1. Understanding Your Impact

1.4 Harbourfront Centre Case Study

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The following case study profiles Harbourfront Centre’s effort to understand the organization’s triple-bottom-line impact as part of its sustainability program.  The document provides an honest and detailed account of all aspects of the organization’s experience.

A. The Challenge

Harbourfront Centre was committed to sincerely and smartly improving how sustainably we operate, but in doing so demanded that we first amass and analyze an amazing amount of new information.  Given that we function like a municipality, with enterprising business and arts and culture charity all rolled into one, we had a very broad and diverse spectrum of triple-bottom-line impacts to newly consider.  This made deciding what to measure and how to best analyze the gathered data particularly challenging; this was further complicated by the fact we had little time or money to support the effort involved.

B. Taking Action

The major steps outlined in the Understanding Your Impact section of the Refocus Guidebook include:  Deciding What Data to Collect, Planning and Collecting the Data and Analyzing the Data.  Let’s review Harbourfront Centre’s experience attempting to carry out each step.

1. Deciding What Data to Collect

i. Economic Sources of Impact

It was decided only economic impacts internal to Harbourfront Centre would be considered, given the relatively small size of our operation as well as the complexity and expected cost of measuring external impacts.  As part of building our economic measurement capacity we had created a payback period formula that could accommodate the following sources of impact (all of which were included within scope):

  • External Grants and Loans
  • Sponsorships
  • Capital Required
  • Borrowing Costs
  • Operating Costs
  • Carbon Offsets Generated
  • Avoided Maintenance & Replacement Costs
  • Reductions in Resource Use
  • Projected Increases in Utility Pricing
  • Utility Incentives

ii. Social Sources of Impact

As a socially-mandated and driven organization, the perception was little opportunity could be found in addressing Harbourfront Centre’s social sustainability.  As such, the measurement scope defined was quite narrow; it was limited to qualitatively measuring the positive and negative impacts projects that reduced environmental impact would have.  The measured social impact on each stakeholder group would be converted into a numerical rating and added so different projects could be compared. 

iii. Environmental Sources of Impact

Of the triple bottom line impacts, we focused mostly on better understanding our environmental impact. We had a complete void of existing knowledge and a tremendous opportunity to improve.  Our technical partner, Internat Energy Solutions Canada (IESC), led an initial scoping session designed to engage a representation of knowledgeable employees from across departments. Each participant was able to provide detailed information based on knowledge of how their unique area operated.  Assembling a group of employees also made it easier to understand the overlap and interaction across departments.  This session enabled us to identify and understand the sources of environmental impact related to the organization’s functioning.

We assessed the relative importance of each source of impact, for which IESC’s expertise was extremely valuable.  We included the following sources of impact within scope for our first year with the intention of expanding scope in future years.

Understanding your impact scope table


The inclusion of visitor travel to and from Harbourfront Centre became a pivotal scoping decision; especially given the sheer number of people we attract annually (over 17 million). Reasonably accurate visitor travel data could be generated by extrapolating survey information that was already collected every five years or so.



Highly Effective



Deciding What Data to Collect

A comprehensive set of economic, social and environmental sources of impact are included in scope.   The importance of each source of impact is established and used to smartly determine which are excluded.

More typical sources of economic impact are included in scope.  Only basic sources of social impact are included and Scope III environmental impacts are not.  The relative importance of each source of impact isn’t well-understood or effectively weighed.

Very limited data beyond what is already collected is included within scope. Scoping decisions are rather arbitrarily made.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Harbourfront Centre included a strong set of internal economic sources of impact. Given the organization’s impact on the community, it could be argued that external sources would have been valuable to include within scope, making the exclusion detrimental.  The organization did not choose to collect much new data related to social sources of impact, which was a point of weakness.  From an environmental perspective, Harbourfront took a huge step forward, given that environmental impact had never before been measured.  A comprehensive group of environmental sources of impact were included but room was left for future expansions in scope.  Overall, Harbourfront Centre developed a much improved (but still less than “strong”) understanding of their sustainability, which ultimately affected the results achieved through the Program Management Cycle.

