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Monday, March 19, 2012

The "British" Push Social Enterprise Upstream

UK passes the Social Value Bill & British Columbia introduces Community Contribution Company 

 The last several weeks have been successful for the social enterprise movement - both overseas and here in Canada.  Within the past few years there has been a continuous stream of milestones reached, and since the beginning of 2012 its current has flowed faster than ever. 

I've always thought the social enterprise movement needed to be mobilized by the  private sector - I believe government has good intensions but moves too slowly for enough momentum to build.  While this remains true in many regions and sectors, recent progress proved that I was overgeneralizing in my convictions. 

 The UK has been a leader in social business since this idea propelled into action less than a decade ago.  In 2004, the UK authorized legislation for the Community Interest Company (CIC), allowing enterprises to legally share their profits with the community, as opposed to acting solely in the best interest of shareholders.  The CIC is a essentially a new type of legal entity that takes on the principles of a social enterprise.  This was a big step forward. (Click here to read about the UK's progress with social enterprise sector)

Then in 2010, we saw the UK government's implementation of the Social Impact Bond - the first in the world. Another big step. 

MP Chris White
Now in 2012 we see their government looking inward, challenging their own practices. The New Social Value Bill was passed on February 28th, 2012.  Sponsored by Conservative MP Chris White, the bill requires the government to prioritize social enterprises and other community organizations when hiring outside service contracts.  In my opinion, this is a HUGE deal.

For a sector to really grow, it requires more than new companies.  A new sector needs infrastructure - other types of organizations and government support to help build demand and efficiency.  The Social Value Bill is helping to foster that growth by encouraging the use of social enterprises. Currently, the UK government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on commissioning services, and 11% of these contracts are with social enterprises.  When the new bill is implemented,  that proportion will inevitably grow, ultimately expanding the sector. 

I love the way Peter Holbrook, CEO of Social Enterprise UK, describes the impact of this new bill: 
"Our taxes shouldn’t be a vehicle for the upward redistribution of wealth. As a result of this law, public bodies will be the first to showcase what responsible capitalism really looks like." 
I believe leading by example is the most effective form of leadership. It has proven to work in our sector as we've seen other countries begin to replicate the UK's progress.  In 2008, the US instituted the Low-profit Limited Liability Company (L3C), a similar entity to the CIC. I am also pleased to share what is happening here in Canada. Just over a week ago British Columbia followed suit by introducing its first legal social enterprise the new "Community Contribution Company". 

These are exciting times for our sector.  I look forward to the day when my company Better The World can incorporate as a Community Contribution Company. And so the question remains: When will Ontario take the leap? 

The information about the Social Value Bill for this post was taken from this article

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Financing the Social Sector: RBC Leads the Pack

Why banks play a crucial role in social change.

This is the first in a series of cross-industry CSR analysis.  

Every industry has a role to play in social change - travel, CPG, e-commerce - you name it. I've chosen to focus this post on the financial sector because I believe it has the most potential to drive change in the simplest and most valuable way. 

At my company Better The World, we preach CSR 2.0 - i.e. using innovation and strategy to create shared value between a company and a social mission. 

We start by looking at a business's core strategy and resources. We think about what they have a lot of and what they do best. 

Let's take the financial industry as our first test: Financial institutions have a lot of money. 

And what do they do best with that money?
They manage it. They know how to make a little grow into a lot and the best ways to store it until its ready for use.
Now let's flip sides for a minute. 

There are over 161,000 registered not-for-profit organizations in Canada and thousands more grassroots organizations that are fighting for donations. These organizations spend hours preparing fundraising proposals to corporate and private foundations to receive grants, among other approaches to raising funds. 

If these organizations squeeze through the cracks and do capture a "yes" from a potential donor, it often comes in the form of restricted funding. That means social-purpose organizations are spending more time on getting funding than creating social programs. They are forced to stray from their raison detre to stay afloat, and this is seen as a major barrier in Canada's social sector. 

Financial institutions, specifically the commercial banks, spend millions on their CSR initiatives which typically include a run, walk, or ride for a given cause, a program that supports children, and then various other programs that cover a massive scale of causes. Many of these programs engage customers, employees, and make a real difference in people's lives, so kudos to the banks for their social and environmental stewardship. 
But in their whole diversified portfolio of causes they support, how is there no attention paid to actually financing the social sector? 

