social delta

Consulting and support for social enterprise in Canada

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Social Enterprise: A tonic for your pessimism

There is a new, heartening trend out there.

Optimism.

Each day, we read (or hear second-hand) news that brings us tales of human injustices like murder, poverty, gender violence, and child abuse. This sad knowledge forms a foundation for the tide of details about accidents like plane crashes, natural disasters and floods. We are saddled with grief if we are feeling people, and we are labelled as ignorant if we ignore the obvious.

The problem is the optimists. They are actually disproving the commonly held assertion that life is getting worse. The book Factfulness, by the late Hans Rosling and published by his family just this year, was my first introduction to rabidly optimistic views. And today I read “Are things getting better or worse,” an upsetting article written by Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker; it is upsetting in that it upsets the common beliefs of our collective pessimism. Rothman quotes content from scholars and experts around the world that further inform us that by virtually any standard, life is getting better for everyone on the planet. Life expectancy, murder, disease, abuse, addiction…you name it: the statistics in both the wealthy and the less wealthy parts of the world are staggeringly good.

We are easily swayed by bad news. And increasingly we don’t hear the good news. But good news is all around us.

Social enterprise is good news. It is not flawless, nor is it easy, but it is a positive tool about which we can all be optimistic. Imagine: businesses that exist only for the purpose of improving the lives, livelihoods and experiences of our people in our communities.

It is my experience that social enterprise flourishes when social problems feel overwhelming. There are spectacular examples of social enterprise addressing the needs of communities in the North End of Winnipeg, the Downtown East Side in Vancouver, the impoverished areas of Nova Scotia, and many of the aspiring First Nation communities scattered across the country.

I encourage you to visit the links page at the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, or visit Buy Social Canada, Social Enterprise Ontario, or the nascent Akcelos to see listings of social enterprises active in the market. Or read the many well researched reports that celebrate the impact of social enterprises at the Social Enterprise Sector Survey.

Celebrate the optimism.

Support social enterprises across the country as a customer. Learn about how social enterprises are changing the status quo for the better. Believe that even when there are challenges, there are innovative human solutions hard at work.

Social Entrepreneurs: Get Good 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)

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.

Free Training for Mental Health Social Enterprises

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is offering free online course coupons to social enterprises through the Social Enterprise Institute (SEI)

If you are a social enterprise that hires individuals with mental illness, take advantage of this coupon offer by completing the online request form. This coupon offer is available to social enterprises in Canada that employ people living with mental illness.  There is no deadline to complete the online request form but there are a limited number of coupons available in each category.  Coupons will be distributed on a first come first serve basis to eligible applicants.

The Social Enterprise Institute (SEI) was created to help anyone, regardless of location or economic ability, to set-up a social enterprise to address issues and causes they care about.  SEI was also created to make learning easier to implement; to take the hassle out of learning new skills by delivering seamless, short, on-demand eLearning produced by industry professionals. Learn more about SEI at www.socialenterpriseinstitute.ca.

COMPLETE THE COUPON REQUEST FORM

SEI  is one of the partners in the Social Enterprise Ecosystem project (S4ES).  The S4ES project connects training, marketing, and impact measurement resources for social enterprises anywhere in Canada.  The project is funded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Government of Canada’s Social Development Partnerships Program, and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Learn more about S4ES at www.s4es.ca.

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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.

2016 Gift Guide featuring social enterprises and progressive businesses

Social Delta is pleased to recommend the holiday gift guide that has been produced by Social Enterprise Ontario. Please consider supporting these businesses, as you share holiday cheer with friends, family and colleagues.

Each gift you buy this holiday season can have significant impact on your community. Thanks to the newly launched Social Enterprise Gift Guide, extending the impact of your gift giving is now easier than ever. The Guide features a wide variety of products created by Canada’s diverse social enterprise sector, representing for-profit and non-profit organizations, cooperatives and B Corps.

The Social Enterprise Gift Guide includes a broad range of products and is fully searchable by product type, price range, region and other categories. For example, you’ll be able to purchase calendars or greeting cards from Options Mississauga Print and Office Services, beer from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, meals cooked by Syrian refugees from Newcomer Kitchen, Inc. and order a gift basket of local preserves made by Youth Opportunities Unlimited in London.

In addition to the main online guide there is a printable Feature Product Gift Guide (PDF) with selected products from different social enterprises from across the province

The Guide is available in English and French (ESontario.org).

This project was made possible thanks to a collaboration of various community organizations and the financial support of the Government of Ontario.

You can find the full catalogue of 100+ products and services online at http://seontario.org/social-enterprise-gift-guide-2016.

If you’re a social enterprise and you’d like to showcase your products & services please fill out this form. (Deadline: December 9)

Funding–yes grant money–to reduce homelessness

Employment And Social Development of the Government of Canada recently launched two calls for proposals for innovative projects that aim to prevent and reduce homelessness. This is an excellent opportunity for social entrepreneurs with a social mission related to homelessness.

Below is a message they have sent out to be shared:

The call for proposals for microgrants has been extended and will end on November 14, 2016.

  • The call for proposals for microgrants – Apply for funding up to $25,000 for small-scale projects. Projects must focus on exploring effective and innovative practices, tools or initiatives that prevent or reduce homelessness in Canada.

Note that there is also a more comprehensive funding program for larger scale initiatives, also with a deadline of November 14, 2016. For more information, please visit the Innovative Solutions to Homelessness funding page.

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.

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