By Sebastian Leck

London Community Foundation, once considered more or less a bank for local non-profits, is now becoming a catalyst for change in its community.

Like all community foundations, London pools donations into an endowment fund and uses interest payments to provide grants to local organizations. Recently, the foundation has begun using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — the big-picture, international ambitions of UN member nations — to guide the way it provides grants, conducts research and runs community events.

“I don’t think it’s something the Foundation would have done ten years ago, because we were so hyper-local,” says Martha Powell, the President and CEO of LCF. “What we define as a community is expanding its boundaries. We’re really part of the global community.”

Grants are the lifeblood of local non-profits in London along with dozens of other communities across Canada. In the past year, LCF’s funds have gone towards housing for homeless individuals, apartments for senior veterans, affordable dental clinics, crisis counselling at local colleges and dozens of other essential projects. Because the money that was originally donated still gathers interest, the foundation can continue to provide grants indefinitely.

Every two years, the foundation releases a Vital Signs report, which acts as a pulse check of the community. In their 2018 report, LCF used the SDGs to map London’s priority areas, which were to be healthy, sheltered, equal, employed, green (environmentally sustainable), educated and have a sense of belonging.

The report produced sobering results. Close to half of the population was spending over 30 per cent of their income on rent, and over 70,000 people in London were living in poverty. It also found that the labour participation rate was only 60.5 per cent, the lowest in Ontario. “We released the report just prior to the municipal election, so it was used for advocacy and civic engagement as well,” says Vanessa Dolishny, LCF’s communications manager. “It provides leadership to people in our community and allows citizens to use it as a tool for debate.”

Other non-profits took note and wanted to learn more about applying the UN Sustainable Development Goals to their own activities. “We had people calling us after we released Vital Signs, from Western University to small community churches, saying ‘how can we get on board with this?’” Dolishny said.

Since then, LCF has inspired the birth of more city initiatives based on the SDGs. The London City Symposium, a series of talks similar to TED Talks, are shaped around the UN goals, while the Pillar Non-Profit has started using the SDG framework as well.

The foundation has also started experimenting with novel ways of measuring social impact — all based on the UN goals. A group of MBA students at the Ivey Business School developed a system to measure the social impact of proposed projects.

Khahn Lam, a member of the Ivey team, says the indicator allows for a more objective assessment of a proposal. The foundation had robust ways of measuring governance and financial feasibility, but estimating social impact is more difficult, he says.

“The process they have to measure social impact, and investment decisions based on that, is largely done on an ad-hoc basis,” said Lam. He and the other Ivey students identified indicators behind eleven of the goals and then uses Statistics Canada data to estimate the projected social impact. With such granular data, he said, “we can start having more nuanced discussions about why we’re approving a certain project over another.”

LCF has also begun holding Vital Conversations on pressing issues in London based on the SDGs, including poverty, climate change, health and housing. The first Vital Conversation addressed what it meant to belong in London with talks from seven speakers, including Martin McIntosh, the Director of Community Relations at Regional HIV/AIDS Connection (RHAC).

McIntosh spoke about the social isolation he felt when his family first immigrated from the Caribbean to Canada in 1978 and the marginalization he experienced as a gay man. “It’s a long story, but I’ll tell you where it ended. It ended with daily use of crystal meth,” he said. “It brought me to a very dark place…I wonder what it would have been like if I had an agency like the RHAC that fosters a safe place for youth, an open closet, to explore their sexuality and just be who they are.”

After the talks, event organizers asked each table what the community could do to tackle the most pressing issues, and what they, as individuals, could do on their own.

By linking the UN goals to the foundation’s research, their grant process and their public events, the LCF hopes to make Londoners aware that their community goes beyond the city’s borders.

“More and more, we know that to create change on a global level, we need to create change locally,” says Powell. “Our work doesn’t end with what’s happening in London, Ontario.”