Tonya Surman
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   Canada

Tonya Surman

Centre for Social Innovation
Tonya is empowering the citizen sector by uniting previously dispersed citizen-led initiatives from across the sector. She is building a network of local and global shared spaces for social innovators…
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Since our founding in 2004, my focus has been on growing CSI’s reach and impact. As a nonprofit social enterprise that provides, among many other services, workspace to the social mission sector, our ability to do so was put under pressure by skyrocketing rents. It started to become obvious to us that in order to fulfill our mission, we would need to be owners of the buildings our community inhabits. In 2010, we bought a beautiful, 36,000 sq. ft. brick and beam building thanks to our innovation in social finance, the Community Bond, raising $2 million from citizen investors. We repeated this feat in 2014 when we purchased our second building, the 64,000 sq. ft. Murray Building in downtown Toronto, with the help of $4.3M coming from 227 community investors.

During this time, we have also expanded through strategic partnerships. In September 2012, we opened a 10,000 sq. ft.- space in Regent Park, Canada's largest public housing community, currently undergoing Canada’s largest community revitalization. When the opportunity presented itself to expand to New York City, we jumped in with two feet. CSI Starrett-Lehigh is a 24,000 square-foot jewel of modern design packed with social innovators working across sectors in farming and finance and everything in between.

Recently, we’ve looked to expand to cities around the world using a social franchise model. CSIx is a scaling strategy that enables local ownership and local customization of CSI-like spaces. CSIx partners will access our technology, community and expertise to create shared spaces that catalyze social innovation.

What’s next? We’re focusing on bringing even greater intentionality to our facilitation and acceleration work. We are building out verticals around themes such as climate change and community health, to deepen our practice and amplify the impact of innovations with world-changing potential.

This description of Tonya Surman's work was prepared when Tonya Surman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Tonya is empowering the citizen sector by uniting previously dispersed citizen-led initiatives from across the sector. She is building a network of local and global shared spaces for social innovators designed to foster cooperation among diverse players with the aim of creating new initiatives responding to pressing social issues. Tonya has systematized her methodology and will release the details of her model, experience and license into Creative Commons by the Fall of 2009.

The New Idea

Tonya believes that systems-change can only be achieved when community, space and innovation are linked together. Consequently, she has developed a model to address all three of these elements concurrently. She recognizes that an integrated solution requires each aspect to feed into the other, thereby creating the most powerful opportunities possible for the citizen sector.

Practically, Tonya is removing barriers, solving capacity problems, creating a platform for collaboration, animating social capital and fostering leadership for the citizen sector. As a result the citizen organizations (COs) that partner with her have achieve financial sustainability, increased their diversity, generated greater innovation and improved their employees’ happiness levels. Intentionality is an integral part of this value-added methodology, which has led to the creation of new organizations that currently express the voice of civil society movements.

Tonya is building communities of innovation inside and outside the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) - the pioneer of shared space in Canada—by catalyzing the generation and implementation of new ideas within a collaborative environment. By bringing competing or isolated ventures together among a diversity of COs she is creating the conditions required to build new initiatives and shared projects. Using a holistic model for service provision, community engagement, capacity building and social venture capital incubation, CSI has become the leading example in Canada for a new generation of social hubs.

To replicate and scale the idea, Tonya has systematized her methodology and will release the details of her model, experience and license into Creative Commons by the fall of 2009. She aims to leverage the power of open networks and viral marketing to engage new hubs to build interactive tools that foster collective action. Tonya is reinventing the concept of scale using network theory to build a global alliance of Shared Spaces for Social Innovation which will leverage the success of CSI at the global level.

The Problem

The citizen sector is well behind the government and corporate sectors with respect to the infrastructure required to easily create systems change. Although COs have evolved quickly in the last 30 years, it has remained a challenge for the sector to be connected, aligned and sufficiently sophisticated to generate coordinated, broad-based change.

Canada’s citizen sector is composed of 161,000 incorporated nonprofit organizations: 54 percent of them have no paid staff, and 63 percent have annual revenues below CAD$100,000. Most of these small organizations work with limited resources to pursue their missions and to effect change in their communities. In addition, there are a growing number of change agents, designers, creators, independents, consultants, knowledge workers and others that, although they are not organized as COs, have a social mission. These people and groups are often the source of innovation, but face significant barriers, such as the lack of skills to collaborate effectively, to translate these innovations into reality. As a result, they remain isolated from their peers, have limited access to core funding, and struggle with office management and administration. These change agents have difficulty meeting their most basic social missions, thus limiting their potential for achieving the systems change and social innovations they seek.

There is a failure to recognize that space, community and innovation are intertwined. Too often COs create fragmented solutions—attempts to address problems by focusing on one aspect of this triangle to the exclusion of the others. Due to this failure to generate holistic solutions, many COs only achieve modest results. In addition, social innovators face dozens of other barriers, such as the lack of a culture of innovation within their operations and the lack of resources.

Old models of scale have failed and are failing. It is common for social entrepreneurs to be too controlling and unable to unleash the power of their models to the rest of the world. Similarly, old ideas about franchising are also often broken and result in top-down barriers to replication. These command and control models are often disrespectful of local knowledge and intelligence, and ultimately have relied on deferring responsibility to the hierarchy. There is a need to reinvent the concept of scale to achieve the same or greater impact of traditional franchising and hierarchical models, while retaining the quality, craftsmanship and impact of the small and local.

