Sunday, March 24, 2013

The word IS out here in London: social enterprise can be a tool for making our community great.

Guest Blogger: Lina Bowden, Volunteer Advisor for Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities

London, Ontario has been getting an education in social enterprise, thanks to a Trillium-funded initiative called Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities. In January 2010, Chris Moss joined the Pillar team as Manager, Social Enterprise and leader of this project, which has two important goals.
  • First, we wanted to be able learn from the cross-sector engagement process of three cities: London, Sarnia and Ottawa and share these learnings with other communities. Our project partners, Ottawa’s Collaborative for Innovative Social Enterprise Development (CISED) and the Sarnia Community Roundtable, are part of a dynamic community case study that Oana Branzei and Marlene LeBer are compiling on behalf of the Richard Ivey Business School.
  • Second, we wanted to create a made-in-London-for-London support system for social enterprise. What would this look like? Well frankly, when we set out to do this, we didn’t really know! Yes, there were some solid social enterprises already in our community; the likes of Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU), Goodwill, YMCA of Western Ontario and Pathways Skills Development. But, to stimulate and support social enterprise in London we knew we needed a grassroots approach. We needed to listen carefully to what our community was telling us it needed, while learning, learning and learning about other models in other places that brought positive results. Now that we are two years into this project, I see incredible insight in Trillium’s interest in a project that focuses on awareness, engagement and conversation, exploring how social enterprise becomes part of the fabric of a community.
This past week, our team took pause to reflect on the impact this project has had on London. After numerous hours dedicated to running events, workshops, networking breakfasts, tours and most important of all coaching and connecting, we asked ourselves: what difference are we making in the lives of Londoners?
  1. Our support to the newly formed, successful Impact Junk Solutions operated by WOTCH is one significant and exciting milestone for our team.
  2. We have also brought a number of groups together to collaborate. For example, YOU Café and Meals on Wheels, two social enterprises that now are partnering to provide 200 meals a day to seniors.
  3. Many other nonprofit organizations have benefited from the supports provided by this project, and they continue to move forward with ideas and possible plans for expanding their toolkit to include social enterprise as a means to achieving their mission.
  4. In my own view, an unintended and important impact of this project on the community can be best described as nurturing the social entrepreneur. Before this project, there was no home for social innovators, people who call themselves change-makers, community activists, people who challenge status quo and see an opportunity to use a business model to solve a pressing issue or enhance our city. These people might represent an existing nonprofit or they may be individual citizens or groups of citizens who want to make a difference and do it sustainably.
With one year left for this project, we are pleased that we are already ahead of schedule in meeting our expected outcomes that were identified in our project proposal.
  1. We have most certainly “increased awareness and conversation of social enterprise and its value”.
  2. We have demonstrated an “increased cross-sector collaboration between nonprofit, business and government sectors”.
  3. We are starting to visualize the social enterprise support system we want to design for London.
  • It is welcoming, nurturing and non-judging so that social entrepreneurs have the freedom and confidence to express themselves and their social enterprise.
  • It demands sweat equity, passion and perseverance on the part of the entrepreneur and of course, we challenge with the question “is it sustainable?” (Chris gives homework to everyone.)
  • It is primarily a one-on-one model, coaching and inspiring individuals to design a viable social enterprise around their dream for a better London.
  • Making connections across sectors, sourcing experts, advisors, supply chains and potential partners is one the most important role that Chris plays. Each relationship is different, but nearly always, she is able to match-make in order to accelerate the social enterprise planning.
  • We know that raising capital to seed these ventures is a significant need and we are working with important community partners (across the nonprofit, government and business sectors) to consider the possible frameworks to enable a social finance framework
  • We have significantly leveraged tools and resources that already exist. For example, we have used Enterprising Nonprofits(enp) resources almost exclusively as our workshop materials and coaching tools to help nonprofits and social entrepreneurs in the idea generation, exploration, readiness, feasibility and business planning phase. We have also been fortunate to be part of a provincial network called the Ontario SocialEconomy Roundtable (OSER), that has helped us stay plugged into what is happening in the area of social enterprise and social finance across the province. OSER also provides us with an opportunity to play a role in shaping policy and practice in this new field.
It has been immensely rewarding to be involved in this project that has significantly stretched my own thinking about community development. While we have questioned over the past two years ‘who’ might be the target recipient of our efforts, it seems pretty clear to us today who that target is.
  1. We need to be ready to motivate existing charities and nonprofits in exploring whether social enterprise is right for them. At the organization level, we can support them in preparing to execute on a social enterprise plan, if it is right for them and there are numerous resources at our fingertips, thanks to groups like Enterprising Nonprofits and other support systems that we leverage.
  2. We need to be ready to nurture social innovators and change makers. We have witnessed increased interest in social entrepreneurship, particularly with youth. The floodgates have opened as many of these caring citizens are streaming to Chris’s door asking for someone to listen to them. The possibilities are endless if we feed this passion and energy with a process that helps these individuals move their ideas along. If we choose not to help them, they may give up on their dream or leave London to find a city that offers the right kind of supports.
Thank you Pillar, United Way and Ivey for the chance to be engaged with you on this project. I look forward to the next year as we continue to stimulate and support the social enterprise conversation in London and Middlesex.