Problem-solving surprisingly profitable

TheStar.com – Opinion – Problem-solving surprisingly profitable
April 15, 2009.   Carol Goar

It began as an experiment in local problem-solving. Making money was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Today, it is one of Toronto’s most successful social enterprises.

Twenty-four years ago, a pioneering community activist named Ruth Morris proposed a way of handling neighbourhood disputes. Before going to the police or city hall, residents would bring their clashes – over noise, parking, garbage, privacy, pets, rent arrears and property issues – to a trained volunteer who would help them resolve the conflict themselves.

She asked St. Stephen’s House, a downtown social agency, to test the concept.

Initially, Torontonians didn’t know what to make of it. In fact, legend has it that Morris recruited the first few disputants by knocking on doors.

But people were soon coming voluntarily, bringing all manner of tiffs to the agency. Most discovered that, with help, they could work out a solution.

Before long, school boards, human rights commissions, hospitals and other non-profit organizations started asking St. Stephen’s to train their employees. They were willing to pay.

The founders were nonplussed. They had no idea how to run a business. But the idea of using earned revenues to subsidize their free community service had a lot of appeal. So St. Stephen’s set up a new division called “productive enterprise” to train mediators from other organizations and run public workshops.

Since its founding in 1988, the business division has made $2 million. Its clients have included the Toronto police, the Children’s Aid Society, General Motors, Canadian Pacific, the University of Toronto and the federal Department of Indian Affairs.

Morris died in 2001. She watched the seed she had planted grow into a healthy sapling. But she left it to a new generation of social activists to keep it growing as governments cut back on community support and private competitors crowd into the field.

The current manager of conflict resolution is Peter Bruer, a one-time tenant advocate who “got tired of telling people I was right all the time.”

Now he doesn’t have to take sides. “I’m an advocate for mediation,” he says. “It strengthens the fabric of communities. It gives conflict back to the people it belongs to. It teaches them how to live with differences.

“I don’t believe it always works. But it does pull people together and build trust and respect in ways that other things don’t do.”

St. Stephen’s handles about 400 community mediation cases a year. Some are referrals by the police, the city, legal aid clinics and non-profit housing providers. Others are walk-ins. The agency offers service in 12 languages.

Its business side handles an average of 100 clients – from small charities to large government institutions – generating revenues ranging from $125,000 to $185,000. Some years, its income is enough to cover costs, other years it is not. Last year, it made a slight profit. This year it is projecting a $15,000 deficit.

Part of the reason is the slumping economy. But there are deeper causes for concern. Since the mid ’90s, mediation has taken off. Lawyers and consultants now do it. Private firms specialize in it. Universities offer dispute resolution courses.

Although this is a source of satisfaction for St. Stephen’s, it poses a financial challenge. Its fee-for-service division is no longer making enough money to support its free community mediation service. The agency is now working with Toronto’s non-profit innovation centre, MaRS, to develop a marketing plan, which it never had.

But its bottom line has always been – and will always be – bigger than dollars.

“What community mediators are saying is we can be different and not beat each other up or impose our will on others,” Bruer says “That’s a pretty important message for the world.”

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