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Consulting and support for social enterprise in Canada

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Social Entrepreneurs: Get Professional Advice

There are a growing number of individuals who approach us here at Social Delta with a business idea that is going to make a social change through the sale of goods and/or services. Many of these prospective clients ask if it is necessary to hire professionals to help them launch their business correctly. Of course, we first assure them that hiring Social Delta would be a good choice to invest in professional guidance (offered half in jest, wholly in earnest).

However, in full seriousness, Social Delta recommends that all starting entrepreneurs should hire the professional services of both a lawyer and an accountant.

It is always our belief that social entrepreneurs should remain operating in the informal sector for as long as possible. However, once the business matures to the point where it is appropriate to incorporate as a formal legal entity, it is worth contacting a lawyer to help with the incorporation. It is not difficult to incorporate a business in Canada, but a lawyer can help you shape the language you use to help enshrine your social value proposition as a non-profit corporation, a co-operative, or as a private sector business. Good legal advice is not always cheap, but a one-time consultation can be cheap in the long run as it will inform you of your rights, obligations and the benefits of the various legal incorporation forms to host your social enterprise.

Hiring an accountant early in your business operations will pay for itself many times over. As with the field of law, the field of accounting (and specifically tax codes) is perpetually changing, and getting good advice on how to set up your books, track your expenses, defer taxes, charge and claim GST or PST will make your first year of operations (and every year after) so much easier.

So what should every social entrepreneur ask their lawyer and accountant?  Here is a short list of recommended questions, although of course every entrepreneur may also have specific questions related to their specific case:

“How and when should I incorporate my business?”

What are the benefits and limitations of a sole proprietorship, a limited liability company, a multi-stakeholder co-op, or a non-profit? Should I incorporate federally or provincially? Is there hybrid legislation in my province, and if so, what should I be sure to include in my bylaws or articles of incorporation to assure that I could register as a hybrid company in the future?

 “Where do I get the money to run my business?”

A qualified accountant who understands your business model will help you choose whether you want to take on debt, sell equities, or self-finance your new venture. Note that not all forms of financing are available in every form of incorporation. Furthermore, financing creates annual operational expenses, and professional advice on how to structure the contracts, loans, equity agreements, membership shares, or other forms of financing can help mitigate cash flow challenges.

How should I set up my books?”

It is always a good idea to separate your personal and business finances. Have a separate bank account and a separate credit card to help track business expenses. Any accountant will likely tell you that, but they can also tell you what expenses you need to track. What do you need to capture for tax or other government reporting? What are the rules around entertainment and marketing expenses? What are some of the key financial performance indicates that I should be tracking regularly to ensure that the business is healthy?

“How do I manage profit?”

Every entrepreneur thinks that they are going to make a profit, even many social entrepreneurs. However, by hiring a qualified accountant, you can help make realistic financial projections, employing their past experience with both revenue and costs with other clients. They can also help you structure your books to increase the expenses for (investments in?) activities that maximize social improvement (i.e. bursaries, salaries, community investments, philanthropy, sponsorship, and others)

How much and when do I pay myself?”

An accountant can help structure a business to determine how best to pay yourself.  They can help structure the business to minimize income taxes and they can help plan HR costs to not jeopardize cash flow.

“What about all this tax stuff?”

Accountants understand the tax rules better than anyone else. Trying to stay on top of the changes to income tax, or the payment schedules of GST, or the charging of GST in different jurisdictions is not for the under-informed. Ask your accountant about how your status as a sole proprietor, shareholder, salaried employee, or contractor affects personal income taxes. If you have staff, how do you manage payroll taxes (and source deductions, for that matter). Accountants can help you determine eligibility for tax deductions and/or credits, and can help you determine when to charge GST and how best to set up the regular reporting and payment of GST to the government.

“Is there a good time to prepare an exit strategy?”

When choosing how to incorporate your business, it is always good to consider what will happen when you aren’t there. You may want to sell the business, transfer the assets to a community organization, convert to a worker co-operative, or merge with another company. Social enterprises often seek to have an asset lock built into their initial design, in order that the business assets, intellectual property and staff remain in service to the community. Both accountants and lawyers will have advice on governance and processes to consider when you are downsizing, divesting, moving to another country, or merging with other legal entities.

