FHASS and The Community Ideas Factory

by Prof. Sara Cumming (Sociology)

The Community Ideas Factory is an academic/community/not-for-profit and government collaboration to for bottom-up philanthropic planning and innovation in the Halton Region led by Prof. Mike McNamara (Creativity) and Prof. Sara Cumming (Sociology).

In the spring of 2015, the Oakville Community Foundation worked with a team of researchers from Sheridan College to help develop and facilitate a series of Creative Problem Solving workshops that would engage community stakeholders in a “Community Conversations” event in a discussion of the key issues to be addressed and included in the OCF’s upcoming 2015 Vital Signs Report. In this effort, Sheridan College hosted several Creative Problem-Solving workshops for over 20 community agencies in the summer of 2015.  The results of these sessions were used to identify the most significant issues affecting quality of life in the Oakville community.

Success in this initial collaboration sparked new conversations between the Sheridan team and the OCF about how to advance progress on the Vital Signs issues by working towards Vital SolutionsBoth parties agreed that advances could be made by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the application and disbursement process for allocating funds in the Halton Region.  Specifically, it was agreed that gains could be made by adopting a more broad-based, participatory, and collectivist approach to the funding process.

These conversations materialized as “The Community Ideas Factory”; a two-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Councils (SSHRC) funded project that leveraged Sheridan’s research and creativity expertise, its creative spaces, and its creativity resources in supporting the Foundation’s efforts to implement a participatory decision-making approach with a view towards the creation of new, fundable projects that align with and advance work on key Vital Signs issues.  Our particular approach to ‘creative problem-solving’ in the current project owes much to the Freirian theme that marginalized people can and should be enabled to analyze and determine their own reality.  And so, while we have often champion CPS as a means for unlocking novel solutions, we tended to embrace and practice CPS in the context of the Community Ideas Factory as a means for incorporating the knowledge and opinions of marginalized people in the planning of initiatives that affect them.

The SSHRC allowed for the building of a team of Sheridan faculty who worked alongside Mike and Sara at different phases of the project; namely Kirsten Madsen and Rory Sommers in the housing sector, and Jessica Pulis, Michelle Szabo and Jennifer Phenix in the food sector, in addition to Sean McNabney and Janet Shuh who also participated in data gathering and CPS sessions over the course of the project. Mike and Sara were also able to hire a number of students to work as research assistants, creative problem solving facilitators, photographers and illustrators. The team also included the lead partner, the Oakville Community Foundation, as well as the Halton Region, and the Oakville YMCA, United Way of Hamilton and Halton , Community Development Halton, the Halton Poverty Roundtable and Food for Life.

Over the course of the project’s two-year life-cycle (currently in month 19), participatory approaches were utilized in order to build new ‘program concepts’ that would address key Vital Signs issues areas; namely and in order: Affordable Housing; Food Security; Employment Equity and Wraparound programing. In each sector the project followed a five-step process.  In step one extensive literature reviews were written encompassing current academic findings, studies from the government and research released by not-for-profits, as well as providing discussion of best-practices nationally as well as internationally. The second step was led by the OCF and included an extensive environmental scan that located all of the service providers in Halton and listed the services each offered.  The third step was to conduct research within each sector. The type of method utilized was dependent upon a number of factors that will be discussed below.  In the affordable housing, food (in)security and employment services sectors, research focused specifically on gaps in services and barriers to access.  These three sectors provided the research for the building of wraparounds as well.  Once the sector specific issues were identified in the research, service providers were invited to the fourth step, a Creative Problem Solving session that aimed to discover innovative fundable solutions.  The fifth and final step of the project was a “philanthropitch” where the ideas that were presented in the CPS sessions were brought forward to the Oakville Community Foundations’ philanthropists as fundable innovations.  Once the pitches were made, the funders voted on the ideas they felt had the most potential and an RFP request was made to the community to execute the project/idea.


In October of 2016 the Halton Region’s Social and Community Services, Housing Services Division and the Halton Housing Alliance joined forces for the joint Housing Provider/Support Services Agency Summit held at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. This day brought together all organizations in the region that provide housing programs to discuss the state of homelessness—including couch surfers and those who were considered under-housed. Our research team was invited to hold our research in the afternoon of the housing summit.  We organized the 50 attendees into six focus groups.

The groups were organized to have diverse voices at each table—a mix between managers, case workers, OCF representation,  and lawyers  were at four of the tables and then the remaining two tables consisted of eight Executive Directors each. All six focus groups were asked to identify their strengths as organizations and their principle ‘pain-points’ or gaps in services.

