Published September 15, 2014

There’s a certain delightful irony in the name change. An organization called “Capacity” has had to expand, because its name was simply not big enough to represent its mandate.

“Capacity Waterloo Region” is now officially “Capacity Canada.” The change took place in mid-summer, and CEO Cathy Brothers describes the transition as “fabulous”.
Brothers adds, “It’s all come together beautifully. I can’t believe the responses I have had, all across the country. They’re all positive.”

Brothers admits she wondered if people would be critical of a local agency adopting a national persona. “I wondered if we’d have any kind of critical feedback, saying, ‘Who the hell do you guys think you are?’ But I haven’t had a single one. Even from other national organizations, we’re just getting, ‘This is terrific, the country’s going to benefit tremendously’.”

The name change did not come about because of some attack of corporate ego. Capacity Waterloo Region only came into existence five years ago, but the ensuing years have seen an increasing call for the services the organization provides, and a clearly demonstrated demand for these services far beyond the boundaries of the Region.

Brothers says; “In 2009, we were started by local philanthropists who all provided funding to non-profit organizations.” She says that when these local business people came together, they realized non-profits may need more than financial donations. “They inquired,” states Brothers, “‘We can continue to give them grants, but at the end of our grant period, are they any further ahead? Are there ways we can help the non-profit sector be strong in Waterloo Region?’”

So these “local, generous individuals” – in Brothers’ words – “commissioned a study, spoke to a hundred non-profit CEOs and board chairs, and said, ‘What would make you stronger?’ Unanimously, incredibly, the number one thing that came back was board development. A need for continuous training of the board of directors. Every non-profit has a board, and there is continual turn-over, and they all run into the same sorts of issues around people understanding their responsibilities – governance. Your board really is responsible for the strategic growth and direction of the agency. So many of them get caught up in the weeds and just don’t get that big picture responsibility.”

That was the call to action. The philanthropists decided, “Let’s find somebody that can pull together the training of the boards, but also would have credibility with the non-profits to set up different kinds of peer to peer groups and coaching and mentoring. And there’s where I came in.” Brothers had been heading Mosaic Counselling Centre; from her extensive experience in non-profits, she was also keenly aware of the problem areas.

From the beginning, Capacity Waterloo Region has helped non-profits to break out of their conservative molds, “to make decisions quicker and to take more risks and not be so afraid of failure.”

Brothers brought that kind of radical thinking to the new organization, and it sparked growth. Although, there were some hurdles. Initially – since this was seen as a limited-term, five year project – Capacity Waterloo Region was sponsored by a national charity, so there was no need for a local, charitable status. Brothers laughs about the realization that “there’s a feistiness here in Waterloo Region, and we’re not very good at being someone else’s child. We really wanted to have the local autonomy. All along we had had a local steering committee. But two years ago, we incorporated separately, applied for our own charitable status, and set up our own board of directors.”

From the outset, Brothers and her team recognized that while their mandate was to serve Waterloo Region, the problems they were solving were common to non-profits across the country. “We had a mandate for the Region of Waterloo, although our mission to strengthen non-profits is a universal one. It could be in any community.”

Capacity was well received by the local non-profits. But within less than a year, requests for help starting coming from beyond the region, too. Capacity has assisted organizations in Woodstock, Guelph, Mississauga, Brampton, Brantford and – in a project where they were subcontracted by the University of Waterloo – in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Most recently, they are working in Renfrew Valley, brought in by Algonquin College.

Their primary work involves providing training for non-profits in the areas of board development, coaching and strategic planning. In Renfrew, they are helping to design an incubator for social and/or business entrepreneurs.

Even their cross- and multi-province work was not the final inspiration for their name change, though. That has come about because of Capacity’s very strong relationship with Manulife. Says Brothers, “A huge stimulus for the timing in terms of changing our name now, is our largest sponsor in this community has turned out to be Manulife, and Manulife really tries to dedicate, not just money, but lots of time and talent, to growing and supporting the volunteer sector.”

She explains, “Our signature program is the board governance boot camp. We do it in partnership with Laurier Business School. We call it the Manulife Board Governance Boot Camp, and we limit it to no more than 25 organizations at a time so we can do some proper sharing and learning. It’s always sold out… You have really large, long-standing, sophisticated organizations, and you have these little start-ups, or ones that have been around for a while, but are really all volunteers, with no paid staff. “

The boot camp costs $2400 per agency (two must attend), but Brothers admits that no one is turned away because the organization can’t pay. “We are very generous in providing bursaries.” But she adds, “On the other hand, I like to say to all the agencies that a really legitimate cost is professional development, and especially for your board. Agencies will sometimes have professional development for their staff, but there’s nothing for the board’s development.”

Brothers returns to her story about the name change. “One thing that comes out all the time when we work with any board or organization, no matter how small or how sophisticated, is board succession – how do you continue to get the right people at the table… All organizations have some challenges around getting good people to the board and not just filling seats. So we proposed to Manulife that, as part of our next step of board support, we would set up a program where we would match Manulife employees to local boards. It has been incredibly successful… Manulife invites their employees to the program, we give them some governance training in advance, so they understand what board work is, and if it’s what they want to get into.”

The concept worked beyond expectations. “We’ve been so successful in Waterloo, Manulife wanted us to do it with their global headquarters in Toronto, so we have now launched a similar program in Toronto with Manulife. The name, ‘Capacity Waterloo Region’ doesn’t make any sense in those communities.”

And so, Capacity Canada has been born, still based in Waterloo, but now serving an increasing number of communities across Canada. Manulife has agreed to help mentor other companies that could sponsor the local board program in communities where Manulife is not immediately present.

These kind of public-private partnerships are the future for Capacity Canada, in Brothers’ opinion. “Our vision for Capacity is that we’ll be able to generate enough revenue through some of these private partnerships as well as selling our educational services, that we’ll be around for a long time.”

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