It is often said that entrepreneurs should understand all aspects of their business. I couldn’t agree more…the entrepreneur is responsible for product development, market research, financial oversight, sales, social impact measurement and everything in between. You have to understand it all. Entrepreneurship is often about juggling all the plates.

But it doesn’t HAVE to be that way.

Seeking professional assistance in areas of your business which require special skills is a wise investment of money to save you time, and can prevent future problems. Professionals can help you understand your business better, and make better choices. Social Delta advises that a modest investment early in financial planning and governance will likely prevent a potentially crippling legal or financial problem down the road.

 

Is what I’m doing actually a social enterprise?

In the last decade, many more people working to create social change in Canada have been calling themselves social entrepreneurs. The phrase is no longer a mystery for most, as programs in social enterprise spring up at universities and colleges, social innovation incubation spaces proliferate across the country, and young leaders are increasingly looking to create meaningful work for themselves.

However, not all efforts to improve the human condition are social enterprises. Literally, an enterprise can be defined as any “project or undertaking, typically one that is difficult or requires effort” (as in the enterprise of training for a marathon). A social enterprise, under this definition, could be construed as involving any effort that has a social purpose. But, in fact, a social enterprise is not simply any social movement or activity.

There are a multitude of definitions of the term “social enterprise” in countries and markets across the world. All of them include the principle that an enterprise is a business that, at the very least, includes a transaction of value in which a customer pays cash for a good or service in a marketplace.

And then there’s the matter of social value. Here’s the thing: if you are creating social value but not selling anything, you are effectively operating a charity.

If you are creating limited social value (or social value as a happy by-product) through the sale of your product or service, you are a business – a regular, traditional business.

But, if you are in business primarily to create social value through the sale of a good or service, then—and only then—are you a social enterprise.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being a charity or a business. However, it is the direct, concerted effort to use a financial transaction to maximize social improvement that characterizes and differentiates a social enterprise.

Improving livelihoods, communities, culture and well-being is not only the responsibility of one type of actor. Governments, non-profits and charities, co-operatives, businesses and the informal sector (families, clubs, collectives, collaboratives, etc.) can all contribute to making our world a better place. One actor is not implicitly better or worse than another at making that contribution; how they operate dictates how much of a contribution they make.

However, social enterprise is a way of conducting business in which creating social value is a primary goal. It is a tool for social change that can pay for itself through earned revenues. This sustaining revenue offers an alternative to charity, voluntarism or tax-funded activities. It is a unique mechanism for which it is expected that the revenue-generating operations will always be seeking to improve the world around us.

To be clear, in Canada today there is very little benefit to calling yourself a social enterprise. There is no tax relief, no designated employment programs and limited start-up capital. Even grant opportunities are far more related to the form of incorporation and the prescribed outcomes than to the label “social enterprise.”  In fact, there is no way to legally define an entity as a social enterprise in Canada.

Nonetheless – and perhaps as a result— many people are calling their project, program, or idea a social enterprise, which is actually making the term increasingly meaningless for policy makers, funders, employees, or even the purchasing public.

So, if you still want to call your work a social enterprise (in spite of lack of clear benefits currently) ask yourself the following four questions:

  1. Are you selling something?
  2. Is the sale of that good or service directly helping you to address a social problem or gap in our society?
  3. Do you have a systematic tool in place to quantify how your sales are directly reducing that social problem?
  4. Do you have a strategy to grow your business, and thus increase your (positive) social impact over time?

If you answered yes to all these questions, then you are a social enterprise. If you didn’t, then you may be doing fantastic work or providing a service that can prove both important and beneficial, but you are not a social enterprise.

This article was co-written by Jonathan Wade and Elisa Birnbaum.

Jonathan Wade is the principal at Social Delta and Elisa Birnbaum is writer and publisher who has recorded the advancement and achievements of social entrepreneurs in Canada both online (at SEE Change Magazine) and in print (her first book, In the Business of Change, will be published in May)

While many in the social enterprise space often qualify themselves as ‘non-profit,’ these organizations should instead treat themselves as ‘for-purpose.’ These organizations should focus on their mission to create social good, while still treating themselves with the same commitment to rigor and discipline as the best for-profits.

Adam Braun

Being a social entrepreneur is like owning a sailboat

If you are a sailor, you invest time, money, and passion in your boat. You may even build a community around this recreational hobby. You do not expect repayment. At the end of each day, however, you get paid with that which is immeasurable and intangible. You are paid in the beauty of the open water, the glory of nature, perhaps the company of friends, and the wind in the sails.