Think of the possibilities that could come out of this shift in focus: A new, innovative idea to solve a social problem could get access to early-stage capital investment; A small charity could get a cheaper loan to develop a social enterprise or new program - social purpose organizations could shift back to doing what they do best: filling social and environmental gaps. 

If banks allocated budget toward financial instruments for the social sector, they would be serving two purposes: 
1) They would be helping to build a sustainable social sector; and 
2) They would be serving themselves through the returns on their investments. 

A great synergy is combining what one party does best with what the other party does best. This notion has become overly complex and challenging in the social sector, and it is time to get back to basics. 

I almost finished writing this post on January 23rd, 2012. The next day, I saw this headline in the Globe and Mail: "RBC to Create Impact Fund" 

I guess RBC also noticed the gap. 

Here's what how first sentence read: "Royal Bank of Canada has decided to establish its own impact fund, in what appears to be the first major move by a Canadian financial institution in this space." 

I read on and learned that RBC will invest $20 million in social finance. Half of it will create a $10 million Impact Fund to finance new ideas and projects that have a social and environmental mission. The RBC Foundation will invest the other half into Socially Responsible Investment funds. Learn more details.  

RBC has set the stage for a new wave in the social sector - I predict we'll soon hear about more financial institutions doing the same. The significance of this initiative is huge, and summed up perfectly by RBC's president and CEO Gord Nixon:
"We've been waiting for the right moment to launch a program of this nature, and the moment is now. We are confident that our initial investment of $10 million in the RBC Impact Fund will not only spark entrepreneurship and innovation in Canada, but also catalyze similar investments from others in the business community."

Monday, December 19, 2011

Social Finance Forum 2011: Words From An Eager Social Innovator

I was fortunate enough to attend last week's Social Finance Forum at MaRs Discovery District.  The event was packed and there was a real buzz in the air.  I left MaRs with renewed faith and a sore throat, a testament to my yapping all day long with incredibly interesting people. I have two personal takeaways from the event I thought I'd share with the social finance community, with hopes you will accept my honesty in a positive light.

1. Social Finance progress: A turtle race for change

Until the Forum, I'd been feeling frustrated at the pace of the social finance movement's progress. I blamed government bureaucracy and Canada's fear of risk for what seemed like a turtle's race for change. 

Oh don't get me wrong, I still blame these factors. But sitting at my table Wednesday morning listening to Ilse Treurnicht, I came to a realization that put my impatient self more at ease. 

I only discovered this exciting world of social innovation about two years ago. I heard of this thing we call "social finance" just over a year ago. Since I started doing lots of reading and writing about the field and meeting the amazing people it attracts, I've been impatiently waiting for the government to create new policies, for BCorp legislation to pass in Ontario, and for impact investors to come in herds. But I was reminded at the conference how new social finance really is, and I realized that relative to three or four years ago, Canada has seen quite amazing progress. 

Sure, our government moves at the pace of Toronto's subway commute (i.e. VERY SLOW), but at least we're moving. We've got great leaders on board and some money coming in, and with continued effort from the great team at SiG, from the social enterprises proving it works, the Task Force on Social Finance, and all the thought leaders in the space, I left the conference on Wednesday feeling 100% confident that this marketplace will thrive within the next decade. 

I think my excitement about the potential of social finance in Canada blinded the reality that any movement, especially one that will fundamentally change financial markets and business norms, is going to take time. And as long as we've got the right people and enough effort to support it, that's just fine with me. 

2. I want to help!

It seems the social finance movement in Canada is at a place where the base for growth has been built, the goals have been set, the leaders are working from various angles to find impact investors and lobby the government.

I'm just a recent business grad who is deeply passionate about social innovation. I'm also fortunate enough to work for a social enterprise (Canada's first B Corp might I add!). I keep up-to-date on social finance news, write my thoughts, and engage in great conversations...but that's the extent of my support for the movement.

I left the Social Finance Forum with my mind running through the high-level goals we want to achieve. But I couldn't ignore the unsettling feeling that there is nothing tangible for me to take action on to help social finance progress. Now that the stage is set and we're on our way up, what is a regular Joe(sephine) to do? Is there a place for people like me to help move things forward?

