A Postal Service

A hypothetical social enterprise. Two actually.

Home delivery and post office boxes have been the staples of the postal business for a long time. Digital media have disrupted the letter mail industry like all industries, and postal servers have tried to adapt to stay alive.

Canada Post has developed online services, improved its parcel delivery system and all but eliminated door to door delivery, placing community post boxes throughout the country.

I like gettting the mail at home. I resent the off-loading of the cost of delivery to me. I have to go to a “community post box” to get my mail. At my expense in transportation and time.

Those costs used to be what the postage on a letter paid for. A single stamp costs almost nothing but it adds up when there are millions of pieces of mail being handled every day.

We’ve been told it’s not affordable anymore. Even though stamps have more than doubled in price. They are so expensive now, the post office is afraid to put a price on them. The prices change and nobody knows until you have to buy a stamp.

Anyway, picking up the mail the other day, I wondered what it would cost to hire a mailman to deliver the mail in my neighbourhood. I’d definitely pay something for that service, a dollar a day for example.

How many households would you need to cover salary and expenses? 100? 300?

If they have to drive, which they would in this neck of the woods, 150-200 households, so let’s be optimistic and say 200 is not unreasonable for a 7.5 hour day with the usual breaks. Allow gas and vehicle expense of .50/km on a 30 km route, that’s $15. If each household is contributing $1/day, that leaves $185 for wages and benefits. That’s about $24/hr.

For creating employment and a better quality of life in our neighbourhood, not bad at all.

Of course, somebody would have to set it up. And everybody would have to opt in to make it work. Management costs and the politics could make it impossible.

So, in the end, that’s why such things as postal service were not private businesses. It falls to government to do things that benefit everyone pretty much equally. They have the capacity to organize it and implement it universally.

Still, when the logic of “public service” no longer makes sense for many people, in the face of the kind of technological challenges we’re facing now, then maybe it is time for social innovators to intercede, create a new model to achieve the same end.

P.S. – I’m not totally against post boxes. Co-working spaces, for example, could use proper postal service and many currently do not provide it. Another social enterprise idea would be to create private P.O. box services for these public/private hybrid spaces.

Non-profits, charities, scale and profitability

Profit is an interesting word. Technically it means a gain over and above the cost of doing business. Personal gain, of the entrepreneur or investors, is implied.

We tend to assume non-profits cannot generate surplus income, or shouldn’t, and are therefore limited in terms of growth. Yet, Canada’s largest charity is Alberta Health Services, with revenues over $12 billion, and over 43,000 employees.

Another example is World Vision Canada with about $400 million and 450 employees.


Be a Changemaker

book cover: Be A Changemaker
Be A Changemaker is written for young adults but will inspire anyone with an idea about how to make the world a better place

In this third review of books about social enterprise, we’re going to look at a book called Be a Changemaker. This is a young adult book (hence the YA in the library call number) meaning it is written for young people, but I found it so interesting that I would recommend it for anyone who wants to know what a social enterprise is and is wondering about how to start one.

The author, Laurie Ann Thomson, has written an informative and inspiring book encouraging young people to not wait, but to do things right now, today, that they see needing to be done.

The basic impulse or motivation to start a social enterprise isn’t that different than from other businesses. Someone sees a need that is not being filled and then fills it.

The major difference between a social enterprise and a normal business, the reason we call them social enterprises, is that they often start with an observation of a social problem or injustice and a thought for making the world a better place, fixing something: “Someone should do that!”

Social enterprises often tackle gnarly problems where the solution isn’t necessarily going to make a lot of money, or even any. Still, there’s a need, something has to be done!

Social enterprises look for creative solutions to often long-standing problems. It is about more than just throwing money at a problem. Social enterprises strive to find solutions that are sustainable, where doing things pays for itself and can grow.

Thomson gives plenty of examples of remarkable projects started by people as young as 11, most under 18 and still in high school. Jessica Markowitz learned from human rights activist Richard Kananga that many children in Kenya were orphaned and could not attend school. She wanted to help, so started out by telling her Grade 6 class about the problem. Working together they came up with a plan to raise money to send to Kenya to help girls pay for school. They didn’t stop there. When Jessica and her friends graduated and went off to other schools, they started doing the same thing there, recruiting other students to help. They called the project “Richard’s Rwanda” after the person who inspired Jessica.

It grew to encompass high schools across the country and hundreds of students. After graduating from high school, they started a non-profit organization that continues to encourage students in schools across the U.S. help girls in Rwanda attend school.

