People, Profit and the Environment: Social Enterprises Lead the Way

By Geoff Cape

Geoff Cape is a co-founder of Evergreen and has been its executive director since its inception in 1991. Cape attended Queen's University (BA) and has a Master of Management from McGill University in Montreal. Cape was selected as one of Canada's "Top 40 Under 40" by The Globe and Mail Report on Business magazine, and has been honoured with the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in recognition of "Canadians who have made outstanding and exemplary contributions to their communities or to Canada as a whole".

From the traditional banking structure, to microfinance, to bartering, there are many financial and economic tools and systems all operating together to drive our economy and well-being.

In Canada, governments at all three levels have woken up to the multiple benefits social enterprises deliver, from skills training to jobs to addressing poverty reduction and delivering societal needs. The Ontario government for example has recently released their social enterprise strategy called: Impact – A Social Enterprise Strategy for Ontario.

In the document, they observe that there are over 10,000 social enterprises in Ontario that serve more than 3.4 million unique customers per year in Ontario. As articulated in the accompanying video (above) profiling a number of social enterprises in the province – from math programs for students, to IT start ups, to social innovation collectives – the collective energy and opportunities to address the needs of a community and build off each-others’ learnings are limitless.

These, often grassroots, initiatives are getting more and more noticed in the international business community as well. Studied at business schools such as Schulich and INSEAD and through organizations like the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the Skoll Foundation’s social entrepreneur challenge with Huffington Post and the Financial Times Ingenuity Awards. This ‘mainstream’ recognition of the multiple benefits social enterprises deliver means that it is a model whose time has come.

Social Enterprise Defined

A social enterprise is a business that generates income for a social purpose. For example, a restaurant in a community centre that employs youth and puts its profits into programming, or a single mom who has assembled an army of home chefs to prepare and deliver lunches to the workplace. The social enterprise harnesses the entrepreneurial spirit and re-invests it back into the community.  This is not a new idea but the approach has gained significant momentum in recent years thanks to the work of groups like Ashoka, the Schwab Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and a long list of innovators who are pursuing ideas with a purpose that go beyond making money for self-gain.

Social Enterprise Applied

Many people know of Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto as a tourism destination and for its weekly Farmers’ Market. Its popular food events, bike programs and wonderful parklike setting make it a go to destination for friends and family. What many do not know is that the 42 acre site with 16 buildings is run by a charity as a large scale social enterprise.

Evergreen as a Social Enterprise

Evergreen launched plans for the Brick Works back in 2002 with the intent of creating a large scale social enterprise that would manage a handful of mission-driven enterprises on the campus, the Garden Market being a clear storefront example. Through the income Evergreen generates on site, from the garden market, office space, parking lot and event rentals, Evergreen is able to support the long list of community programs and services we deliver on site, such as school visits, exhibitions, and a range of family activities.

All told, Evergreen has 8 income streams on site at the Brick Works. All of these activities are mission driven enterprises and revolve around themes of local foods (the Farmers’ Market), connecting children and nature (camps), nature in cities (garden market) and promoting an active and outdoor lifestyle (skating, hiking and bikes). Event rental space is also mission focused as we influence the sector to be more sustainable by, for example, sourcing locally. As well we are building community on site as we engage with like-minded organizations as tenants and as we participate with events onsite that relate to urban environmental issues (United Nations gatherings, Leadership forums, product launches for water membrane technology, car sharing strategies, sustainable supply chain industry meetings, etc). Even the most transactional initiative, parking, supports the shuttle bus and is priced to mirror the cost of a round trip on public transit.

These business’ not only contribute to Evergreen’s financial stability ensuring a sound and sustainable organization, but the extra income allows the Evergreen to expand our programing, most notably to underserviced communities.

As a Platform for Other Social Enterprise Ventures

Evergreen Brick Works is a campus and a venue for exploring innovations and ideas. With that in mind we have positioned ourselves as a platform for others, a stage to help us celebrate the best ideas and innovations of others. To this end, we are always engaging community partners to present their own socially driven enterprise ideas. For example, the farmers market each Saturday celebrates the produce and production of over 100 artisan farmers and food producers. We are creating room for social entrepreneurs in the farmers market and last year the cumulative sales totaled well over $6m in combined sales at the market. We are also the hosting events such as, the up-cycling Junction Flea Market or the innovative food festival the Toronto Underground Market (the social food event designed to give budding food entrepreneurs, chefs and home cooks a platform to test new food ideas to an eager market) also make the site a platform for their own ambitions as social entrepreneurs. We also work with the arts for street involved and homeless youth organization Sketch and their work on site managing a clay studio.

An excellent example of a symbiotic relationship between social enterprises is St John’s Bakery as a vendor at the Farmers’ Market. What started with a small bakery in the basement of a church in Riverside has expanded into a storefront that specializes in fantastic handcrafted, organic breads. Employing people from all walks of life and backgrounds, the results of the bakery go well beyond bread to benefit the workers – through confidence and skills building learning the craft – and the community itself.

What It Takes to Build a Successful Social Enterprise

A social need, a great idea, creativity, vision, a strong business plan and community are key to realizing a successful social enterprise. Also, we learn to walk by falling, so learning from failed avenues is also a key.

Being a Social Entrepreneur Means Being In It Together

When talking about the future of the sector as it gains traction, Bill Young, President of Social Capital Partners says it best when he states: “I would hope that 10 years from now, a young person being a social entrepreneur will replace their parents’ dreams of their children becoming doctors and lawyers.”

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