A project in Montreal is flipping the philanthropic model on its head, by enabling community members to be the ultimate decision makers. The Collective Impact Project is helping 17 neighbourhoods in Montreal fight against poverty and social exclusion through a unique model. This article, our seventh in a series with United Way Centraide Canada, highlights the journey and learnings of this collaborative project.

By: Jacky Habib
View original article on Future of Good.

Days after immigrating from Morocco to Canada, Issam Moussaoui was reading the newspaper when he learned about a meeting to discuss social issues in his new community, the Saint-Léonard neighbourhood in Montreal.

Moussaoui participated in community initiatives in Morocco, and felt that doing the same in Canada would help him plant new roots and learn about his new home. “This is how I choose to be integrated in my society,” he says.

At the meeting, Moussaoui began to draw parallels between what he was witnessing and the community organizing he was involved with in Morocco. “It’s different in the topics, tools, and manner, but in essence it is the same — how to help the community, to be involved and to know their reality, their future.”

Moussaoui was impressed that every attendee was given an opportunity to voice their opinion about community issues. He soon became a member of the neighbourhood roundtable, and began attending workshops and discussions on topics including employability, housing, and transportation.

Neighbourhood roundtables — which are unique to Montreal — bring together hundreds of people in a neighbourhood who are part of groups including schools, businesses, policing, health provision, and local agencies to take action on local social issues. The roundtables, some which have existed in Montreal for decades, emerged as a way for locals to come together and improve their neighbourhoods. They support neighbourhoods ranging in size from 10,000 to 100,000 residents. Since 2006, the City of Montreal, public health, and Centraide of Greater Montreal have provided joint funding to support the roundtables, which are individually incorporated organizations, part of the Neighbourhood Round Tables Coalition (CMTQ in French).

The roundtables are long-standing community organizations that bring together and leverage the collective capacity of local stakeholders to improve the neighbourhood, rather than one-off community consultation events. Myriam Bérubéwho heads experimental projects and learning at Centraide of Greater Montreal, says this enables them to “mobilize all stakeholders at every stage of initiatives to improve the quality of life in a neighborhood: defining the vision, finding the best-suited solutions, planning, implementation, evaluation.” These roundtables have played an essential role in the Collective Impact Project (CIP), a 6-year $23 million pilot project, which Centraide of Greater Montreal launched in 2015. The CIP aims to reduce poverty and increase social inclusion in 17 neighbourhoods in Montreal. The initiative recently won a Social Impact Prize for innovation in governance from the magazine, L’Actualité.

The roundtables are long-standing community organizations that bring together and leverage the collective capacity of local stakeholders to improve the neighbourhood, rather than one-off community consultation events.

Bérubé explains that prior to the CIP, neighbourhood roundtables would approach each funder separately and “do some patch work” to raise funds for social initiatives in their communities. Through the CIP, which has brought together nine foundations under a joint mission, this funding process has become much easier.

Linda Boutin, a spokesperson for the City of Montreal, explains why this kind of collaboration is paramount: “The key to success is the capacity of all partners and financial supporters to pool their efforts and resources into a common project, thus avoiding the scattering of funds.” She also says having the City as a partner in the CIP has helped push community goals forward by amending by-laws, issuing permits, and converting public spaces for other uses.

Because of the project’s flexible funding model, community members are able to determine what projects they want funded, through their neighbourhood roundtables. Janie Janvier, the CIP coordinator for Saint-Léonard explains why this is important: “We have to listen to [residents] because they are living it. They see things that we don’t see, they hear things that we don’t hear, so it’s very important to hear what they say.”

Bérubé says the CIP funders did not define specific targets, beyond fighting poverty and social exclusion, or how they would measure success. Bérubé says this was a “very risky gamble for the foundations to fully trust the communities to define what they work on.”

But this model proved to be successful.

In the Peter-McGill neighbourhood, residents decided they wanted more local schools because hundreds of children were attending schools outside the community. “We had never invested in mobilizing around infrastructure before — this is not what we usually do,” Bérubé says. Their efforts resulted in a plan that got the green light, and now, three new elementary schools will be built in the neighbourhood.

In Centre-Sud, residents prioritized food security and are using funds from the CIP to teach young people  agricultural skills; grow fresh produce for food banks and local markets; and support community kitchens and food education workshops. This has created knowledge sharing at a local level on agriculture, environment, and food.

In Côte-des-Neiges, the community members prioritized housing. They created the Safe Housing Brigade, which visits isolated and vulnerable tenants with housing issues, making them aware of their rights and helping them resolve housing problems.

In Saint-Léonard, Moussaoui’s community, integrating immigrant families into the education system was deemed a priority. Residents developed a program whereby community liaisons would become intermediaries between schools and immigrant families, ensuring the academic success of newcomer children, and supporting their families holistically by connecting them to resources in housing, employment, and more.

Moussaoui’s children, 7 and 11 years old, are part of the program, which he says contributes to their lives beyond supporting them academically, by taking them to cultural sites like museums to familiarize themselves with the city. “The kids are always very excited,” he says. “The community liaison is someone who brings joy into their lives and helps them discover new parts of Montreal that they didn’t know about before.”

Through the program, Moussaoui’s family has connected with other immigrant families. “It’s really helped us integrate into the neighbourhood and have friends,” he sa ys, visibly emotional. “This is something that you can’t measure when you’re new to a [country], to develop relationships… You can’t measure this to show the success of a program.”

In another instance, a single mother of six children, who does not speak French, struggled to communicate with her children’s schools and often signed forms without understanding their content. After connecting with a community liaison who assisted with translation, she is able to understand and participate in developing learning plans for her children, some of whom have special needs.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the community liaisons helped translate information to the families they were working with, inform them on how to get tested, and support with other needs from broken fridges to a lack of Internet access. “Because they had relationships with families and they trusted them, they were the first reference so the families understood what was going on and so they weren’t isolated,” Bérubé explains.

 Because they had relationships with families and they trusted them, they were the first reference so the families understood what was going on and so they weren’t isolated,” Bérubé explains.

As the pandemic brought new challenges, neighbourhood roundtable groups were well positioned to assess needs in their communities and respond quickly. All the roundtables involved in the CIP mobilized virtually to quickly prioritize food security, from food production to distribution and education, and were able to support community members in accessing food.

Bérubé says the pandemic has proven that when community groups spend years building strong collaborative networks, they are better positioned to coordinate responses in times of crisis. She says that while some foundations focus on rapid results, they had an “aha moment” during the pandemic, after realizing the intangible benefit of creating this collaboration, which has strengthened the social fabric and increased resilience in communities. “It doesn’t come from one day to another,” she says. “It takes years to build that.”