2. Planning and Collecting the Data

With the guidance of IESC, we worked with our EcoAction Team members, Subject Matter Experts and other knowledgeable individuals within each department to build a data collection plan.  To get the information required, some available data needed to be manipulated and in other cases a whole new process had to be introduced.  Having the expertise of our technical partner helped us confidently decide where better data was needed and where it wasn’t worth the additional resources.  After all, we had established a clear plan that defined what data would be collected and exactly how.  All data was then collected along with as much context and background information as possible.  The following provides a high level snapshot of how much of the data was secured.

Energy: Worked with Finance Department to obtain related monthly invoices.

Transportation:  Extrapolated data from existing visitor demographic survey. 

Developed an online staff survey to obtain information on employee commuting.

Waste: Conducted sample waste audits to measure proportions of landfill, recyclable and compostable material and used to breakdown total waste numbers available through monthly invoices held by Finance Department.

Purchasing: Data on various services used was obtained through accounting records.  Utilized financial records to determine spending for each service category.

Assets: An inventory of purchased electronic equipment was collected through the IT department.



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Planning and Collecting the Data

Limited resources are thoughtfully contributed to generating more accurate data where it has the greatest impact.  A clear and effective data collection plan is defined, implemented and refined to reflect what’s learned.

A loose plan for collecting data is executed.  There is limited understanding of where generating more accurate data is likely to be most valuable.

Data is collected without a defined plan in place.  Information is used in whatever form it is currently available.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Harbourfront Centre used the expertise of their technical partner to smartly determine where to focus efforts to collect data and increase the accuracy of the information produced.  A very tactful plan was developed and implemented. On the other hand, because we leaned heavily on our technical partner, we did not create good knowledge transfer or prepare ourselves for future cycles. Furthermore, the plan documented was not designed as it could have been to make it easier to transition its ownership to someone internal.

3. Analyzing the Data         

With the leadership of our technical partner Harbourfront Centre methodically analysed the data collected.  With a focus on understanding the organization’s environmental sustainability, the bulk of the new data collected was entered into the Encompass Carbon Management system to measure the carbon equivalent emissions related to each source of impact.  The following broad insights were taken away:

  • Waste contributed a surprisingly small impact.
  • Energy use was important. It was the third largest environmental impact (a close finish to second), and so it was established to be a good area of opportunity to focus on given the state of onsite buildings. 
  • Visitor travel accounted for 95% of the organization’s carbon footprint, although it was felt it would be difficult to address because the decision making involved was beyond our control. 

A variety of tactics were employed to assess the data collected in greater depth.  The following is a summary of the analysis performed and insights gathered:

Energy Use

  • Rigorous energy modeling was performed in combination with the use of temporary data loggers which collected additional data on specific sources of impact.
  • Lots of evidence was found indicating energy was being used in larger than expected quantities, and at times when it should not have been needed. 


  • By investigating distances traveled and modes of transport we learned there was a tremendous opportunity to reduce the impact of visitor travel.


  • Examining waste composition at various locations and times showed separating compostable materials could present a valuable opportunity during large public events.


  • Purchasing was the largest source of direct emissions and as such became a key area of focus. 
  • Solid opportunities were identified around paper-use, printing and cleaning supplies being used.


  • The impact of assets was quite limited but promising opportunities were identified around dated and inefficient IT infrastructure that needed to be replaced soon. 



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Analyzing the Data

The expertise needed to perform thoughtful analysis of all sources of impact is available or secured externally.  Overall insights are used to help direct and focus further investigation.

The expertise available and analysis performed is not strong across the triple-bottom-line.  Although in-depth analysis is performed, a lack of understanding the overall picture results in focus being misdirected.

Analysis is arbitrarily focused on specific areas and sources of impact.  A lack of expertise is also a limiting factor.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  The analysis performed on Harbourfront Centre’s environmental sustainability was highly effective.  The expertise available was highly effective and efforts were methodically focused on the areas that presented the greatest opportunity.  Advanced tools and techniques were also employed where helpful.  The overall strength of the analysis was again limited by the lack of attention devoted to the organization’s economic and social sustainability.