Similarly, social enterprise is not about making money, or making a name for yourself, or building an empire. It is about creating a better, more peaceful, more sustainable, more just world. The investment pays dividends that have no financial currency, but are of tremendous value.

I’ve heard that sailboats are frequently described by owners as “a hole in the water into which you throw money.” Sadly, a social entrepreneur will likely lose more money than they will make as they conceive, design, launch and build their business. Most effective social enterprises are never sold for a profit, nor are they franchised into a stream of future income. In fact, the majority of social enterprises do not make a profit year over year, and when they do, their very existence compels them to reinvest in maximizing their social mission.

However, social entrepreneurs—I argue—should not be motivated by money; they have to be motivated by the social change that they deem is necessary.

I was once approached by a social enterprise leader, asking if I’d like to invest in their fair trade business. He flat out told me, “This is a terrible financial investment.” However, he said that it is an investment in the right way to do business, where co-operative farmers (who I will never meet) will be able to live a sustainable, healthy life, a life where their children will get an education and opportunity. The investment has indeed been a financial loss, but an exceptionally lucrative social decision. The social enterprise has continued to operate (in part) because of my capital, and they continue to help individuals in a sustainable, meaningful way. I put money into justice, and my recompense is enormous.

I meet a lot of people who believe that social enterprise is cool. Some even call it innovative and new. However, social enterprise is actually an old concept with a new name. Early business was never about profit. It existed to allow entrepreneurs to make a living, providing goods and services that are needed for a community: food, haircuts, building materials, and the like. Business can be designed to cover costs, including salaries, and provide value without maximizing profit.

As we work to build purposeful and meaningful businesses, we ought to banish the thought that social enterprise is going to be a way to retire wealthy. As with the investment in a sailboat, we might enjoy retirement happy, satisfied, and full of calm knowing that our sacrifices are worth every penny we put into it.

The long-term payment for the social entrepreneur is a social wealth that is far beyond riches.

Millennial Social Entrepreneurs

Here is an interesting article that suggests that social enterprise is a perfect tool for the idealistic Millennial. Social Delta couldn’t agree more (although we also believe that it is a robust tool for anyone  from any generation seeking sustainable social change…)

However, as Social Delta’s president noted as a comment in the article, the wonderful and infectious idealism of Millennials must be tempered by knowledge of what has gone before.  There are very few truly new ideas. We have new tools like computers and the internet, we have access to massive amounts of information,  but humans have been innovating for our entire history.

It can be observed that perhaps each generation believes that they possess something that the previous generation lacked.  This is the folly of humankind.  Even if this were true, knowing what has gone before us in social housing, sustainable agriculture, support of seniors, empowering a disenfranchised group, or even recycling will help to convert idealism into practical, sustainable change in our communities.

One change that is worth noting: this new access to information actually makes it easier to learn about the history of a movement, and idea or a business. Moreover, we don’t only have access to the past, we also have access to other communities’ experience all over the world. We in Canada can learn a lot from citizens in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America or elsewhere. Miraculously, we can find out about these concurrent efforts easily; however, we must look before we leap.

It would be dangerous to think that even the very concept of social enterprise is new.  The term may be new, but social enterprise–commercial transactions designed to benefit the community–is one of the oldest forms of social change. It is possible to think that many businesses 100 years ago were social enterprises: they generated employment, provided needed goods and services, and operated for the benefit of the community.  (think of the general store…it wasn’t created for  profit, but it certainly created community value).

We must all remember that new terminology shouldn’t disguise old ideas and that new ideas are best informed by past action by innovators and idealists all over the globe.

 

A case against defining social enterprise.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. William Shakespeare

As if to refute Shakespeare’s famous line, we all like to define things that are new to us.  Scientists will define new stars, species or diseases. Social workers and teachers will define new approaches to learning and social improvement. Business people will define their brand, or a new trend in consumer behavior. Academics spend their entire careers reading about previously defined concepts and trying to invent new ideas and label them.

It comes as no surprise that many people who first hear the term social enterprise want a definition. This is why you’ll see a “definition” of social enterprise in the margin to the right of this post. For most, to understand the meaning  of a term is the first step to embracing the idea. The words are familiar but are not fully understood as a pair. Is social enterprise a chatty workplace? Is it a new media term? Is it a collection of similar businesses?  Amalgamating the known definitions of the two terms leads to many interpretations.