One thought I offered was in the "Idea Jam" session during  my table's discussion about B Corp.  I shared my belief that for social finance to progress, there needs to be a serious demand for it, a critical mass of organizations that require blended value investors.  And what sort of organizations require impact investment? Well, organizations like B Corps, and other social-purpose businesses.

So I see a real need for a B Corp marketplace to develop in Canada. And the question you may ask is, "what's stopping us from having more certified B Corporations right now??"
Joyce Sou, the B Corp representative here in Canada facilitated my table. She said that although many organizations have great potential to become certified, people simple don't know B Corp exists.  So we have an awareness issue.

I think it's time to strategize beyond the bubble of our social finance community - it's the only way we're going to achieve that critical mass.  Maybe its a symbol we add to our business cards and email signatures. If we make the B Corp brand an intrinsic part of our professional profiles and share the amazing successes it's having in the US, we'll get more questions.

I welcome your disagreements and suggestions for tangible ways to make a difference. I commend the Social Finance Forum crew for a job well done, and I am patiently waiting for the movement to hit its next milestone, whenever that maybe be.

Happy new year!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Has the time for CSR passed?

Understanding the constraints of CSR

"CSR won't lead us to sustainability."

Kelly Baxter, Executive Director of The Natural Step Canada, spoke these words at an excellent event I attended last Monday through the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series

I was pretty taken aback. I shuffled in my seat nervously, felt blood rushing to my cheeks.  I had come so far to believe in the power of CSR and its potential for solving societal problems.  Jotting down her words anxiously I wondered, "Am I completely of the mark? Is the work I'm doing taking us in the wrong direction?"

It didn't take long for me to realize that Kelly was making a really logical and interesting point (My anxious reaction to her comment made me realize how much of a social-business nerd I really am).

Kelly defines Corporate Social Responsibility as a triple bottom line approach, that is, embedding social, environmental, and economic values into a business model.

(These diagrams are a copy from the presentation given by Kelly Baxter on Oct. 3, 2011)

As we know, there has been a big push for CSR amongst most large companies within the last ten years, and according to Kelly many have done a solid job of reaching this point (though I'm not fully convinced of this). But "the time for CSR (has) passed", she said, "we've been congratulating ourselves on being less bad".  Companies have done a good job of fitting social and environmental practices into their current business models.  But what we need to be doing is the opposite.

Kelly presented the analogy of a car heading dangerously toward the edge of a cliff. The driver slams on the breaks to stop the car before it reaches the edge instead of turning the car around and driving in the other direction.

We're approaching the edge of a cliff right now. We've got frighteningly high levels of carbon emissions, unsustainable deforestation, over 1 billion people living in extreme poverty (to name just a few of our problems) - and the response has been to infuse practices into business models that make the problem less imminent or less catastrophic.  Our current approach is all about reducing as opposed to zeroing-in on the causes of the social and environmental problems we're facing.  

We've been striving for less bad, when we really need to be turning our car around and going for the good.

So how do we do that?

We need to build our business strategies to work within social and environmental constraints. Not the constraints of today, but of those 5, 10, 50 years down the road.  

Check out the two diagrams above.  Kelly said that most companies are asking the following question: "Based on our business plan, what should our sustainability practices be?"  

But what we need to be asking is: "Based on the impending environmental constraints and societal requirements, what should our business plan be?"

Ray Anderson, the late CEO of Interface Inc., is known for leading the corporate world in shifting his company to a completely sustainable business model. He said, "For this (sustainability) to take hold throughout the business world, a change in the business paradigm is needed."

Companies that do not plan within these constraints going forward are not sustainable.  There won't be the same level of resources for them to continue status quo, and it's as simple as that.  

So do I need to be worried about the work I do with CSR?  Nope.  There are companies that still haven't reached that triple bottom line, which means there is still a place for it in our corporate practices.   We needed to start with CSR to get to this point, and many companies are still catching up. 

But Kelly's right. It's time to turn the car around. Designing business plans within the natural social and environmental constraints we're going to face makes logical sense. 

