Spark social innovators experience the Maritimes

Nate PetersenEvents

The third and final retreat for the SPARK Initiative 2.0 took place between May 3-5, 2019, in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, at St. Stephen’s University. Eight of the nine SPARK participants were present, five of the nine SPARK donors were present, as were the SPARK director, Matt Wilkinson of the CBOQ, and Stronger Philanthropy CEO, Mark Petersen, who organized and facilitated the retreat’s program. St. Stephen’s University (SSU) was chosen as the venue for this retreat because of its interest in developing a social innovation program within a community experiencing rural poverty that shares many of the same values and goals of the SPARK Initiative.     


The Friday-to-Sunday retreat involved six sessions that served to deepen the participants’ understanding of the emerging field of social innovation.

Jeff Shinabarger, the founder and CEO of Plywood People in Atlanta, an organization that coaches hundreds of social entrepreneurs, was the keynote speaker and led the first two sessions. Jeff helped the participants to “take the pulse” of their organizations. He offered a concise outline of what a healthy organization needs to sustain itself and he asked the participants to rate themselves on each element. These included: perspective, mission, problems, opportunities, planning, and action. On a deeper level, Jeff explored the foundations of a nonprofit organization, which he broke down into ten topics: leader, people, culture, awareness, engagement, systems, operations, cash, partners, and future.

In his second session, Jeff offered 42 pieces of advice for social entrepreneurs. The rapid-fire list of do’s and don’ts helped to shape a narrative that emphasized the health of the individual running the organization. Jeff was relatable, confident, and transparent about the areas in which he has succeeded and failed. His considerable experience in the field of social innovation was evident as he spoke to the specific issues that the participants were dealing with.

Dr. Lois Mitchell, Director of International Studies at SSU, led the group in a time of creative exploration around the topic of social innovation. She challenged the group’s understanding of poverty, education, rural society, and work through taking a close look at each and critiquing the common assumptions about them. Her quirky attitude and honest appreciation for chaos juxtaposed Jeff’s structured approach in a fascinating way. Her session led to an interesting conversation about the traditional avenues for charitable work, where the participants seemed to tap into a helpful critical consciousness.

On the shoreline of the Bay of Fundy, Rachael Barham, spiritual director and SSU lecturer, led a guided meditation in order to help the participants commune with God and nature. She encouraged them to take intentional time in their daily lives to slow down, stop, and open themselves up to what God may be saying to them. Rachael introduced the concept of Lectio Divina, using Matthew 14:22-33 as the passage to contemplate. She then applied the same tenets of Lectio Divina to the group’s interactions with nature. She asked them to “bite, chew, and digest” a small thought that they might have while intentionally opening themselves up to God’s presence. The participants then had an hour to themselves on the shoreline.

Nate Petersen, Program Director at Stronger Philanthropy, moderated a “talking circle” (an indigenous tradition of active listening) that included civic and educational leaders from St. Stephen. Gathered in the circle were the SPARK participants plus the mayor of St. Stephen, senior professors, and local social innovators. In this session, the SPARK participants were able to share their journey throughout the past year with like-minded individuals who would appreciate the struggles of their work. This session was rich with dialogue as the two groups mutually benefited from sharing stories and perspectives. The group from St. Stephen, who are actively trying to come up with a strategy to combat regional poverty through entrepreneurship, gleaned the knowledge of the SPARK participants, while the SPARK participants were given a platform to share their wisdom and be recognized as the “problem solvers” that they are.

Jeremy Barham, interim president of SSU, and Joy Benson-Green, an experienced veteran of the nonprofit sector, led the final session. Jeremy shared about his past business experience which has taken him through an array of jobs and companies. Some of his ventures were soul crushing and others gave him life. He emphasized that the only way to have a sustainable business is to be deeply invested in the product (or cause) on a personal level. He encouraged the participants to pursue projects that they connected to from within themselves instead of addressing problems that were unrelated to their life experience. Joy, in a similar manner, shared about her positive and negative experiences with NGOs. She emphasized the potential for a community to rally around a cause and cautioned the participants to not try and take on a problem by themselves. Both Jeremy and Joy’s experience gave the participants critical advice for pursuing future endeavours.

To celebrate the end of the SPARK Initiative 2.0, the entire group, including participants, donors, and friends, shared a seafood meal at SSU and then partook in a Maritime “kitchen party” (characterized by an unplugged, acoustic band). Around the table, there was a sense that a genuine community had taken shape throughout the program. At the party afterwards, it was inspiring to see SPARK participants, donors and local St. Stephen residents talking deeply and freely about various projects and shared interests. There was a jovial and lively atmosphere that gave the sense that this experience bore good fruit. It was important and certainly worthwhile to take intentional time for celebration as the program came to a close.