“Our institutions have a lot of resources that we need to do a better job of sharing with our communities.”
Launched in 2017, SLiDE (Service Learning in Design & Engineering) is the first program of the Social Innovation Lab at Algonquin College in Ottawa. By connecting college students’ skills and energy with community-based organizations, the program is proving beneficial for both sides. “It’s a match made in heaven,” says Kevin Holmes, SLiDE’s Managing Director.
Each summer, students from a range of programs from the School of Advanced Technology and School of Media & Design form a cohort to work with community organizations. Through SLiDE, charities, nonprofits, social enterprises, and other organizations in the Ottawa region receive marketing, communications, and digital technology support.
Youth Ottawa, for example, approached SLiDE asking for help with their messaging and the user experience of their website. The joint work resulted in a brand new website design and a content restructuring that allowed them to better tell their stories.
That same year, the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health partnered with SLiDE when they were given free media spots from Bell Media across their channels (digital, radio, and TV).SLiDE’s work included the development of target audience personas, the overarching campaign message, and creative examples for the campaign.
An entry point to social innovation work
More than just an opportunity for students to strengthen professional skills, SLiDE is opening their eyes to the social innovation field as a whole. “We envisioned it as a better way to expose students to a sector that they don’t seem to know a lot about,” says Kevin. Through hands-on experience, the program aims to bring qualified professionals to the field.
Kyla Gaudreau is one of them. Through SLiDE, the Advertising and Marketing Communications student worked directly with local organizations she might otherwise not have known about, and plans to continue working with social innovation after graduating. “It really brought to my attention that there are so many organizations out there in our communities that are doing amazing things, that so many people aren’t aware of.”
The students’ fresh perspectives are proving to be as valuable as their hard skills. Their diverse backgrounds and viewpoints have received consistently positive feedback from the organizations they’ve partnered with.
The importance of proper compensation
Another important aspect of SLiDE is that students are financially compensated for their work. Not only does this keep them engaged in creating high-quality output, says Kevin, but it also shifts the conversation around the value of work in social innovation.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions in the lab about the value of work and we can’t expect everyone to be a volunteer, especially our students. They need to make money during the summer to pay their tuition. It’s a pretty basic premise.”
He also advocates for better work conditions in the social innovation field as a whole. “This is an important discussion we don’t have enough, we can’t run all these organizations on volunteers. We know in our area stories of a lady who volunteers all week and stops at the food bank on her way home. That’s not a system that works in the end.”
Strengthening relationships with communities
While SLiDE’s students benefit from the experience, each participating organization benefits from gaining access to the resources available on college campuses.
Colleges have worked in partnership with companies and startups for many years, but programs with nonprofits and social enterprises are much less common. “What we really wanted to do was to make it possible for nonprofits to do the same thing [as commercial companies] and get the same benefits of being engaged with their college and their neighbourhood.”
“It’s really an undertaking to better help our community as an institution,” explains Kevin. “We sort of knew they needed help, and we made it easy for them to get that help.”
The potential is enormous. A recent study showed that over 95% of Canadians live within 50km of a college or institute. “We’re also trying to encourage other colleges to do something similar.” As a part of CICan ImpAct, Kevin is in discussions with other 23 institutions across the Canadian college system to create similar projects over the next two years.
“We’re going to try to hire students from across the country to begin to map out the social enterprises in their college areas. We want each institution to have a better sense of what they can do in their communities.”
Photos by SLiDE.