Social Enterprise, in essence, basically refers to a commercial activity with a primary goal of creating some sort of social benefit.  However, this is not the only definition. There are many nuances and variations, including legal structures, ownership, profitability goals, success measurements, hiring practices, asset locks, target beneficiaries and a host of subjective qualifications depending on the personal perspective of the entrepreneur.

It is significant to note that even people who work as social entrepreneurs or as supports to social enterprise can’t agree on a definition. This is confusing for the newly initiated and leads to a great many people dismissing social enterprise as a fad, a new label on an old idea, or even an insidious effort to undermine the market economy, or the charitable sector. Without a definition, social enterprise runs the risk of being marginalized–possibly even shunned–by the establishment.

However, it is my belief that the fluidity of the definition, the nuances, and the many interpretations is actually what makes social enterprise so powerful as a tool for social change. In our modern world the silos of social structures—non profits, coops, government, business, clubs—have led us to myopic perspectives on how to provide value to society. In order to really start to address the social problems that are a result of the current structures, we need to look for more malleable, more dynamic, more intangible, and less defined tools. Social innovation requires new thinking to old problems and new hybrid approaches to put that new thinking into action.

It is no longer sufficient to simply “partner” with another sector actor to seek effective change. Partnership and collaboration are strong tools to bring different perspectives to a problem, but they are just the beginning. Social enterprise, in all of its many forms and definitions, is a structure that allows for many approaches and many perspectives to be used simultaneously. Social entrepreneurs can glean from the best practices of a diverse group: non profits, private businesses, public sector institutions, co-ops, voluntary associations, charities, community associations, etc.

As if to punctuate the value of a vague definition of social enterprise, the Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative’s mission, “applies innovative business practices and managerial disciplines to drive sustained, high-impact social change…[while we] engage with the nonprofit, for-profit, and public sectors to generate and share resources, tools, and knowledge.”

The challenge of no clear definition is that our laws, our financial services and our social support networks remain somewhat confused by social enterprise. Interpretation of the term’s meaning leaves us wondering: does a social enterprise run on grants or through investment?  Does it require volunteers or paid staff? Are they taxed or not? Must they incorporate or be informal? Are they out to make financial gains or generate social value? The answer is that social enterprise can do all of these things…sometimes all at the same time.

Confusing? At first yes, perhaps. However, if we embrace the concept of social enterprise rather than a strict definition, then we may indeed see innovative solutions that will improve our society for generations to come.

Why invest in a social enterprise that doesn’t break even?

The goal of a social enterprise is to create positive social change.

To sustain its social impact it has to make enough money to pay all its expenses… in order to remain financially viable, correct?

Would you believe that a $50K investment in a financially unsustainable social enterprise (generating revenue that never exceeds 80% of its costs) can still create more than four times the social impact than making the same donation to charity, while at the same time creating more than $360K in retained earnings, keeping the business in operation over 22 years without any further investment?

There is a strong case to make a social investment in a business that doesn’t break even. If your investment goals are to create social change, then better to invest in a business that can use your money to multiply the social benefit.

Read my guest blog post at SEEChange Magazine for the full story and calculations.

Market share equals what to social enterprise?

One key measurement of success in a for-profit business is market share. Does this also apply to a non-profit housing cooperative?  An employment-based catering company?  An up-cycling storefront?

The goal of a social enterprise is to maximize the positive impact on those who benefit from their business: affordable housing to all, new job opportunities for the disenfranchised, tons of diverted waste from landfills.  In many cases, mission maximization can only be achieved by increasing the scale of their business; therefore,  unless the market expands, scaling up means someone else must scale down or be joined.

However, it is almost “un-social enterprise” to be creating a vision in which market share is a goal, or evemarket-share-graphicn plausible. Most social enterprises operate locally, and all work with a social mission that drives them. The thought of putting a for-profit out of business—or even acquiring that company—is likely not in their initial thinking, nor explicitly in their business plan.

But why not? Why shouldn’t a social enterprise seek to minimize competition and/or take customers from another local business? Why wouldn’t they attempt to buy that local business in order to increase their inventory, maximize their social mission, minimize competition, and benefit from economies of scale? There is no imperative to leave your competitors alone when you are a social enterprise.

