Do capitalism and charity mix?
TheGlobeandMail.com – commentary
Dec. 01 2012. Margaret Wente
Greig Clark doesn’t strike you as the kind of person who goes in for social work. He’s a self-made man – inspired early on by Ayn Rand (“selfishness is good”) and skeptical of government. At 21, he started a three-man operation called College Pro Painters in Thunder Bay; he figured it was a good way to make money in the summer. By the time he turned 40, College Pro had more than 500 franchises across North America and $40-million in annual sales. He sold the business and got rich.
Today, Mr. Clark spends his time in Toronto’s Regent Park, at a place called 40 Oaks. It’s a new subsidized-housing complex with a community meal program, where volunteers from uptown work alongside kitchen staff from the neighbourhood. The building is bright, airy and beautifully designed. Mr. Clark knows everyone’s name. “I’d like you to meet Rosie,” he says. “She’s our salad maker.” Rose, in her 60s, is proud of her job and does it well. This place gives her purpose.
40 Oaks embodies a new model for community development. It’s a mix of public and private enterprise, with emphasis on the “enterprise.” Mr. Clark believes that private-sector ingenuity, partnered with both private and public money, can come up with fresh approaches to problems such as poverty and homelessness, and deliver better results than governments can by themselves.
Besides, it’s time for him to give back.
As Mr. Clark, 60, sees it, adult lives have three acts. In the first act, you build your skills. In the second act, you support your family. The third act is about the quest for meaning. A tidal wave of boomers is reaching Act 3, with energy to burn. They’ve done well, and now they want to do good. They’re the new breed of social entrepreneurs. They don’t just want to write cheques and get their names on a building – they want to get hands-on.
Governments are also at a turning point. Their social programs are often wasteful and ineffective. In an age of austerity, the state will have to do more with less. Suddenly, political leaders around the world are eager to tap into private-sector ingenuity and money.
“Why swim against the tide?” asks Mr. Clark. “Capitalism is a great system for solving problems, so why not use it?” Entrepreneurs and investors are the kind of people who know how to make things happen and are undaunted by adversity. “To them, a problem isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity.”
In 2007, this project was a problem. The City of Toronto had decided to revitalize Regent Park, a dreary inner-city area filled with public housing. At the time, a tiny charity called the Toronto Christian Resource Centre ran an outreach program on the site of 40 Oaks. The board decided to pitch in with a wildly ambitious $22-million project. There was only one problem: The charity was deep in deficit. So how to raise $22-million?
“Let us say the board had faith,” Mr. Clark says.
Fortunately, the board also had him. Mr. Clark was looking for something to do. He got involved in 40 Oaks through his uptown church and became chairman of the board. It turned out to be a full-time job, and then some. He raised a lot of money from a bunch of churches and used it to lever millions more in government funds, then topped it up with donations from various entrepreneurs, including his family. 40 Oaks opened last December, on time and on budget.
Mr. Clark isn’t just the money guy. He serves meals to the homeless alongside Rose, the salad maker. He and his wife, Carolyn, have wrangled countless vanloads of used furniture and clothing from more affluent neighbourhoods to be recycled to needy people. A spacious room at 40 Oaks has racks of household goods and clothes and shoes, neatly sorted by size and gender.
The goal is to create a hub for the community, with a food co-op and a social enterprise component that will help local people create jobs for themselves. He has recruited other businessmen to help. “The path to greatness in the social sector is not to become more like a business,” Mr. Clark says. “It’s to apply the same principles that make any organization great – discipline in planning, in people, in governance, in allocation of resources. You’ve got to figure out what your vision is, what your roles are and, most of all, how you can tell if you’re getting a good job.”
In the social sector, measuring results can be hard to do – and is often unwelcome. But if you can’t measure it, you can’t know if it works. And the promise of social entrepreneurship is to take something that works, and replicate it. Kind of like the franchise model.
What would Ayn Rand make of all this? Mr. Clark says she’d approve. There’s no conflict between self-interest and social enterprise, he argues. If you’re a capitalist, it’s entirely self-interested to seek better solutions to social problems. Then there are the intangible rewards. You can call it self-actualization, or just practising your faith. Either way, people find deeper meaning by embracing some larger purpose in their lives.
At one end of 40 Oaks is a soaring chapel, painted white, where the light pours in. It has no religious symbols, but it feels like a good place for the soul. There’s a service every Thursday, and Mr. Clark always tries to make it. “Do unto others …” he says, his voice trailing off. “There’s nothing simpler and nothing stronger than that. When you get people connecting with each other, it changes lives, on both ends.”
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