The findings from these focus groups showed many gaps in services Individuals require access to affordable and safe housing that can meet their needs, In particular, gaps were noted in providing culturally appropriate housing that met the needs of larger immigrant families, housing that met the needs of the youth and elderly populations—as well as the needs of families who were comprised of both the elderly and youth in the same household, and housing that addressed a myriad of health issues (physical limitations, mental health, addictions, etc.). The findings also suggest that the Region is in need of a streamlined intake system whereby one application would be submitted to all eligible housing rather than individuals having to navigate multiple organizations simultaneously.  Furthermore, there was recognition that access to housing alone won’t solve many individuals problems; rather there is a need to incorporate access to other services such as mental health and addiction, food programs and employment services.

As a result of the findings from the focus groups, a creative problem-solving workshop was held November 22, 2016 with 91 stakeholders in order to collectively identify, fundable solutions for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of social housing service delivery in Halton Region.  Invited participants represented a diverse group of stakeholders in the sector; including charitable donors, agencies, and service users.

The CPS workshops provide a unique opportunity for donors, service delivery agencies, and clients to collaborate in the development of fundable solutions that speak clearly and directly to the key challenges identified in the problem identification step.  Facilitated by the Sheridan Research team, the CPS workshops took the groups through the four steps of the process; ideation, creating a solution statement, development and implementation.  The process resulted in 9 ideas being brought forward; 1) Developing an educational campaign to eliminate the prevalent NIMBY syndrome throughout Halton. 2) Developing a Community Hub to wraparound clients rather than working separate from other service agencies (social assistance, mental health, legal aid, food programs, employment supports for example). 3) Cultivating a system of resource sharing to reduce duplication within the sector.  4) Creating greater client participation in planning and solutions. 5) Build or renovate current structures that would not normally be seen as conventional housing models. 6) Engaging more effectively with the private sector. 7) Collaboration of funding agencies to increase potential funding to create a meaningful impact.  8) Stream-lining of services following the Habitat Canada model. 9) The construction of a sharing forum where all individuals working in the housing sector come together monthly to discuss the state of affairs within their organizations to better facilitate collaboration.

Food (in)Security

At the end of the Housing sector the research team reflected on the findings and the strength and weaknesses of the methodologies used.  In collaboration it was decided that we needed to draw primarily on service users experiences in the research phase, and then to move forward with the service providers in the CPS stage. Thus, the methods utilized were far more participatory.  Food-for-Life, one of the community partners on the grant took a lead role in facilitating research.  They contacted all of the food banks and food programs throughout the Halton region and asked them to hand out flyers inviting ‘neighbours’-the term they use rather than users- to a full research day to investigate the barriers they experience obtaining a sufficient amount of food monthly. In total 500 flyers were made up and handed out via each organization.

On February 22nd, 2017 a total of 48  neighbours met the research team at the Oakville Nieghbourhood Centre.  The neighbours were broke into four groups; however only 36 neighbours remained for the duration of the research.

Image: Sara Cumming

The Sheridan team consisted of four facilitators as well as a team of illustration students who interpreted the neighbours experiences into illustrations in real time.

The research team used Participatory Rural Appraisal tools known as Problem Tree Analysis and Mind Mapping to allow the participants to discuss their experiences and understandings in their own words.  Through the literature review it became apparent that low access to healthy food was the major problem for food bank/program users thus we wrote that in the middle of a tree.  Participants were  then asked to identify the cause of them not being able to access food—which became the roots of the trees.  Once this step was complete, the neighbours were then asked to fill the branches of the tree with consequences the experienced in their lives as a result of their inability to access sufficient food.

In step two of the research, participants were tasked with imagining what their ideal food program would look like.  The facilitators and artists were tasked with creating mind maps from the participants’ ideas.  A representative image and/or the words ‘ideal food program’ were written in the center of the mind map. The participants then contributed the different areas that they felt had to exist for any food program.  Facilitators used probes such as ‘what kinds of food’, ‘where would it be located’, ‘how do you access the program’ etc.

The findings from this research indicated that the neighbours and their children were experiencing a number of physical, mental and emotional health issues as a result of their inability to access adequate food.  In addition, many stated their housing was at best insecure due to the fact that at times they shorted their landlords so that they could eat.  The neighbours asserted that they needed access to a greater quantity and quality of foods that took cultural differences as well as dietary restrictions into account. They also articulated experiencing undo hardships due to their lack of transportation and inability to produce all of the different documentation required at the varying food banks in order to assess access. Stigmatization, or at least the perception of stigma, was also a hindrance to their use of programs. Thus the neighbours ideal food programs included diverse distribution sites, access to more fresh, non processed foods including meat and dairy, a unified intake process that required their information one time only and then permitted access to any foodbank within the region.

Image: Sara Cumming

After we completed the research with the neighbours we invited stakeholders to a CPS Workshop on Food Security at the Sheridan Conference Center on April 4, 2017.  It total 37 participants representing 27 organizations (not-for-profit, government and industry) participated.  They were each assigned a seat amongst 8 different tables and each table was assigned a CPS facilitator.

The participants were briefed on the findings of the research and were tasked with coming up with innovative fundable solutions.  After being brought through the four steps of CPS, The participants developed solutions focused on improving intake systems, distribution of food, food literacy and community partnerships.  They also highlighted the need to embed food services within other services in the community such as housing and social assistance.

