Paul Born
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   Canada

Paul Born

Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement
Paul sees communities themselves as the key agents to transform local poverty by building an interconnected system with context-based and measurable solutions that give ownership to all stakeholders…
Read more

As President and Co-Founder of the Tamarack Institute for the past 15 years, I lead a small national team of amazing practitioners and thought leaders. I also teach throughout North America and at times in countries around the world. I am the author of four books, two of them Canadian bestsellers, including Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times and Community Conversations.

Tamarack focuses on three areas of impact. The first two are practice areas in which we apply what we learn in our Learning Centre. I founded Vibrant Communities, a network of over 50 cities in Canada committed to reducing poverty. These cities use a collective impact framework and develop comprehensive poverty reduction strategies and form multi-sector leadership round tables to implement five-year campaigns to reduce the number of poor families in their city. To date we have reduced poverty for more than 250,000 families. Tamarack's second major area of impact is Deepening Community, where we work with 25 cities to develop strategies to strengthen a sense of community and collective altruism in their city. We are also working to link 100 neighbourhood strategy leaders by creating a learning community that will accelerate their impact. Tamarack's Learning Centre hosts learning communities in five thought leadership areas including Collective Impact, Community Engagement, Community Innovation, Collaborative Leadership, and Evaluating Community Impact. More than 22,000 learners attend learning events, webinars, communities of practice and engage in online learning to make their work of community change easier and more effective. We pride ourselves in turning theory into practice. In 2015 we hosted more than 13,000 learner days of training for community leaders who attended our learning events. In addition, every month more than 14,000 unique visitors learn with us online.

This description of Paul Born's work was prepared when Paul Born was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Paul sees communities themselves as the key agents to transform local poverty by building an interconnected system with context-based and measurable solutions that give ownership to all stakeholders in the public, private and social sectors.

The New Idea

Fundamentally altering the make-up of communities across Canada, Paul is capitalizing on the power of local collaboration and harnessing regional efforts to address complex social issues, like poverty. Paul uses a lens of innovation and systems change to bring together communities, building and applying place-based and highly tailored solutions.

Paul is transforming the way all Canadians address poverty by inverting the traditional hierarchy and reliance’s that assume governmental responsibility. Instead, he encourages cities to redefine themselves as communities of change and leaders in reducing poverty across Canada. Paul trains these newly self-defined communities and their stakeholders to identify and build highly localized cross-sector networks of support all missioned with the communal goal of developing solutions to complex social problems within their region. From these grass-roots, localized solutions, Paul works outwards building a layered community of communities connected through a learning network committed to sharing and disseminating best practices.

Paul also creates and leverages partnerships with national research and policy institutions to collect and analyze top innovations generated from the communities he works with in order to create the tangible resources necessary to support policy reform. Paul then utilizes these resources to reconstruct the role of the provincial and federal governments from one that struggles to create comprehensive poverty reduction strategies, to one that is able to provide complementary support to community-led initiatives.

A pioneer in enabling collaborative community engagement in Canada, Paul’s growing national network of Vibrant Communities is inspiring cities across North America to adopt a common set of core principles that are proving to effectively address poverty in a variety of different geographical regions.

The Problem

In Canada, poverty is a relatively prevalent problem. In May 2012, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food reported that poverty affected nearly 3 million people living in Canada. A 2012 review of 35 economically advanced countries in the world, found that 13.3% of children (aged 0-17years) in Canada lived in relative poverty. Canadians most affected by low family and household income include: children, senior citizens, people living in single parent/care-giver households, unattached non-senior individuals, recent immigrants, Aboriginal peoples and people with physical disabilities.

While the social inequities contributing to poverty in Canada are clear, Canadian governments and agencies have struggled to adequately address them. This may be due in part to systemic barriers that inhibit ownership and responsibility between formal levels of government. For example, there is no formal division of powers indicating which level of government is responsible for addressing poverty under the Canadian Constitutional Distribution of Legislative Powers. Poverty is not specifically defined, stated nor assigned to any level of government. This is in contrast to other broad social topics such as health and environment, which are recognized and publicly articulated as areas of shared responsibility.

Other systemic barriers that hinder governmental and non-governmental agencies’ ability to address poverty in Canadais linked to the breakdown of measurement and strategy. For example, in relation to measurement, Statistics Canada does not measure poverty, instead it measures levels of low income, rationalizing that the term poverty is subjective, and ultimately arbitrary. This leads to no clear or unified definition that can act as the basis for developing a solution. With regards to strategy, poverty focused organizations are overwhelmingly geared towards short-term emergency poverty alleviation, rather than long-term poverty reduction. For instance, nearly 900,000 Canadians use the services of Canadian food banks every month. Despite food banks offering food sustainability programs, 85% of people served use emergency food programs. Similarly, in March 2011, 75% of shelters in Canada were dedicated to emergency use, providing only temporary and short term accommodation instead of helping people access permanent or sustainable housing.

