Social enterprise supports marginalized youth

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sat Aug 27 2011.   David LePage and Tony Dean

If you’re in Edmonton you can enjoy lunch at the City Hall Café, Kids in the Hall, where young people receive job readiness training and food service skills. Traditionally at odds, the business community in downtown Vancouver and homeless youth in the area are now business partners through Street Youth Job Action, keeping alleys clean and streets swept. Toronto’s Eva Phoenix Print Shop offers its corporate customers, like KPMG, quality printed products at a competitive price; and the income provides former street youth an opportunity for housing, counselling, and job training and placement.

In the past, most youth had at least a fair chance to find employment options when manufacturing offered entry-level work, and these jobs could lead to further training and success in the labour market. But where do young people — and especially those at risk — go now as the economy slows, unemployment increases, tuition rises, government funds constrict, and non-profits are stretched? And without a future for some of our youth, we can expect increased addiction, soaring health costs, family breakdown, perpetual poverty and more crime and prison time.

Globally and across Canada, in urban and rural areas, social enterprise is stepping in to offer some appealing opportunities and solutions to the challenges of youth connecting to the labour force. Social enterprises, businesses operated with a blend of financial and social goals, are a preventive measure that interrupts or redirects the track to unemployment and social exclusion.

Given the growing global economic instability and international social unrest, it is an easy decision and very important time for Canada to strengthen the capacity of social enterprises. Increasing their impact will expand opportunities for youth and their future families, and assure the health of our communities.

Governments need this help, too. Their finances are increasingly stretched by an aging population and citizens’ unquenchable thirst for more and better services. They are acknowledging that they can’t tackle big social policy challenges such as long-term unemployment, poverty, mental health and addictions on their own anymore — and that perhaps they never really could.

Some countries, like the U.K. and Australia, led the way on investing in social enterprise development. In Canada, there have been important initiatives to develop social enterprise, led primarily by the philanthropic community, credit unions and other local or regional entities. There are supportive programs like Enterprising Non-Profits, enp, Toronto Enterprise Fund and Chantier de l’Economie Sociale. But Canada’s current effort fragmented, rather than a nationally coordinated and comprehensive effort to support, invest in and strengthen innovative, business-based solutions to our social problems through social enterprise.

Here are two relatively easy and effective steps, with virtually no costs attached, where government and the private sector can partner with social enterprise to advance the capacity and effectiveness of the social enterprise sector.

1) Many social enterprises emerge from the non-profit social-service sector. They’re great at fulfilling their social mission but they are in real need of improving their business skills.

Governments can offer their existing small business and private sector skills in building and investment programs to non-profit social enterprises.

The business sector can target mentoring and volunteer programs that share their business skills with the social enterprise sector.

2) Just like all businesses, social enterprises grow through increased demand. Greater sales will mean greater social impact.

Government can create increased demand for social enterprise products and services (and local small- and medium-sized businesses as well) by including a Community Benefit requirement on all of their purchases above $250,000.

The business community can add a social evaluation component to its overall purchasing criteria. Just as “green” has grown to be a critical component of sustainable supply-chain management, social value outcomes are the next criteria to add to consideration of price and quality when making purchasing decisions.

Building success, both financially and socially, for youth-serving social enterprises is a critical investment in our communities’ futures.

David LePage is program manager at Vancouver-based Enterprising Non-Profits and has been working with the non-profit sector for more than 30 years. Tony Dean is a former head of the Ontario Public Service and a professor of Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

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