Employment Support

In November of 2017, the Oakville Community Foundation acted as the liaison between the researchers and the Employment Support agencies in Halton in an effort to facilitate engaging service users to participate in research for this project. Originally, the researchers organized to conduct two focus groups with people who had previously, or were currently, accessing the services of any Employment Support agency in the Halton Region.  The agencies were contacted with the information regarding the focus groups and were asked to contact their clients.  After several attempts were made, the response rate was extraordinarily low. At this point the research was adjusted from qualitative focus groups to surveys that included both quantitative and qualitative components.  Once the survey was designed it was sent to the OCF and then filtered to all of the key contacts in the Employment Support agencies. In total 148 people seeking employment through the help of one of the identified agencies participated in the study.

The findings from the surveys indicated many areas where Employment Supports had gaps in services.  Halton Region has a highly educated and qualified unemployed population thus job seekers asserted that the agencies needed to move services beyond entry level positions in the labour market and to create bridging and/or social networking  opportunities so that socially isolated individuals could meet others in the community and gain social capital.  They also asserted that increasing skills based workshops and self employment opportunities would be advantageous.

A Creative Problem Solving session was scheduled for December 4, 2017. Invitations to participate were sent via email by the Oakville Community Foundation to the 22 organizations whom we conducted interviews with during the environmental scan. A total of 15 people registered for the event, representing 7 organizations. Participants’ job titles included: (program/operations/general) manager, job developer (coordinator), executive director, senior programs coordinator, settlement & program integration coordinator, employment advisor, and placement student. Two focus groups were conducted for the first two hours of the research day.  Participants were split between two groups and researchers ensured that each table had a mix of representation from each organization.

Employment Support providers recognized that there were group specific issues such as lack of Canadian experience, low youth and senior job placement and difficulty helping those with complex needs such as disability, mental health and addiction issues.  The majority of the focus group discussions focused on how services could be improved for the client..  Employment support providers also recommended wraparounds to better serve clients complex needs, as well as offered other suggestions for improvement that will be discussed below.

Building upon the findings from the focus group interviews, groups then transitioned to a creative problem-solving (CPS) activities wherein they would set to task to build out ‘fundable solutions’ at a conceptual level.  To begin the CPS activity, facilitators from Sheridan issued a broadly conceived ‘challenge statement’ in order to help groups frame and align the focus of the CPS session around the key issues and opportunities identified through the focus group discussions.  The challenge statement for the opening exercises was: In what ways might we respond to the identified issues through new program innovations (aka. ‘fundable solutions’)?

Two fundable solutions were identified in the CPS groups.  The first presented  a ‘centralized talent hub’ for Employment Ontario programming in the Halton Region. Participants envisioned a more stream-lined system to help employers, job seekers, and job developers (and their agencies) alike navigate, manage and access relationships, programs, and services across the system.  Group Two converged on the idea of ‘social enterprises’ as a program innovation concept for improving efficiencies in the Employment Ontario system.  While various definitions abound, social enterprises are loosely understood to refer to business ventures, operated by non-profits, which sell goods or services in the market for the purpose of creating a blended financial and social return on investment.

Image: Sara Cumming


The findings from the affordable housing, food insecurity and employment supports all pointed to the need for programming that wrapped around individual clients. The purpose of wraparound is to connect participants with other services while giving the individual skills that encourage resiliency, healthy choices, and emotional and mental stability. Thus, the final stage of this research has shifted focus to bringing the community together to envision how they can work collaboratively to better service those in need.  In the month of March a series of Creative Problem Solving sessions were held with diverse stakeholders representing housing, employment supports, food security, mental health, legal aid and government.


Traditionally, OCF granting was conducted through a process whereby individual charities developed their own proposals, independent of knowledge about what others are doing, in response to a broadly positioned Request for Proposal (RFP) issued by the OCF.  The central aim of the Community Ideas Factory project was to transform this process; rendering it more responsive, efficient and strategic.  Towards this end, the project produced new, strategically-focused funding recommendations that are informed by evidence and best-practice; and, more importantly, built collectively by the clients (services users) and agencies (service providers) who will benefit from them.  The recommendations produced by the project were brought forward to the Funder’s Roundtable in November 2017 (a collection of Halton’s biggest philanthropists).  The Roundtable, in turn, agreed to fund several of them.  Their funding commitments materialized in the issuance of two Request for Proposals (RFP’s) supporting our strategic recommendations for projects in Affordable Housing and Food Security.  Decisions and result announcements from the current RFP competition are expected in April, 2018.  We look forward to bringing our strategic recommendations for Employment and Wrap-around projects to the next Funders Roundtable meeting, scheduled for later this year.

Check out more on this initiative by clicking on the ‘Spotlight’ tab in the toolbar and selecting ‘Comm. Ideas Factory.’