First Light and their evolving relationship with social enterprise
We’re pleased to launch a new feature highlighting the incredible work of Friendship Centres across the Movement – giving insights and inspiration on how urban Indigenous communities are building community, culture, and connection.
As part of the Investment Readiness Program, in partnership with the Government of Canada, First Light was able to access funds to accelerate work on the Lunar Inn – a revenue-generating enterprise, which complements existing services offered by the organization. First Light currently offers several medical services to Indigenous guests who travel to the capital city for essential health needs. This inn will fill a gap that currently exists for guests who require long-term accommodation with an understanding of the unique cultural needs and wants of their clientele.
Sometimes, we discover our passions by accident. For Breannah Flynn, her first good move towards discovering hers was by getting involved at a Friendship Centre.
“I started with First Light 10 years ago, in a programming role,” said Flynn, who is the Operations Manager at First Light in St. John’s. NL. “I had a recreation background and came into the organization more focused on health and wellness programming for adults. I had come on a very small contract, and I just sort of fell in love with working with the community and just the energy that was in the St. John's urban Indigenous community.”
Around the time she began to cement her future with First Light, Flynn noticed a desire within the community to have more programming and services. “One of the biggest challenges that we were facing at that time - which most non-profits face, of course – is the sustainability of programs. We would start a program around violence prevention, and six months later, we wouldn't have the funding to be able to maintain that programming.” This problem, one that many Friendship Centres face, would usually come down to the age-old problem of short-term, project-based funding.
Rather than hope that federal and provincial governments would come around to provide more reliable funding, the Operations team at First Light set out to find ways to make their services sustainable. The first program they identified was driving people to their medical appointments.
“I started to coordinate our medical transportation service. That service had been running for a few years. But I saw an opportunity to focus more on the business model within that service, and perhaps generate some revenue that could funnel back into our programs, giving us a little bit more autonomy over the way that we ran services,” recalls Flynn. “Social enterprise wasn't something that, 10 years ago, St. John’s was familiar with. So, [the Friendship Centre] got more invested in that business model and started to change the way that we communicated with our funders and the way that we ran the service itself.”
The model allowed the medical transportation program to reliably break even, and generated opportunities to expand the program’s capacity. While Flynn was satisfied with the result, it made her think more about how the process could be improved and better implemented in other areas. “That got me very invested in this idea of, ‘okay, what other potential exists in our current market for social enterprise that can feed some new opportunities for the organization and the Indigenous community?’”
Since then, First Light’s social enterprise portfolio has grown exponentially. Seven years ago, starting from funds provided by the National Association of Friendship Centres, First Light started a cultural diversity training program specifically tailored to reflect the Indigenous community of Newfoundland and Labrador. “There were some trainings that were nationwide and gave a broad overview, but we were able to design a custom training specific to Newfoundland and Labrador to meet that need,” said Flynn. From there, First Light launched its Centre for Performance & Creativity – dedicated to the creation, curation, and exhibition of traditional and contemporary art in Downtown St. John’s – and a daycare offering space for 32 children, from newborn to school-age.
The Investment Readiness Program (IRP), administered by the NAFC, offered First Light an opportunity to not only expand and enhance its cultural training modules, but to build an exciting new complimentary service to the medical transportation program.
The Lunar Inn, located just doors down from First Light’s new headquarters, is a boutique inn with a focus on short-term accommodation for medical clients who are coming to the city. The Lunar Inn provides guests and their families the option of four inviting and fully furnished rooms, beautifully designed and adorned with works from local Indigenous artists.
While First Light had originally started an emergency shelter for this purpose, the needs of the houseless population in St. John’s had grown to a point that the original purpose of the shelter was no longer being served. Starting with the contact points made with the medical transportation program, a business plan was drawn up to re-envision a place specifically for medical patients and their families. In addition to collecting qualitative opinions on the need for such a facility, First Light was able to gather data on how many potential clients were in the area at a time and how long they are staying. Flynn remembers, “We were able to do a lot of the market research ourselves because we had that direct contact. We wanted to be able to provide this service because of what we were hearing in terms of experiences with racism at local hotels, challenges with damage deposits and providing credit cards when that wasn't something that people were able to do – we needed a space that provided a lot more flexibility and comfort for clients that were going to be here.”
The Investment Readiness Program “really gave us an opportunity to look at what our financing options were for an enterprise this size”, said Flynn, “I mean, this is something that requires a significant investment in infrastructure. We certainly looked at other models across the country of people who've done something similar. We’d pick their brains around some of the challenges that they've had.”
With community at the heart of the project, nailing down the perfect location was crucial.
“We were able to locate a location that we felt really served the need well and allows us to kind of do this without overreaching,” said Flynn. “The location itself is in the downtown area, close to a lot of the medical facilities people are using, but it's in that part of the downtown where it's quiet, covered by trees. It's near a park, near our headquarters, so people who want to attend other programs and services can relax. That green buffer space behind the facilities is actually the only protected forest remaining in St. John's, and that's taken care of by Parks Canada, so that was a huge asset for us.”
The quiet, unassuming slice of Quidi Vidi Road, located quietly among the beloved ‘jellybean row’ houses of St. John’s. has become its own Friendship Centre micro-neighbourhood thanks to First Light’s procurement of a core of buildings, giving them a unique opportunity to build a physical sense of community in addition to the human sense of community that naturally comes to Friendship Centres.
As for the rooms themselves, the atmosphere First Light aimed to create moved far away from the generic tone of typical hotels, aiming to re-create a home atmosphere rooted deeply in culture.