Without clear responsibility, strategy or measure, it becomes nearly impossible to create a comprehensive plan to reduce poverty. A 2012 UNICEF report scrutinized the Canadian government for its inability to reduce childhood poverty rates despite setting a target to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. The report attributed the failure in part to the fact that the commitment did not receive a firm political and public consensus backing it. In order to address poverty in Canada, ownership and responsibility are immediately necessary.

The Strategy

Paul Born founded Community Opportunities and Development Association (CODA) in 1986 to address the unemployment needs of the people of Waterloo, the city in which he lived. Paul constructed an organizational board for CODA with a specific ratio of business (40%), labor workforce (50%), and citizen sector (10%) representation, in order to drive collaborative participation from all community stakeholders. His model proved highly successful when CODA moved from a resource-scarce organization to onewith a million dollar annual budget in just one year. This structure would become a critical element of Paul’s strategy for addressing the poverty issues faced by many Canadian communities.

During a 1996 - 2000 CODA campaign, Opportunities 2000, Paul set a target for the city of Waterloo to bring poverty levels to the lowest rates in Canada by the year 2000. With a strict timeline, Paul built local networks consisting of private and citizen sector organizations. He challenged these networks to identify local sources of funding. He then used the newly found funding to invest in community activities focused on poverty reduction rather than alleviation while simultaneously investing the remaining funds into launching new businesses for low income individuals. The campaign reduced poverty for more than 2000 families and assisted in the launching of more than 1200 small businesses for low income households, creating the conditions for Waterloo becoming the only city in the country to eliminate place based poverty in the 2000 census.

Paul recognized that the key to successful poverty reduction in Canada was to enable other communities to create their own integrated, place based strategies. Knowing that in order for this to occur, there would need to be a national convener focused on helping develop these poverty reduction plans, Paul left CODA to establish Tamarack Institute in 2002 in close partnership with Alan Broadbent of the Avana Capital Corporation Tamarack is a nationally focused innovator, connector and supporter of communities that builds upon the learning’s from Opportunities 2000 and acts as a comprehensive national support system to aid in the creation of local poverty reduction strategies. Paul fortified this national support system by partnering Tamarack with Canada’s leading family foundations (the J.W McConnell Foundation and the Maytree Foundation) and a high-profile institute on policy reform (the Caledon Institute) in order to secure the financial support and policy influence needed to implement and grow Tamarack’s flagship program Vibrant Communities.

Under Vibrant Communities, Paul requires that all members establish a leadership round-table that engages: three senior private sector leaders, three representatives of government (usually municipal), three representatives from the voluntary sector and community leaders with lived experience in low income situations. The leadership round-table is given 12-18 months to build a comprehensive, results-focused plan that utilizes local financial assets. All plans are unique to the region that is developing them; however Tamarack guides the creation of the plans with 4 distinct core principles. 1) A poverty matrix is used to research and assess the complexity of poverty issues specific to the region, 2) Participant cities are instructed to articulate how they identify themselves as a community and what change they want to see in themselves as a community, 3) Leadership groups must draft a theory of systemic change specific to their community and 4) The different sector representatives must determine how they will work within their own sector to implement the established plan. The plan is revisited and revised as needed on an annual basis by Tamarack and the leadership team. All communities involved must commit to continued learning and sharing with other Vibrant Communities members across Canada, throughout their strategic timeline.

Tamarack invests in finalized plans using partnership funds, with a specific investment ratio of one dollar of coalition funds for every three dollars locally identified from the community. All community strategies must be financially sustainable, providing both social and financial returns on investment. To date, Tamarack has built a multi-million dollar operational budget, due in part from the revenue generated from Vibrant Communities. Now in its 10th year of operation, Paul is moving to a model that encourages all member communities to secure 100% of their financing from local sources.

Paul also works congruently to affect social policy reform through the coalition member Caledon Institute. Caledon connects the emerging insights of member communities and prepares policy-focused resources for dissemination in order to bring the work of the communities to the provincial and national governmental conversations surrounding poverty in Canada. This has allowed many provincial governments to design poverty reduction strategies that complement the work of their cities.