4. Overall Results



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Overall Results

A relatively complete set of data is consistently and efficiently collected and analyzed.  An in-depth understanding of the organization’s triple-bottom-line impact is established and becomes a foundation for good decision making.

The scope of the data collected is broad but has limits.  Not all areas that measurably present the best opportunity for improvement are recognized as such.  Some program priorities are likely misplaced.

The organization considers only a fraction of its impact and it’s not clear how much is contained within the sources of impact not considered.  This greatly diminishes the sincerity and effectiveness of any subsequent efforts even if well prioritized based on the data available.

Review of Harbourfront Centre Effort:  Thanks to Harbourfront Centre’s willingness to consider Scope III sources of impact, the unexpected and amazing contribution of visitor travel was identified; this ultimately contextualized and shaped the entire program.  With such a limited focus on economic and social sources of impact, the overall understanding developed was significantly constrained limiting the program’s potential.  Because much of the effort involved in understanding impact was led and directed by the organization’s technical partner, the processes and knowledge involved was not institutionalized which presented challenges in subsequent years.

C. Case in Point:  The Greenbelt Foundation Outdoor Photo Exhibition

The following story illuminates a real, exceptional and unexpected outcome that would not have been possible had we not focused on effectively understanding our impact.  Although the effort invested was imperfect, the benefit of working toward the standards of Refocus Sustainability Program Model produced many outcomes that would not have been possible through conventional approaches.

1. Background

One of our most exceptional and transformative successes occurred through a photography exhibition that was developed in partnership with The Greenbelt Foundation.  In 2005, the Ontario Government established a provincial greenbelt, adding one million acres of farmland and environmentally sensitive areas to the already protected Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine. Now a world-class model for preservation, Ontario’s Greenbelt is the largest of its kind, spanning more than 1.8 million acres of protected forest, farmlands, and wetlands, and continues to grow.  The Greenbelt Foundation operates independently from the government to coordinate and fund activities that bolster the richness of life in the Greenbelt.

The Foundation was keenly interested in improving public engagement efforts as this was not their core strength but it was critical to their success as an organization.  They approached Harbourfront Centre with an interest in leveraging our site, curatorial skill and public engagement expertise in jointly building a different kind of campaign with arts and culture at its core.

2. The Relevance of Understanding Your Impact

Our understanding we developed of our environmental impact had a tremendous effect impact on the shape and direction of our program.  Specifically, our effort to include Scope III carbon equivalent emissions and to leverage a carbon management system that employs life cycle emissions factors was pivotal.

Deciding What Data to Collect:  The decision to include visitor travel within scope and the realization that it accounted for 95% of our carbon footprint was game changing.  As much as Harbourfront Centre has a large operation, servicing a 10-acre site with multiple buildings under management, this accounted for a small fraction of the total impact generated.  It was quite surprising to consider that something as seemingly insignificant as visitor travel could so easily dwarf all of the impact related directly to our internal operations.  Having this data available became defining for our program because it shifted focus outward, toward what we now very plainly recognize as by far the greatest area opportunity for Harbourfront Centre:  Our 17 million visitors and the broader public.  We would have likely missed the amazing sustainability-related opportunity available in working with The Greenbelt Foundation had we not measured visitor travel.

Analyzing the Data:  Our Leadership Team was engaged in an ongoing dialogue about ensuring our program was sincere.  This conversation began as we set up our program and was challenged as we delved deeply into analyzing the data collected.  The shared belief was that the majority of people had been turned off by ideas of sustainability for a host of reasons like the prevalence of corporate green-washing and generally the negative, bleak and guilt-provoking messages associated with how sustainability and more specifically, climate change are represented within the media.  There were certainly some who were very motivated to make a difference, but the Leadership Team felt the public was largely resigned and disengaged.

