Toronto incubates new brand of business-charity hybrids

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue May 01 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

This is time of great ferment in the non-profit sector. Every week or so a new organization pops up that stretches the boundaries of charity, blends altruism with entrepreneurship or shows that community work can be self-financing.

Toronto is the hotbed of this activity. To those in the vanguard, it is exciting and creative. To those steeped in the tradition of selfless giving, it is unsettling, even threatening. To the rest of the population, it’s a blur.

The social enterprise movement wants to have a voice in the development of the city. It wants to put progressive ideas back on the agenda. And it wants to show political and business leaders that innovation isn’t confined to laboratories, universities and high-tech companies.

To highlight what’s happening and talk about what is possible, the Centre for Social Innovation — the nucleus of the city’s social enterprise culture — is hosting a brainstorming session this month. It will bring together the leaders of the movement — its own executive director, Tonya Surman; Tim Draimin of Social Innovation Generation; Anne Jamieson of the Toronto Enterprise Fund; Assaf Weisz of Venture Deli, and a delegation from a national group called Start-Up Canada — to “create a loud voice for social ventures in Canada’s entrepreneurial landscape.”

Unfortunately, the May 14 event is sold out. All the tickets were snapped up — mostly by insiders — within 12 hours of the announcement.

And there’s really nowhere else for those outside the tent to go for information. The proponents of social enterprise speak in abstruse language. (Here is an example: “Social innovation generation is about intentional exploration of the social innovation dynamic and the possibilities inherent in a deeply generative collaboration with the commitment to action outcomes.”) There are no clear guidebooks or user-friendly websites.

For Torontonians who want to understand what’s going on and why it matters, here is a journalist’s simple primer:

Social enterprises are business-charity hybrids. They aim to do well in the marketplace in order to do good in the community.

The concept is not new. Long before anyone was theorizing about it, Maritimers were doing it. Dairy famers built co-op creameries to cut their costs and stabilize their communities. Fruit growers organized co-operatives to break the grip of exploitative middlemen. Townsfolk pooled their earnings to set up co-op stores. These grassroots initiatives were one of the best anti-poverty programs ever conceived.

In the 1920s, a group of visionary priests at St. Francis Xavier University added adult education to the mix, travelling from village to village teaching people crop management and literacy. Over the next 30 years, the Antigonish movement spread from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, then moved westward, incorporating the ideas of Quebec’s caisses populaires. In the ’60s, it petered out.

Today’s social enterprise movement is a digital, secular, urban renaissance of that tradition.

It is hard to pinpoint when it began, but the founding of Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is as good a date as any. In 2004, architect and community activist Margie Zeidler took a 91-year-old plumbing equipment warehouse on Spadina Ave. and transformed it into a headquarters for 85 social fledgling social enterprises. (Two more followed; a CSI annex on Bathurst St. and a third site at Regent Park.)

Although today’s social entrepreneurs follow the same principles as the co-ops and credit unions of yesteryear, they operate differently — in a very different landscape.

 Now, unlike then, governments have primary responsibility for social and economic development. They pay non-profit organizations — there are 160,000 of them employing two million people — to deliver their programs. This has insulated these organizations from the grubby economics of the marketplace, leading many of their leaders to believe they are above that.

 Now, unlike then, social enterprises are hidden and often misunderstood. They talk among themselves and make room in the movement for other progressive people who want to turn their ideas into business, but they don’t reach out to the rest of the population.

 Now, unlike then, there is no crusader like Father Moses Coady of the Antigonish movement to spread the message and cut through “the pessimism that has so benumbed everyone that nothing has been attempted to break the spell.”

His modern-day heirs might have the right formula. But they need an articulate leader who can explain social entrepreneurship to Canadians and give them a stake in its success.

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