From left to right: David Wild, Jason Farris of Citizens Bank (enp-TO’s first funder), Tonya Surman, Bill Young, and David Miller. Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.
In these perilous economic times non-profits can feel especially vulnerable: as markets drop and budgets tighten, both private and government donors become scarcer than usual. To help stabilize their finances, many non-profits have increasingly been venturing into social enterprise—a set-up whereby a non-profit runs a business that helps further its mission and also generates income for the organization. Leading the charge in Toronto is the Centre for Social Innovation, located in the historic Robertson Building on Spadina. The Centre provides affordable infrastructure (office space, meeting rooms, wireless, etc.) for a wide variety of social mission organizations: it’s an open-concept, community-minded space, one which fosters interaction and collaboration among members and enables them each to do better work with fewer dollars. And in a case of happy symbiosis, the CSI pays for its operations in large part with the rental income it generates in the process.
Social enterprise in Toronto got a big boost last week, as the CSI officially launched a program called Enterprising Non-Profits (enp-TO). Enp-TO raises money from both government and private sources, and distributes grants to non-profit organizations that are looking to develop social enterprises. Crucially, it offers skills training, programming, and networking opportunities to help the non-profits along the way, and screens applicants thoroughly to ensure they have viable business models. Tonya Surman is Executive Director of the CSI, and in discussing enp-TO she pointed out that of the 120 or so organizations which attended workshops last year, 52% decided that they weren’t ready to launch social enterprises of their own. That might seem disappointing, perhaps a sign that there isn’t much of an appetite for this kind of venture among non-profits, but she actually described this as a great outcome. “We don’t want lots and lots of social enterprises,” she pointed out, “but successful social enterprises.”
David Miller with Howie Chong of Carbonzero. Photo by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.
Enp-TO fielded applications from close to fifty organizations, sixteen of which made the final cut and were granted funds in last Thursday’s ceremony. More than one hundred thousand dollars was distributed for 2009, and Surman is hoping to double the money enp-TO can disperse next year. This year’s grants went to everyone from LEAF (which is planning to expand its offerings of sustainable landscaping products) to St. Stephen’s Community House (which will work on boosting the profitability of its conflict resolution services). David Wild of FoodCycles, another grant recipient, said that the money would enable his organization to “develop a well thought out marketing strategy,” substantially increasing the urban farm’s chances of success.
When asked about whether grant recipients might have to change their plans due to current economic instability, Cathy Lang, who has been providing them with business skills coaching, was at least somewhat reassuring. On the one hand, non-profits are better able to succeed when they also function as enterprises, for they have additional revenue streams to draw on, and tend to have a stronger financial plan. On the other, enterprises may be better able to attract customers when they are also non-profits: they’ve got something a bit more interesting to offer than standard commercial outlets, and people often feel better about spending their dollars at a business with a social mission.
Bill Young spoke on behalf of Social Capital Partners, one of the early investors in enp-TO. He believes that perhaps the only silver lining to the current economic crisis is that it will force us to reimagine our ways of doing business, bringing profit and social utility together in new and creative ways: “We’ve got to find hybrid models…we’ve got to find a way to make market forces do good.” It’s too soon to tell how many of these non-profit enterprises will succeed (the original B.C. branch of the Enterprising Non-Profits program has been running for over ten years), but if grit and creativity will get the job done, we’re thinking their odds look pretty good.