While I felt at peace with the conclusions I came to, I can't help but remain bothered by the big harry monster of a barrier to our progress in sustainability: Convincing the non-believer corporate leaders that sustainability is lucrative. 

How are we possibly going to do that? 
Honestly, I don't know.

But I do know something that can get us closer: We need to start bringing our CEO's, CFO's, and other executives to these events. It's not enough to talk amongst one another about these critical issues - at this point it's not going to get us much further than we are right now. 

I've made a personal commitment to bring a "non-believer" to an event before the end of the year. What about you?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Social Innovation in Canada: A shining example

How Indigo is helping you get when you give.

This one goes out to all you social innovation gurus in Canada who are waiting.  Waiting for Canadian organizations, entrepreneurs, and corporations to take risks and think outside the traditional approaches to drive social change.  It's happening, just very slowly, and today I'm proud to share a leading example of it: Indigo's 2011 Adopt a School program.

When I started working with Indigo a couple of months ago, I had no idea about the severity of the literacy crisis in Canada - the fact that most of Canada's elementary school budgets don't even allow for one book for every student is completely shocking to me. I had always simply related "literacy crisis" to developing countries.

It is a huge social gap I sense Canadians don't take seriously enough. 

For the past few years, Indigo has run the Adopt a School program in September.  For three weeks, Indigo mobilizes stores to raise money to give books to an underfunded school in its community. 

As we all know, fundraising is frustrating, time consuming, and competitive.  With over 85,000 Canadian non-profit organizations and less money to go around, how can we expect to attract public attention to our causes?

This year, Indigo asked my team at Better the World to work around these barriers. So we came up with an online platform completely driven by Indigo store employees, their adopted school principals, teachers, and parents, and the Canadian public.  We also realized that people are more willing to give when they can get value out of what they're giving.  Sounds selfish?

Well, if it fills an empty school library's bookshelves - who cares?

On the Adopt a School website, users can choose a school in their local communities to "adopt". For every 100 adopters of that school, Indigo gives a book. There is also the option to donate - every $12 gives a book. 

The coolest part is what we've added this year: You can buy yourself an Indigo e-gift card which gives a book to a school you choose.  

So if you were planning to buy some books, music, decor for your home, or a Kobo eReader - you can get it all while giving books to school libraries. 

It's a win-win. And there are only 3 days left.

Now here's where the REAL innovation comes in: Everyone can become a fundraiser for their adopted school. Once you choose a school, you can use our sharing tools to actually sell e-gift cards to your networks. The more you sell, the better chance you have of winning an Indigo gift card or Kobo eReader. We call this "grassroots fundraising".

We're leveraging the power of peer-to-peer networking to supercharge fundraising while giving people stuff they want. People have been stocking up now for holiday gifts or using it toward books they need for school!  

I think this concept has the opportunity to fundamentally change and improve the way fundraising is practiced. 

I chose to support Cedarwood Public School, near my home in Markham. If you are interested in supporting my adopted school, you can use this link to check it out and buy an e-gift card: 

So far, we've raised over 25,000 books for Canadian schools that need them.  
There are 3 days left to play your part.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Year in Review: My challenges, learnings, and successes

June 2, 2011

 It has been just over a year after finishing undergrad; I can’t believe it. What a rollercoaster of a journey, and here I am on the other side 12 months later. I’ve learned a lot, and I think there are many of you out there who can relate to my thoughts and experiences. While this is a deeply personal story, I’m sharing it because I think it can help people, namely young adults like me. I hope you find something useful out of it... 

I returned from my big euro-trip last August thinking, “Alright, time to find a job now. I went to businesses school, I’m a pretty smart kid, finding a job in business for social change shouldn’t be too difficult, right?”  


It didn’t take me very long to realize the brick wall I was up against. It didn’t matter that I had gone to business school and that I was incredibly passionate and driven. As a new entrant into the workforce, new grads face one of most challenging and defeating barriers to achieving career success in our society. We are bred to strive for success; we are raised to believe that with hard work, great education and some good-old student debt, we’re going to fly. 

But new grads are stuck in a really funny spot, because even though we are intelligent and motivated, we don’t have the ‘3-5 years of experience’, and no one wants to spend the money training us- at least not in this economic climate. So how are we supposed to get anywhere if no one is willing to take us on initially? How is this system fair? 

