Donna Morton: Co-Founder & CEO, First Power Canada: Using Energy to Empower Communities

Donna speaking at Ogunte’s 6th worldwide Women’s Social Leadership AwardsIt is the afternoon before Ogunte’s 6th worldwide Women’s Social Leadership Awards, and I am on my way to meet Donna Morton, CEO of First Power Canada, and a finalist in category ‘Leaders in Social Businesses’

Ever since researching the awards shortlist, I’ve been enthusiastic about meeting Donna and was delighted when she agreed to the interview. We’ve arranged to meet at a charming hotel near London’s Piccadilly and when I arrive she is already there together with Joe Thwaites, First Power’s Chief Technical Officer and co-Founder. A few moments later, we’ve ordered tea and are settled in.

The first thing I want to know is how First Power came to be. Donna explains that she got involved with energy through Joe, the two having already been colleagues for some time.

After starting her career with Greenpeace - which taught her the value of ‘being madly in love with your mission’ and a great place, she says, to get your first paycheck – Donna spent a number of years in sustainability consulting and policy development.

As it turned out it was Joe who first had the idea of forming an energy company focused on First Nations. Originally envisaged as a solar project, the concept then evolved to encompass solar, wind and biomass. When I ask why clean energy, they explain that “energy is fundamental, so a great way of empowering communities”, that it’s invigorating and that its values align with the ethos of sustainable living that is common to indigenous peoples. With Joe’s technical expertise, it seemed a natural fit.

Now, in its second full year and growing rapidly, First Power is establishing itself as fundamentally a community development business that happens to use energy as its vehicle for delivering its outcomes. When I probe this a little more, Donna explains:“When we started working with communities on energy projects, we really listened to what the community leaders – chiefs and elders – were telling us and realised that as much as there was an appetite for clean energy projects, there was a real desire for job creation and business development.”

They go on to tell me that the other key factor in the projects is community ownership. When I ask why this is important, Joe explains that it’s about decolonisation, community empowerment, environmental protection and being free from outside agencies.

Donna expands on this: “We came to understand that the projects that really excited First Nation communities had culture as a core element.

We started working with community artists which is why some of our better-known projects in Canada feature native art acid-etched onto solar panels. It speaks to the community on a soul level, saying ‘this is who we are’”.

Fundamentally, then, what First Power does is marry the technical innovation – Joe’s specialism – with the cultural traditions and identities of the First Nation communities with whom they work and all of a sudden the synergy is clear. It’s all about sustainability: of natural resources through clean energy, of the communities through job creation, of the cultural traditions through the way that work is done and of First Power itself through generating profit to enable further projects to develop.

In terms of the model, Donna is very clear that First Power is a business. Though at first she had in mind a not-for-profit, she was, she says, convinced by the argument that making money isn’t synonymous with ‘bad’. What makes the difference is what you do with that profit and First Power needs it for growth.

I am struck at this point by the sense that real, long-term sustainability seems to involve many different success factors woven together, not just a sole focus on the generation of profit. Donna agrees.

“Women do that” she says. “They’re good at it and businesses with women amongst the core developers have the holistic thing as a common thread, right across the world. Women seem to want lots of threads and complexity in the design of our companies.”

Joe nods and adds that “the piece that jumps out for me is that many businesses focus on competing and outcompeting. We’ve adopted a philosophy of collaboration and seek to out-collaborate. A good meal consists of many parts and people bring different things to the table.”

No pun intended, but there is a lot to digest in this and my own professional background in organisational development makes its presence felt. I ask Donna and Joe about the plans for their organisation and how their outward philosophy of collaboration, sustainability and cultural integrity is reflected internally. What kind of company are they looking to build?

“We’re pretty small at the moment” Donna says “but expecting to double what we do this year over last and double again in 2013.” To answer my question more specifically she returns to her own post-University experience. “At Greenpeace, my source of income and my values were completely aligned.

"We want our employees to LOVE what they do and to find the guts to do whatever needs doing. We want everyone’s job connected to the whole and always connecting to the overall goals.”

What about the money-making model? First Power is deliberately not a not-for-profit, despite perhaps having the hallmarks of one, so what does this look like in practice? The answer is really about growth. “We want to go beyond Canada with larger projects – wider and deeper” Donna explains. “Unique projects with unique outcomes but with a common methodology for community involvement.” They have already had enquiries from 11 countries outside Canada and the vision is to challenge the mainstream, not just operate, however virtuously, on the peripheries.

Whilst there is a growing awareness amongst Western cultures of sustainable living and all it entails, there seems to be a disconnection, as there are numerous communities all over the world who already live in this way and have done so for generations. Donna says firmly “we can relearn ways of being indigenous. Whilst there are NO industrial sustainable economies, there are many indigenous sustainable communities”.

 It’s a lesson that the First Power team learned first-hand when starting to work with First Nations communities.

“The elders want to teach us how to truly live. It’s very reciprocal. Wealth is measured by what you give away not by what you have. Social capital is attained by giving”.

Donna and Joe finish with an enthusiastic account of their trip to the Isle of Eigg, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland. With a population of just 66 (but growing), Eigg came to international awareness when through a crowdfunding effort comprising 10,000 individual donations, the inhabitants purchased the island and set about developing a sustainable community and economy. First Power’s visit focused on their community-owned green energy, where energy is generated, distributed fairly and surplus sold back to the grid. The people are, Donna explains, “happy and contented” and there is a culture of “interaction, sharing, collaborating – not owning. Success is measured through the island’s autonomy and the connectedness of the people.”

Eigg’s story provides some real food for thought. Not only is the way of life sustainable, but it appears the population is also bucking the Highlands and Islands trend, with a growing number of people settling on or returning to the island. Though a remote community, it offers a blueprint for how things can be, where different values, outcomes and ethos are part of the fabric.

The interview complete we make our way along Whitehall to Haymarket where the awards are taking place and where I’ve managed to bag myself a place in the audience.

That night, Donna wins the People’s Choice award for social business leader 2012, voted for by peers, advocates and Ogunte’s supporters around the world.

Hatty Richmond’s professional background is in management consultancy, specialising in organisational development and design. She has a particular interest in the role of leadership in determining culture and the resulting impact on performance.

Alongside her consulting work, Hatty writes both fiction and non-fiction including articles, profiles and short stories – the latter mainly for fun. Her novel, On the Outside, is based on a true story and is due for completion in early 2013.

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