“We really wanted to create a space that when people walked into that facility, it felt it was a serene space that was built specifically for them – you go in and you've got pictures of someone's Auntie down the street on the wall. Every guest suite was designed by different Indigenous artists from communities across the province. It's our intention that after every couple of years, we'll have new artists do residency programs in those suites so that we've always got this refreshed feel, which provides opportunities for the artists, but also continues to give people that feeling of every time they come, there's something new.”
The whole process, of course, wasn’t easy. “It was very difficult, actually,” Flynn recalls, “We purchased that building in December 2019, four months pre-pandemic. We never could have anticipated the challenges that came with getting this project up and ready. We purchased that property before we purchased our headquarters, so it was sort of a part of a much larger procurement. We knew that those two properties had to come together, that we wanted that entire corner of the downtown.”
To make this a reality, First Light chose not to close on the seven business condos that now house their headquarters until January 2021. That year-long process allowed for money to come in to finance the project while First Light gradually worked toward revitalizing their new portfolio of properties. “We attracted a lot of attention, especially with the headquarters purchase, because it's not typical for a condo board to be dissolved because a single owner comes in and purchases all seven of the condos in one facility. Now, we're seen in the city as a developer, essentially, because we now own these five facilities that take up a large portion of the downtown. So anytime that we're making changes to these facilities, it's having a big impact on neighborhoods and on the heritage of the city. It's attracted a lot of attention and it's also allowed us to create some really exciting new partnerships and relationships.”
Work on the Lunar Inn is almost complete. “Our first site will have four guest suites, and we're going to build two accessible suites in the next couple of months as well. That'll really give us an introduction to that short-term accommodation sector, and then we'll decide if it's something that we want to scale in the future.” The work of soft-launching the Lunar Inn has been a methodical one, allowing First Light to establish best practices, manage the building’s efficiencies, and start to manage the massive demand for the accommodations.
“We've already had interest from partners who want to block-book the whole site for the whole year,” said Flynn, “That's really exciting. From a business perspective, you couldn't ask for better, knowing that all your rooms are booked every single night.” The side effect of this has been dealing with being able to balance the needs of general clients with those of larger partners. “It’s tricky, where you want to serve the whole community and everyone who interacts with our services, yet also balance the business side of things, too.”
However, the benefits are already being seen by First Light, from the ability to build on their original patient transport service, to connecting people with other Friendship Centre services, to being able to leverage the impact with government partners to demonstrate First Light’s value in the hopes of spurring further investment. But community impact is where some of the most exciting benefits are being seen. “One of the things that we've always known is that Indigenous clients staying in the city often have to check out their hotels at 11 AM, but their flight may not go till 7 PM, so they don't have anywhere to go and be comfortable. The Lunar Inn is going to become that place where people can drop their luggage, have a coffee or tea, catch up with our staff or with friends and family in the city, and just have somewhere to be,” said Flynn, “and in terms of Indigenous art, we were able to employ up to 10 artists at certain points, all local, because during the pandemic. Being able to provide that residency opportunity was important to us.”
Overall, the IRP has been a welcome source of capital for Flynn and First Light. “We were really excited to see the IRP,” said Flynn, “I think what's clear across the country is that there's a really wide spectrum of what investment readiness means to different organizations. The nice thing about the way that IRP has rolled out is there has been flexibility. If you're looking to just get started with social enterprise and starting to build some capacity around this model service, then there's an avenue for you. Or, if you've been delivering a service for 10 years, and you're ready to take that next step to scale your enterprise, then there's an avenue for you as well.”
“IRP has provided an opportunity to scale our training program, and also allowed us to invest in our Lunar Inn. With the IRP, we were able to provide employment opportunities to Indigenous artists, and to design a facility that was specifically for Indigenous medical clients who are in the city for longer-term stays – people who are here for dialysis, or complex pregnancies, or chemo treatments – it’s designed to be a home away from home, so we certainly benefited from the IRP and we're looking forward to future opportunities that the social finance fund might present.”
The idea of social enterprise has changed for Flynn over the past eight years. “Then, it was really about generating more revenue. At that time, our organization had an annual budget of less than $1 million. This year, we're a little over $6 million. What it means to me today is that some of our social enterprises are filling gaps to better provide services to the Indigenous community that we’re meant to serve.”
Flynn is quick to list the reasons to carry that entrepreneurial mindset: “We provide employment opportunities to Indigenous people with barriers, and we get to be a good employer. It also provides us as an organization with an opportunity to increase our capacity. As we're adding more vehicles, more infrastructure, more staff, it gives us access to a different level of expertise, so we're able to take care of things like snow clearing and pest control and all these other things you generally outsource. Then, there is revenue-generating opportunity. When we look at enterprises like our training program, we can make it sustainable. Now we're at a point where it's generating excess revenues every single year.”
First Light is stronger than ever before. With more services being provided than ever before, First Light’s approach has given them the resources to operate more services, make independent decisions about their future, create less reliance on external vendors for core functions of operation like cleaning and snow removal, and ultimately, do better work for the large, diverse urban Indigenous communities of St. John’s.
As a result of the overall success of the social enterprise portfolio, First Light now has an innovation reserve, designed to give First light the flexibility to try new things and explore opportunities otherwise unavailable to them. Flynn adds, “I think sometimes especially working with boards – and you can understand why – there’s definitely hesitancy around risk, and if you're not willing to take on risk, then it's really challenging to have success in the social enterprise world. So, having that flexibility with your funding to take risks is a great way to build a safety net around trying out some new things. And that's been really important to our success, too.”
So, has social enterprise made First Light even brighter?
“Definitely!” says Flynn, “I think the sky's the limit for social enterprise. I think it gives people something to be excited about. We've got this whole new sector of entrepreneurs that work within our organization, and I think that generates this innovative energy that is just contagious. So, I encourage anyone to get into it.”