Social Enterprise: Adding to your “tool box”.

December 17, 2014

By David LePage, Principal, Accelerating Social Impact.

The other day a handy man came to our office to fix a plumbing problem. We showed him the leaky faucet, that last week was just a tiny occasional drip.  He started by opening his toolbox and pulling out a huge hammer! Of course we asked: “is that really the right tool to solve this problem?” His response was a bit surprising, “well, it’s the only tool I have, and it worked just fine on trying to fix the problem on my last job site, so why change course now? Oh, by the way, my fees went up 20% since we talked on the phone yesterday.”

Well, that is my allegory to the way we often address the complex social and economic challenges facing many of our communities. These are tough issues that are persistent and seem to be increasingly more difficult to address using only our current techniques and diminishing resources. While these problems grow, the tools to fix them remain the same few approaches, the costs go up, and funds we have available stay the same or get smaller.

So how about considering adding some new tools to addressing our most threatening social and economic problems?

One tool the non-profit sector is finding to be effective in some situations is to use a business model called social enterprise. Social enterprises are community-based businesses that sell goods or services in the market place to achieve a social, cultural and/or environmental purpose; they reinvest their profits to maximize their “social mission”.

We have seen social enterprise used as a vital “tool” for addressing many issues: poverty intervention and prevention, creating community recreation opportunities, reversing social exclusion, protecting the environment, creating community economic development, supporting the arts, and contributing to non-profit financial sustainability.

One example is the use of social enterprise to provide employment for persons with barriers, such as people with disabilities or mental health issues, or maybe coming out of a stint in jail. We used to believe that “employment training” was the path to success for assisting people to enter into the work force. However, the traditional labour market, the most common “tool”, doesn’t work in a manner to employ this group of people. We have learned the better objective is not training programs, but actual employment. The new tool in this situation is social enterprise, a business that focuses their social mission on employment for persons with barriers.

Among the many examples you may want to look at include BUILD in Winnipeg working with Aboriginal and youth at risk; Eva’s print shop in Toronto working with youth off the streets; EMBERS labour resources in Vancouver, employing Downtown Eastside residents; Krackers Catering in Ottawa employing persons with disabilities; and the list goes on.

Complex and persistent social and economic problems will take a full toolbox to address them adequately. It requires innovation and collaboration across the government, private sector and community sector.

It is becoming clear as we examine the past few years of development in the social enterprise sector there is significant need to build a supportive ecosystem for social enterprise. One of the basic issues required is to support non-profit organizations’ learning with social enterprise readiness information and resources. Once prepared with the basic knowledge and commitment, they will need the coaching and resources to do their blended value business planning process before actual launching.

Over 15 years ago Enterprising Non-Profits, enp, pioneered much of this effort. ( Then, building unto and expanding these learning opportunities, the McConnell Foundation’s Innoweave program chose social enterprise as one module within their capacity building streams.

The Innoweave social enterprise offerings include a series of on-line resources, webinars and in-person workshops to provide assistance to non-profit organizations considering, exploring or developing a social enterprise. In addition to the workshops Innoweave also offers small grants to support coaching help designed specifically for the recipient’s social enterprise development needs.

The goal of the Innoweave process, the learning and the coaching, is to assist non-profits in assessing the value and planning for a successful social enterprise. Is it the right tool to support you in achieving your social mission and contributing to your financial sustainability?

Non-profits are well known for their creativity and the extent of the contents of their toolboxes. As a host of several webinars and learning events with Innoweave I’ve experienced the energy and passion of how non-profits are engaging and delving into social enterprise as potentially another tool to use. They’re learning and adapting to the reality of blending their enthusiasm and commitment to solve community issues with the reality of operating a successful business.