Although changing public behaviour can be exceedingly difficult, we simply couldn’t ignore that even a tiny and positive shift in the travel choices our visitors make would eclipse a significant reduction to the impact generated through our operations.  Because we had virtually no budget, it seemed impossible to make a measurable difference by tackling visitor travel.  We were stuck deciding if it was more sincere to focus on our operations (5%), through which we believed we could reduce carbon emissions working within our constraints, or to focus on visitor travel (95%) through which we felt there was little possibility we could affect change.

It was eventually agreed addressing visitor travel at some level would be necessary if the sincerity of our program was a priority but the solution wasn’t yet clear.  We would have to be creative and innovative to find the right intervention. 

When The Greenbelt Foundation initially approached us to discuss building a public engagement campaign, the opportunity was seen as just another unique project made possible by establishing a community partnership; not uncommon to Harbourfront Centre which each year delivers 4000 plus events through more than 350 community partnerships.  We lent our programming expertise and large audience to the Greenbelt Foundation to achieve a set of mutually beneficial outcomes.  It was only after the project that it became apparent just how important Harbourfront Centre’s ability to effectively engage with the public could be to its sustainability program; the effects, as we learned, reached well beyond visitor travel. 

3. Outcomes

Project Profile:   To engage the public, we built a large-scale outdoor exhibition that featured brilliant photos documenting the many facets of the Greenbelt.  The collection was captured by a team of brilliant photographers and designed to support the public developing a more tangible and personal understanding of The Greenbelt.   A difference in philosophies had The Greenbelt Foundation pushing for the images to be overlaid with relevant facts but Harbourfront Centre’s expertise, which was eventually accepted, suggested the focus be placed on inspiring the public with the brilliance of the imagery; the implication being that individuals are more likely to take an interest in learning more if they are subversively compelled by the artwork rather than being told what is important about the photos from the Foundation’s perspective.   

Public Response:  The exhibition prompted an unexpected and impressive number of individuals to proactively engage with The Greenbelt Foundation and seek more information.  It became clear to both organizations that the unbiased, art-first approach made a huge difference in getting the public to take interest, something that had historically been a significant challenge for The Greenbelt Foundation.

This experience also helped Harbourfront Centre recognize our unique curatorial capacity could be used to implement change within the community at large.  There is no question the sustainability of our planet demands huge changes to how we collectively think and behave.  Harbourfront Centre’s focus and expertise in programming innovative arts and culture was identified as the greatest source of opportunity for fulfilling on our program vision and objectives.

Program Implications:  Recognizing such a large proportion of Harbourfront Centre’s carbon footprint was a product of visitor travel presented a key challenge to the Leadership Team.  Although the potential for helping to engage and inspire the Toronto community didn’t address visitor travel, it did point to the biggest and best opportunity for making a difference.  The sincerity of Harbourfront Centre’s program came to rest on leveraging Harbourfront Centre’s core function. Delivering exceptional, contemporary arts and culture programming.  It would be exceedingly difficult to measure any reductions in carbon equivalent emissions related to public programming.  This was of little concern though because the organization naturally believes in the impact of exposure to arts and culture and the dire need for the conversation about sustainability to evolve. 

Sustainability-related topics are now more than ever a part of Harbourfront Centre’s programming profile.  This did not come to mean that efforts to address the environmental sustainability of visitor travel or the organization’s operations were not important; but it certainly did help to contextualize the situation and meaningfully prioritize our program efforts.

4. Conclusion

Had Harbourfront Centre not collected data on Scope III carbon equivalent emissions, the organization would have likely focused all efforts on a tiny portion of the overall impact generated.  Further, without the kind of in depth and methodical analysis performed, the connection between visitor travel and the opportunity to uniquely engage the public may not have come to light.  The understanding Harbourfront Centre developed of its impact was critical to the sincerity of the program and effectiveness of the efforts put forth.

5. Discussion Questions

  • Why do Scope III carbon equivalent emissions often get ignored and why are they often so important?
  • How is using effective change management techniques important to the process of understanding an organization’s impact?
  • Why are people more likely to respond to compelling artwork that delivers a message subversively rather than explicitly?
  • As an arts and culture organization with an interest in shifting the public’s relationship to sustainability, what advantage might Harbourfront Centre have over a more pure, sustainability-focused organization?
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