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social enterprise

My one wish for social enterprise in 2016


My one wish for social enterprise in 2016

Here’s my one wish for social enterprise in 2016: that community is at its heart.

What this means is that all of the work done by and for social enterprises should be centred around “the aspirations and assets of a community”, as a SET member so wonderfully put to me recently.


It may seem like an unnecessary wish – aren’t social and environmental goals at the heart of social enterprise work anyway? Isn’t this work all about improving the lives of people today and tomorrow?

In theory, yes. But only rarely in practice, when we look at the daily reality of much of the work that falls under ‘social enterprise’. Most conversations around social entrepreneurship and social innovation are conducted without any sign of people who really face the challenges we seek to address. To a lesser extent this is true of social entrepreneurs as well, particularly those who choose to focus on social return over financial profit.

There are many reasons for this exclusion, but one in particular is worth mentioning. That is the lack of definition around what we mean by social enterprise. This has been hotly debated and has been helpful in growing the field – but lack of clarity hurts both enterprises and investors when making key decisions. A nonprofit board member and potential impact investor both see risk in fuzziness, and as a result promising ideas die because of lack of support and funding (often a cyclical relationship).

This trend has also led to a patchwork quilt of social enterprise support initiatives that is bewildering for even experienced professionals to navigate – all too frequently, people don’t know who to turn to for advice, funding and other support. (Poor collaboration is a different, although equally pressing, topic altogether.) The marketplace has steadily evolved in sophistication, with social enterprises and intermediaries addressing (almost) all kinds of needs and at every level. But how many industry associations can we point to?

Who speaks for social enterprise?

Who speaks to social enterprises?

Who speaks to the people who are supposedly benefiting?

We already know social enterprises can and often are already fighting poverty, providing decent work, fostering dignity. Arguably, inclusive prosperity is not just a local but also global challenge and we can make real links between marginalization and widespread dissatisfaction. “Social enterprise” is not and should never be thought of as a silver bullet, but it holds the promise to make a real difference. That promise is let down when we think social enterprise is just about revenue generation, and also when we make our conversations so inaccessible that they are closed to all but a rarefied segment.

So here’s my one wish for 2016: let’s make our work about the lived experiences of those we seek to support.

This post is part of the Sector Dialogue series, supported by the Metcalf Foundation.

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Persistent challenges for social enterprises: takeaways from the Social Finance Forum


Persistent challenges for social enterprises: takeaways from the Social Finance Forum

At the Social Finance Forum last week at MaRS, we had the opportunity to bring together a number of social enterprises to reflect on Enterprising Change and talk about the challenges they face, as well as their strategies for addressing them. Here are some of the highlights from the session organized jointly by SET and CCEDnet.

Access to capital

Dan Kershaw, Executive Director of Furniture Bank, led a roundtable of social enterprises and impact investors that discussed the following topics:

  • The pros and cons of incorporating as a nonprofit social enterprise – it really depends on the business model. Some organizations find it helpful to remain a nonprofit, while others find that the for-profit model opens up more doors.
  • Despite years of field-building work by a number of organizations, we still can’t take it for granted that enterprises and investors would understand each other – they’re often ‘speaking a different language’
  • Social enterprises find that investors often have very traditional thinking. Non profit enterprises, in particular, have to keep telling the story to find non-traditional thinking
  • Investors have found that emerging social enterprises would benefit from greater financial expertise; for example, some enterprises don’t know how to do valuations properly

Tools & resources

The last point on expertise was echoed on the second table, where Ellen Martin, Co-founder of MySojo, facilitated a large group of social enterprises and intermediaries that shared the following:

  • Capacity remains an issue for social enterprises, especially if there is poor succession planning. Managers get promoted because of their strong work with communities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have strong governance, financial management or marketing skills.
  • Professional development and credentialing for social enterprise managers would be helpful – a number of people would be interested in a six-week program that provided business management skills.
  • There is a dearth of mentors and coaches for social entrepreneurs
  • While there are a number of resources available, such as the Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook, they need to be more accessible and adapted as enterprises might use them in a wide range of contexts.
  • Getting to know the jargon of social enterprise can be challenging – and when you’ve done so, ensuring that all the stakeholders are using ’shared language’ is critical.

Sales & marketing

Robert Meinzer of Options Mississauga was leading the conversation around sales and marketing, which took a slightly different tack.

  • The social mission doesn’t always play well – potential supporters, partners and investors sometimes think that you’re bringing up the social mission to compensate for a poor business. So enterprises have to be careful when speaking about their work.
  • At the same time, SEs are not always great at capturing their success and presenting it to the outside world. Past SET research has shown that few SEs have marketing staff, and up to 50% don’t even have a marketing budget
  • An interesting takeaway was that SEs don’t always understand their customers – and it is important to distinguish between the communities they serve (which for SET members often means the people they train and employ) and their customers.
  • There is a need to develop strong, relevant industry partnerships that can overcome entrenched thinking about social enterprises.

Readers, what are other challenges you are aware of? How can we work to address them? Share your comments!

Sector Dialogue series supported by the Metcalf Foundation.


Let’s talk about the social enterprise sector


Let’s talk about the social enterprise sector

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,

I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Social enterprises have a good reason for remembering the Gunpowder Plot: it’s a well known example of a time when someone was dissatisfied with the status quo (immortalized by Hugo Weaving, even if the movie had it’s share of flaws). Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that social enterprises should instigate a revolution – although some might be interested in it, and others yet may be peeved at the notion that they are not, in fact, revolutionary. But even as social enterprise enters the mainstream, maybe it is time to shake things up a little bit – to step back and question where we are going.

