hour about how some of those things can play out, but you’ve given, I think, everyone lots of food for thought, and certainly in the chat room people are expressing gratitude for your insights.

Agapi Gessesse

Executive Director, CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals

Agapi is Executive Director of CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, an organization dedicated to addressing economic issues affecting Black youth. She is passionate about CEE’s mission-driven and evidence-based work.

Agapi also served as Executive Director of POV 3rd Street, an organization that helps marginalized youth break into the media industry through training, mentorship, job placement, and professional development opportunities. Through prior work as a fundraising professional, social enterprise manager, and coordinator of youth leadership programs, Agapi has established a record of accomplishment in operations management, program implementation and evaluation, financial stewardship, partner development, and community engagement. Her experience includes positions with United Way of Greater Toronto and the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.