The Strategy

Tonya created the Centre for Social Innovation in 2004, to bring a diverse group of COs together for collaborative opportunities. In Canada, CSI is pioneering the creation of shared space for socially minded organizations and adding value to them to enable higher social impact. It is deeply embedded in the community and actively creates the conditions for social innovations to emerge.

Tonya begins her work by building a platform for social entrepreneurs, in which tenants access shared, affordable and stable work space, as well as an array of services and project supports, and capacity-building programs. Tonya understands clearly that physical space creates a level of trust that cannot be replicated online. CSI acts as a community centre of change agents for the sector where they cultivate and animate network relationships. The organization hosts over 150 yearly workshops, seminars and events open to the broader citizen sector in Toronto. The services offered by CSI also include practical cost-sharing services such as access to fax machines, photocopiers, health insurance, as well as social activities such as shared meals and a community garden. It offers workshops on topics ranging from risk-assessment training to green business training.

To augment this effort she is bringing leadership and intention to the system through the incubation of values-fitting projects, convening around issues that matter such as social enterprise, social finance, open source platforms, networks and social technology. She is building networks and ecosystems for change, leading systems change, entrepreneurship and collaboration while suggesting innovative solutions to pressing challenges, and creating the conditions for others to lead and innovate.

CSI is responding to a major need identified by their tenants in a recent measuring effectiveness survey. They are using social media tools to build social capital by matching innovators’ needs with others’ resources and opportunities. CSI uses a web platform developed for the ‘matching’ service to be used by social innovators around the world. The Constellation Model was developed by Tonya to use self-organization as the driver for social change. This model harnesses the energy of a broad eco-system to identify self-interest and create self-organized action teams (constellations) to achieve a particular outcome.

This model has succeeded in forming new organizations, evidenced by the six organizations currently incubated by CSI, and has helped to bring them CAD$1.7M in funding. Two examples of collaboration emergence are Jane’s Walk and the Ontario Nonprofit Network.

Jane’s Walk, founded in 2006, has expanded to the U.S. and India. It is a global network of 263 neighborhood walks in 24 towns that enabled 10,000 citizens to engage in their local communities. The idea was generated at CSI, developed by one of its tenants and then implemented by yet another group of social entrepreneurs at the hub. This project shows how CSI did not take on a leadership role, instead focusing on the role of a professional natural connector—as an enabler. Jane’s Walk came to fruition by harnessing the human capital of innovative social entrepreneurs at CSI.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) is a network of networks that utilizes Tonya’s constellation model. It creates the connective tissue to mobilize the nonprofit sector in Ontario. ONN came out of a consultation that was held at CSI with a small group of leaders and CSI tenants. When the government announced a major policy proposal to make changes to the legal framework for nonprofits in Ontario, CSI saw the opportunity to bring this network to life. CSI partnered with several other tenants and the broader community to create ONN, which now has 7,000 participants. CSI is responsible for incubating the ONN’s work and Tonya is playing a leadership role as co-chair of this group.

To scale her model of hubs for social innovation at national and global levels, Tonya’s work involves utilizing the power of networks and the principles of collaboration and entrepreneurship. To do this, Tonya plans to put all of CSI’s knowledge, tools and systems in an open source platform on Creative Commons in the fall of 2009. This information and license will be freely available to other shared space practitioners and planners, so they can take advantage of what CSI has achieved and thus contribute back to a global community of practice. CSI will not try to control the network; rather it will establish the framework through which this community will engage and co-develop. The result is the proliferation of shared space solutions that foster social innovation in locally appropriate contexts. This framework will not only connect practitioners of shared spaces, but also their members. In order to provide her expertise to hubs that seek it, Tonya will also take on the role of mentor or consultant for many of these organizations as they begin or continue to develop around the world. Tonya is developing an international, open source membership network that allows innovators to share ideas and opportunities—and to take action—on a global scale through an interconnected network of shared spaces.

In 2009 Tonya has begun a first phase of feasibility studies to implement shared spaces in Washington DC, Kentucky, Paris, Edinburgh, Montreal, and Vancouver to create a global network.

The Person

Tonya’s entrepreneurial skills and leadership showed up early in her life. Familial circumstances forced her to take a leadership role in her family from the age of four. At 14, Tonya became the president of an international youth council. Shortly thereafter, she founded two environmental groups. In 1998, she co-founded the consulting firm, Commons Group. In 1999, Tonya co-founded, an online independent newspaper that has over 100,000 unique visitors each month and 85,000 sites linked to it. The following year, she co-founded Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and Environment which recently led the effort to pass a new national policy that would ban Bisphenol, a from plastic baby bottles.

Through these experiences, Tonya realized that creating a system of sharing among COs seemed an obvious solution to the needs of the sector as a whole. She co-founded the Centre for Social Innovation in 2004, from which she co-built the Ontario Nonprofit Network and the Social Enterprise Council of Canada.

Tonya’s life motto is to make social change and have fun doing it. This informs every decision that she makes. She believes that if she is to live an integrated life, she needs to be working to be part of the solution. What motivates Tonya is what makes her angry: Inefficiencies, ineffectiveness, and inaction.

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