Of course, it is possible that putting competitors out of business, or challenging their cost structure by using grants to get a competitive advantage, or taking them over in order to employ a disadvantaged segment rather than their existing employees, may have unintended social costs. No social enterprise ought to decrease the employment of others in favor of their “target” population, or diminish the value of for-profit colleagues in the marketplace. Healthy competition is good, arguably even necessary for innovation and improved social outcomes, and seeking market share without recognizing the social costs could potentially jeopardize the net social impact on the community.

Social enterprises are modest by nature, in my experience, and aggressive business practices are seen as unsavoury at best and downright nauseating at worst. However, if increased market share means increased (net) social benefit, then by all means a social enterprise ought to be unabashedly bold in their business aspirations to increase market share.

Charities are selling… more than ever!

As a follow up to an earlier post,  Social Delta is pleased to report that there has been an increase of $2 billion in annual revenue earned by charities in 2014. This represents a 12.4% increase from the 2012 returns. (which in turn was 3.8% higher than 2011)

Charities are expected to file T3010 forms at the end of each fiscal year. As part of this annual reporting, they submit financial statements in a specific format and these documents are then made public at the CRA Website.  Blumberg Segal LLP has painstakingly aggregated the data for the 2014 submissions to help define the scale and scope of the charitable sector in Canada.

Some key facts from the April 10th Blumbergs’ Snapshot of the Canadian Charity Sector 2014:

  • Total revenue from all sources in 2014: $246 billion
  • Total sales revenue (not including to government): $19.9 billion
  • Total  membership revenue: $1.6 billion
  • Total value of tax receipts issued: $15.7 billion

As was the case in the 2012 report, earned revenue by charities is greater that donated revenue for which tax receipts were issued.  Admittedly, not all of these revenue generating activities would be considered social enterprise, but the data underlines the growing importance of earned revenue in charitable activities in Canada.

For more details on the report, and the host of other resources available from Blumberg Segal LLP, visit their web page devoted to legal issues facing the charitable sector in Canada.

 

Key Ingredients of Flourishing Social Enterprises

Poverty & Purpose

It is no accident that some of the hotbeds of new and successful Canadian social enterprises are in specific, economically depressed regions: North end Winnipeg, Downtown Eastside Vancouver, Regent Park in Toronto,  and rural Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and indeed, the needs of the population in these regions are acute and entrenched: discrimination, drug use, alcoholism, obesity, crime, unemployment, marginalization… Where there is poverty, inequality, and significant loss of livelihood there is a need to try anything; poverty creates an irrefutable purpose to develop a mechanism to arrest human suffering. Social enterprise is one such mechanism, where a business model is employed specifically to address community and human needs.

Innovation & Investment

Desperation may be a driver for change, but someone has to create an idea for the business. In my experience, social enterprise business ideas are rarely conceived by committee.  More commonly, a single person is responsible for a creative social enterprise idea, and they need to then invest their time, energy and often finances to bring that idea to the market. That individual can work independently as a solo-preneur, or as an intrepreneur within government, the private sector, co-operatives or non profits. Growth and development of the idea will of course require support from many actors within these organizational structures, and even from a broader community, but innovation and investment typically starts with one person who has a dream to make life better for others.

Risk & Reslience

However, business is not easy; ask any entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs face an increased challenge because they live in a world where success is measured in social wealth, not in financial returns. Creating a business where maximizing social benefit drives all business decisions can—and in most cases does—suppress financial returns. Risk is therefore large and the expectation of future financial wealth is optimistic at best, and frequently a myth.  In the private sector, individuals and organizations assume risk on the presumption that future financial rewards will compensate them for risking their time, energy, money and social capital. Social enterprise flourishes when the innovators have a resilient constitution, and a way to accept, manage and even embrace personal losses for the sake of a common good.

Patience & Prudence

The worst part is that starting a business creates risks that last for a long time. For many individuals and organizations launching a social enterprise, the initial energy can be whittled down by a thousand tiny cuts, often over years. In my experience, social enterprises that are spearheaded by an innovator in the non-profit sector may take up to three years to launch, and perhaps five  years to break even (if ever). Accepting, managing and embracing losses and risk over that length of time—all motivated by a sense of optimism and altruism—requires exemplary patience and a strong, informed, and flexible plan to succeed. A full-fledged business plan may seem excessive, but there has to be at least an understanding of the market, the risks, the operational requirements, proposed budget including both projected income and expenditures.

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