These days, when we’re accustomed to hearing talk of nonprofits in competition for
a piece of an ever-shrinking pie — public attention, as well as funding
and volunteer resources — it’s refreshing to come across a different,
The Ontario Nonprofit Network
(ONN) is a “network of networks” whose purpose is to coordinate and
facilitate communication among nonprofit organizations working for the
public good in Ontario, Canada.
ONN brings together people and groups that want to work together
to strengthen the nonprofit sector. Our work is action focused,
creating opportunities for the emergence of new ideas, flexibly
responding to opportunities and needs as they arise.
Networks of networks (or associations of associations) are far from
rare — Arts groups, for example, often band together to defend
government grants programs or arts education in public schools.
Cooperation borne of mutual self-interest can help small groups to
complete projects and wield influence that they could never achieve by
working in isolation, there's no doubt about it — but what I found most interesting about ONN is its approach to enabling cross-sector alliances in the nonprofit community.
It’s all based on the constellation governance model, “a way of organizing a group of interested parties to meet a need without having to create a new organization.”
Constellations are “self-organizing action teams composed of people
that share a desire to get something done,” to tackle a particular
issue that affects the nonprofit community.
Perhaps a group will form around such things as raising the
profile of the nonprofit sector in Ontario, or perhaps we will start
aligning with each other to figure out a more effective relationship
with government around funding and accountability. Or we could explore
cross-sectoral discussions on, for example, the ways that the
environment sector could start pushing for subsidized day care spaces,
or how the health sector could start using their strength to mobilize
around climate change, or how green jobs can be part of a poverty
reduction strategy — you get the idea.
Leadership falls to whichever person is motivated to take on the
role; others can participate in any constellation that aligns with their
own cause’s needs and interests, regardless of the specific sector in
which they work. And the Ontario Nonprofit Network facilitates the
communication between constellations and out to the broader nonprofit
There are more than 45,000 charities and nonprofits in Ontario, with
7.8 million volunteers, and more than 15% of the province’s paid
workforce is in the nonprofit sector. And if the “constellation
governance” approach to cooperative action can help each of those
organizations to pursue its mission more effectively — without having
to divert time and resources into forming yet another organization — it’s got some mighty powerful potential.
To learn more about the constellation governance model, see "Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change" by Tonya Surman, executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation out of which the Ontario Nonprofit Network operates.