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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.


Social enterprises in Ontario: Opportunities abound


Social enterprises in Ontario: Opportunities abound

Ontario’s social enterprise sector is dynamic and growing rapidly, as described in Enterprising Change: Report of the 2015 Social Enterprise Survey for Ontario.

597 social enterprises (SEs), both non-profit and for-profit, reported to a team of researchers creating significant economic and social impact across a diverse range of industries. The report finds a great deal of momentum, but also highlights challenges that are worth considering.

Creating jobs, contributing to the Ontario’s economy

Social enterprises in Ontario employed at least 12,000 people in 2014, more than half of which were full-time equivalents. They earned over $380 million dollars of revenue through the sale of goods and services alone.

These are just cold, hard, numbers. But they don’t even begin to capture the vibrancy of what these sales lead to, the importance of what this work means to so many people. The overwhelming majority of SE work in, and draw from, the local community. They engage with tens of thousands of volunteers and provide training and employment to people from marginalized backgrounds. Half of them have a focus on poverty. These organizations are doing work that matters.

Uncertainty amidst opportunity

Despite the increasing success of SEs across the province, challenges persist that need greater attention.

Access to capital remains a significant barrier to development, although the growth of the social finance ecosystem has clearly made a difference. Only a quarter of non-profit SEs receive loans (although this number has gone up by 150% since 2012, indicating greater risk tolerance from both SEs and impact investors). For-profit SEs are more able to use loans, with 68% of them reporting loans in 2014. Even more promisingly, most of these loans came from banks, credit unions and corporations, not private investors. This indicates greater institutional investment flowing into social enterprises.

Brand recognition and awareness is another area of concern – one that 40% of nonprofit SEs and 65% of for-profit SEs battle with. A common perception is that social enterprises have inferior products, but organizations lack the marketing muscle to change the image. The lack of a common understanding around social enterprise also poses challenges when it comes to recruiting skilled staff and accessing funding.

Finally, many SEs feel like they lack the human and technological resources with which to make things happen. When it comes to human resources, the challenge is not just finding high-quality workers but also finding funding to pay salaries and succession planning. As technology requirements change, SEs are increasingly concerned about having up-to-date infrastructure and information technology. Many SEs have highlighted the need for more capacity building resources, such as online manuals and offline workshops.

Join us this Thursday at the Social Finance Forum at MaRS Discovery District as we discuss these challenges. In an interactive session led by and for social enterprises, we’ll develop recommendations for enabling growth. We look forward to your insights!

This session is being organized by Social Enterprise Toronto and the Canadian CED Network

Note: Originally posted on

Sector Dialogue series supported by the Metcalf Foundation.



Customer Service & Social Customer Relationship Management for SPEs Presentation

Interpreter Services Toronto (IST) received a professional development grant from TEF  to take 2 courses. They are now presenting their learnings to TEF members, and they would like to invite SET members as well. The presentation is free. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP with Shannon Giannitsopoulou at

Please see below for details:

Customer Service & Social Customer Relationship Management for SPEs Presentation

Date: Friday, February 6, 2015

Time: 2:00 pm -3:00 pm

Address: 489 College Street, 5th floor

Room: #503 Group Room

Summary of the Presentations:

Social Customer Relationship Management

As digital marketing management is at the center of a revolution in marketing, fostering customer engagement is more important than ever.  Social CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is a business strategy that utilizes the active participation of customers via social media services, techniques and technology. Learn how Interpreter Services Toronto improved its marketing effectiveness and increased profits with efficient use of limited resources through social CRM strategies.

Customer Service

Excellent customer service skills are required to succeed in today’s business environment. Providing service that consistently exceeds the customers’ expectations is both challenging and rewarding. Learn the skills, steps and strategies Interpreter Services Toronto implemented to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction!

About Interpreter Services Toronto (IST)

Interpreter Services Toronto (IST) is committed to interpretation and translation of the highest quality, because we know it changes lives. With a roster of 300 interpreters and over 200 languages, IST provides exceptional, professional interpretation and translation services to health, legal, business, government and other organizations in the GTA 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. IST offers Immediate Over-the-phone Interpretation as member of the R.I.O. Network.  IST is a social purpose enterprise, and therefore we focus on two bottom lines – business performance and social outcomes. Our intensive training process equips immigrant and refugee women with the skill, certification, confidence and independence to become professional Language Interpreters and vital members of the community.