Graduating from a school like Ivey brings a ton of pressure and anxiety with it. If you aren’t going for the more mainstream careers (finance, marketing, accounting, consulting), you have a mountain to climb. I started business school knowing I wanted to use business tools to drive social and environmental change – that has been my vision all along. I never wanted one of those mainstream jobs, and it was a very isolating and scary feeling. Whereas most of my peers had recruiters coming to them, I literally had to start from scratch. 

September came quickly and after a few weeks of effort I started to feel really frustrated. I sent emails, made some phone calls, spent time on applications – I heard nothing in return. I started to let myself believe I wasn’t smart enough, which is a slippery slope to fall down. Please, don’t ever let yourself think that way. And as a side note, a few weeks of emails and cover letters isn’t the way to find yourself a job – but we’ll get to that a little bit later. 

After an interview with a company that ended up taking an MBA grad instead of me, one of my interviewers recommended I check out Ashoka. I’d never heard of Ashoka before, and while they weren’t hiring, it seemed their volunteers gained a lot of value out of the experience. 

Volunteer?” I thought, “I can’t volunteer. I need money, I need a job. I’m a business grad for god sakes!” 

After a few weeks of thinking this way, I checked out the Ashoka website and knew right away I needed to become a part of the organization. So I put my ego aside and committed to volunteering for a few months. I realized that if I’m going to get anywhere with my niche career vision and passion, I’m going to have learn more about it and build a network (Lesson 1!). Unfortunately, we are in an unfair system that takes advantage of new graduates, but until someone figures out a way to change it, you need to work within the system to get what you want. 

Ashoka, with social entrepreneurship at its core, was my answer. 

The Ashoka staff welcomed me with open arms and very quickly became like family. I was doing interesting work, was valued by the team, and felt stimulated every day – I was heading in the right direction. 

After a few weeks, I met with an individual who is now a great mentor of mine. He is one of those “must-know” people in my field. Lesson 2: find the right people to get advice from. I happen to work in the same office space as him, so I got pretty lucky. I asked for some career guidance, and he gave me the best piece of advice that I believe has gotten me to where I am 8 months later:
“Read. Read as much as you can – 3 hours a day. And write. Start a blog. Don’t do it for anyone but yourself. Don’t think about anybody reading it. Write about what interests you and you will learn in the process. Do this for 1 year straight, and trust me, you will get your dream job.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

I Laughed at Cancer

On May 12th I laughed harder than I've laughed in an extremely long time.
What was so funny, might you ask? 

Cancer. Yes, I laughed at Cancer.

Now before you rush to conclude that I am a horrible person, take a few moments to hear me out...

Patient Commando put on its first production two weeks ago inspiring laughter, tears, and rave reviews in the sold-out Glen Goulds Theater.  Daniel Stolfi, writer and sole actor in his one-man show Cancer Can't Dance Like This, dug beneath the stigma of what it means to be a chronic patient and unleashed emotions of the doctors, health care professionals, patients, educators, and others in the room.

Stolfi led the audience through his two-year journey of battling Cancer and enduring chemotherapy. Between the hilarious acts showing us his doctors' office experiences, losing his sex drive, appetite, and strength, he read from the journal he wrote throughout his time of suffering.  It was so real, and so honest, and that's why these shows change people.

It's a good thing we offered drinks and snacks after the show, because people didn't want to leave!  I observed as the members of the audience engaged in conversation with one another about the show; how it affected them, what part resonated with them most, their own stories.  I realized that the change happens in the post-show experience.  Watching the shows themselves sparks the transformation, and the moment people have the opportunity to discuss and relate to their own lives, their perspectives on the chronic patient transform.

When I began working with Patient Commando several months ago I was quite intrigued by the concept, but truthfully, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  The show on May 12th shifted the work I had been doing from concept to reality. It instilled in me this complete faith in the success of Patient Commando I hadn't realized I was missing.  

I am so excited to watch Patient Commando grow, because I believe whole-heartedly in its ability to change the lives of chronic patients, and ultimately the healthcare system in Canada.  Stay tuned for the next show date, and a big congratulations to Daniel Stolfi and Foundar of Patient Commando, Zal Press.