Paul also ensures that there is an ongoing network of support, deep-level learning and best practice sharing between all communities involved in the initiative. In order to drive active contribution and continuous learning, Tamarack administers an online learning community and equips all participant cities with communication tools and a website. In order to further disseminate best practice models to the broader Canadian population Paul facilitates the national publication of several books that he co-authors and/or authors on Tamarack and the Vibrant Communities initiatives. Tamarack publications include: Evaluating Vibrant Communites: 2002-2010 by Jamie Gamble, Cities Reducing Poverty by Mark Cabaj and Conversation, Collaboration and Community Change by Paul Born.

Implementation of the community plans occur when all members represented at the leadership round-table return to their respective sectors and align their organizational strategic plans, operations and activities with what has been developed. Measuring the physical, social, financial and human assets accumulated, the innovations developed due to Tamarack intervention are numerous. In one community, the governmental leadership enlisted the local transit association to create an affordable bus-pass option for low income individuals, which contributed to more than $600 of additional annual income for those who utilized the benefit. In another community, local private leadership implemented a sticker program, in which small businesses that provided employees with benefits and salaries above the minimum wagewere given a special sticker to display on their store fronts. A congruent public awareness campaign about the stickers was then launched informing the public that by shopping at these small businesses bearing the sticker, they would be supporting low-income individuals out of poverty in their community, thus driving economic growth for the businesses involved. In one of the most successful community initiatives, voluntary leadership members converted a local food bank to a food co-op, allowing patrons to develop practical hands on job training, while receiving much needed food assistance. With the help of Tamarack and local financers the co-op then secured funding to rent use of a commercial grade kitchen, allowingco-op members (many of which were low income new immigrants) to launch their own food service and food provision businesses at a low cost, utilizing the skills they had developed while increasing their annual income.

Paul’s network of communities encompasses regions across Canada. There is at least one active vibrant community in every province in Canada. By October 2012, Tamarack had worked with all 10 provincial governments to design poverty reduction strategies that complemented and supported the work of the Vibrant Communities within their jurisdictions. Since 2002, Tamarack has collaborated with 84 cities across Canada, including 2,278 partners and 840 lived experience individuals to apply more than 439,000 poverty reducing activities coupled with 53 governmental policy changes (municipal and provincial) resulting in 202,000 households less poor across Canada. Paul’s goal over the next 4 years is to bring 1 million Canadian households out of poverty in 100 cities across Canada, complemented by the creation of the first Tamarak supported national poverty reduction strategy at the federal level. Paul seeks to create Vibrant Communities across North America, drastically reducing economic poverty within his lifetime.

The Person

Paul was born in Canada to Ukrainian parents, refugees who fled the Ukraine and Germany before settling in a Mennonite community in British Columbia. During their initial years in Canada, Paul’s immediate and extended family lived in very poor conditions, working as farmers. At the age of 6, Paul’s community quickly moved from being very poor to being economically well-off due to the increased value of their land holdings and successful farming ventures. With this new-found affluence, Paul remembers his family and community being very committed to giving back, establishing emergency centers and sending relief supplies to Mennonite communities overseas. Because of this, Paul believes he developed three core principles to live by: stay together as a community, take care of each other as a community and work together as a community for a better world.

At the age of 16, Paul started his own chicken hatching business inspired by his uncle who was a successful contractor. By the age of 17, Paul had grown his business to have more than 82 employees and had refined a system to moving more than 10,000 chickens in a day, making it the laying hen cathching operations in Fraser Valley, British Columbia at the time. When he turned 19 years old, Paul had already sold his business and left his community to study religion and prepare a life that was in service to the world. Leaving the seminary two years later, Paul moved back home and pursued other means to serve his community with Community Enterprises division of Community Services. He began to volunteer in a local penitentiary sitting on a citizen advisory committee to bridge community and prison relations. While in this role, Paul recognized that even within the penitentiary there was a sense of community and he felt personally responsible for the task of improving the quality of life for individuals in the prisons by bringing unity between prisoners and citizens in the community. He co- founded the Con Cap Olympics, an annual game for developmentally challenged people from the surrounding community that engaged prisoners as games facilitators.

At 25, Paul was asked to join the family business by his uncle. Despite financial success in his new role, Paul felt unfulfilled by the leadership he was providing because he couldn’t see how it was helping the community around him. This conflict between his core values and his work led Paul to be hospitalized for stress. After recovering, Paul drove across Canada by himself to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Waterloo. Upon graduation, Paul began working in a community centre addressing unemployment issues in Waterloo. Paul rebranded the organization, founding CODA in 1986. The United Nations recognized CODA as one of the top 40 projects around the world addressing the Millennium Development Goals.

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.