Social entrepreneurship has steadily grown in popularity around the world over the last two decades. The idea of leveraging the market to deliver social value and community benefit is neither new nor uniform – a thousand iterations have bloomed, varying in scope, scale, purpose, sector and approach. The lack of clear definitions and boundaries has helped fertilize broad and diverse growth.

As always, though, this growth has not been coordinated, and the fruits have not been distributed evenly. For all the funding and efforts of so many, it’s hard to see an integrated social enterprise ecosystem in place, a set of institutions that work together to enable a marketplace. It’s a core challenge that social enterprises today face, and something Social Enterprise Toronto is interested in exploring.

So today, with this post that you’re reading right now, we’d like to invite you to a conversation about social enterprise in the Greater Toronto Area. Where are we today? What’s worked, what hasn’t? Where do we go from here, and how do we get there?

This is not a call to rehash old debates. It’s our call for an open dialogue, with blog posts being just one of the many ways we want to talk to you.

We’re interested in learning from a fairly broad group of social enterprises, even though most SET members have a focus on providing employment and training. Has the movement lived up to its hopes and dreams in establishing social enterprises that achieve a social mission? How many successful enterprises do we have that truly support low-income and marginalized people, those who face the greatest barriers in our society?

There is history to honour here. Several Social Enterprise Toronto members have been using market-based mechanisms for decades (think of A-Way Couriers, established in 1987 by survivors of mental health challenges and sometimes referred to as the first social enterprise in Toronto). And they’ve evolved over the years, just as SET itself has (with its name change from Social Purpose Enterprise Network being only one example). We want to listen to those who’ve been around for a while…and we want to listen to those who are just joining us.

(Fun fact: the 2015 Social Enterprise Survey from CCEDNet notes that poverty-focused enterprises account for much of the growth since 2012.)

With your input, we want to voice a vision for the sector that can serve the needs of social enterprises in a cohesive manner.

If you’re a social enterprise reading this, you’re leading this conversation (through the SET Steering Committee). Expect to hear from us soon. Or feel free to reach out directly. If there’s one thing we want to do over the next six months, it’s amplifying your voices.

If you’re interested in the sector – whether as supporter, funder, cheerleader – we’d love to hear your perspectives.

We want you to be a part of this conversation. Tell us what you think in the comments, be part of our Tweetchats, come to our events. Follow us onTwitter, like us on Facebooksign up for our newsletter – whatever you prefer.

Remember, remember this Fifth of November. We’re plotting our way to a better social enterprise sector. Fireworks await.

This is the first post of the Sector Dialogue series, supported by the Metcalf Foundation.

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The Social Procurement Intermediary: The State of the Art & its Development in the GTHA


The Social Procurement Intermediary: The State of the Art & its Development in the GTHA

The Learning Enrichment Foundation has released a research-based report that critically examines the state of social procurement in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), through the lens of global social procurement movements. Researchers Cameron Revington, Robyn Hoogendam and Andrew Holeton specifically study the potential role of a social procurement intermediary – a broker or matchmaker between suppliers and purchasers. How might social purchasing progress if there were an intermediary connecting the purchasing power of businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations with the productivity of social enterprises in the GTHA?


The findings show that social procurement intermediaries in other parts of the globe increase opportunities for social enterprises to engage in larger contracts and tenders. They also increase the visibility of the social enterprise sector. The report maps out the features that are essential in an intermediary. Finally, the report identifies challenges relating directly to the social procurement intermediary and the local sphere
in which the intermediary would operate, and makes recommendations to address them. The issues and considerations identified are specific to the GTHA but have transferable learning to others studying similar goals.

This report was made possible by the generous support of the George C. Metcalf Foundation’s Inclusive Local Economies program.

Full Report

Executive Summary


2015 Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise


2015 Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise


Social Enterprise Toronto and the Social Purchasing Project will be attending the 2015 Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise, the fifth annual social enterprise conference to be held in Canada.

SET members are strongly encouraged to join us in London, Ontario for three exciting days of training and work sessions, networking opportunities, speakers and dynamic, interactive events. Don’t miss local social enterprise tours and stories, opportunities to learn and share, government and private sector engagement models, and workshops on governance, scaling and measuring impact!

Jointly presented by the Canadian Council on Social Enterprise and Pillar Nonprofit Network, the conference is set to take place April 22-24, 2015.

Register Now

Register As An Exhibitor

Read the Agenda

If you would like to organize ride-share opportunities with other SET members, please contact Mehnaz Rahman at


Thriving or Surviving – Social Enterprises in the GTA


Thriving or Surviving – Social Enterprises in the GTA

This is a comprehensive study on social enterprises in the Greater Toronto Area. The research covers key areas of interest to social enterprises practitioners, including marketing practices, an overview of food-based enterprises and opportunities for collaboration, and start up stories.

The study findings are based on in-depth surveys of 32 social enterprises in the GTA. This initiative was designed to deliver practical findings and facilitate actions to strengthen the work of the sector.

To read the report, please click on the individual section of the report. The full report is also available below to read or download.

Executive Summary – Provides the key survey findings

Introduction – Describes overview of social enterprise sector, research initiatives, definition of a social enterprise, methodology, process, and comments on results

Setting the Context – Includes analysis on age, mission, business sector, population served, desired outcomes, business planning, and growth needs

Marketing Practices – Includes analysis of marketing goals, budget, marketing/communications planning, utilized tools, competition and customers, and best practices.

Food-based Enterprises – Includes analysis on employees and participants, skills training, business operations, growth needs, and collaboration opportunities

Start-up Stories – Includes discussion on key people who started and/or took the social enterprise off the ground, funding and growth challenges, and needed types of support


Full Report – Entire 79 page report (includes all of the above sections)