Or a social enterprise can come about because you have something that you really love to do and do it very well. As a high school student, Christopher Trina used his love for ultimate frisbee, his expertise in the sport, and what he learned about hard work from being part of a frisbee team to start a project raising funds so he and his teammates could travel to Cambodia to teach the sport he loved and life skills he felt he learned from it.

Sometimes it’s more a matter of finding a way to finance something you really believe in. Selling a popular product can be a good way to raise money for a good cause. Many commercial products commit a percentage of sales revenue to a good cause. And people working in good causes often use commercial products like bracelets or coffee mugs as a way to raise money to help them with their work. Think Girl Guide cookies! It’s that time of year again.

Entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs aren’t so different from each other. They both want to do things; they are driven by a desire to achieve, but where the entrepreneur might be motivated to help themselves, the social entrepreneur tends to be the type of person who wants to help others. But as we discussed last time, every kind of entrepreneur has to be energetic, organized and able to get others to work for them and with them.

Next time, I’ll look at two how-to books, The Startup Checklist, and The $100 Startup, and maybe we’ll learn how hard, or easy, it is to start your very own social enterprise. In the meantime, if you have an idea for a social enterprise, I’d like to hear about it. Sometimes the first step is to tell someone your idea.

The book discussed in this article can be found at at the Library at: YA 361.2 THO

This article appeared in the Sioux Lookout Bulletin on November 8th, 2017.

Business Books with a Purpose

Just a few of the books on  business you are likely to find at your Public Library.
Just a few of the books on business you are likely to find at your Public Library.

If you haven’t tried borrowing a book using your local Public Library’s website, boy, are you in for a treat. Not only can you surf the entire collection online but you can put holds on any books you want to borrow and THE LIBRARY STAFF WILL GATHER THEM UP FOR YOU! All you have to do is go pick them up.

I shouldn’t be encouraging you to take advantage of this service. The poor staff. How will they keep up? But really, it’s like having valet service!

I’ve been thinking about writing about social enterprise books for a while now. It is part of many entrepreneurs ‘good habits’, to keep up with the literature. Every book usually has something to offer, an insight or idea, and it keeps the wheels turning.

Summer tends to be a time for more recreational reading. I did some summer reading for sure. No dockside thrillers for me though. I ploughed through Norway’s answer to Tolstoy, Knut Hamsen’s Growth of the Soil, an epic saga of homesteading in the Norwegian wilderness, which was a lot like where I am living now in northwestern Ontario. When Sioux Lookout was first settled, it was bush and lakes. People started from scratch and sheer physical strength and stamina made all the difference. I’m not sure how much has changed since then. We talk a lot about “intellectual labour” but at the end of the day, energy and determination still have a lot to do with success.

 Anyway, last week I went to my local library’s website just to see what they might have on hand about business. I’m interested in a particular kind of business, of course, the kind that goes a little bit further than normal to do the right thing. A search for “social enterprise” did not turn up too much, but with a more general search for “business” I found quite a few books that are about making a difference, and that’s what interests me, business with a social conscience or larger purpose than just making money (not that there’s anything wrong with that, there definitely isn’t!).

 These days “social enterprise” has a bit of buzz around it. Young people especially want to make the world a better place. They also know, some of them anyway, that they need to make a living. The more enterprising of them will work at a bunch of different jobs until they realize that they want to be their own boss and eventually they will start their own businesses. Some of those who start their own business will also find a way to have a bigger impact. They won’t just sell widgets, they’ll sell organic widgets, or widgets that run on solar power. They’ll be part of the movement that is going to save the planet.

In future posts, I’m going to look more closely at the books in our library about social enterprise. But let me say before stopping for now that there’s no shortage of business books at any library. You can easily learn how to come up with a business idea, write a business plan and run a business.

In my quick search, for example, I found “How to Start a Creative Business,” which talks about craft businesses, “Home-based Business for Beginners,” which gives lots of examples of things people do from their home. “Dog-walking Business” is the best, short book I’ve come across that tells you exactly what to do to start a business. Follow the steps to the letter and, presto, you’re in business!

If you have a favourite book about social enterprise, let me know and I will definitely have a look.

What is resilience?

school-for-soc-entre_1I was recently in Toronto and had a chance to circle round to visit my friends at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. It was so good to say hello, hear familiar voices, share their newest developments and what’s happening on my own journey.

If not for these folks, I would not likely be where I am, doing what I’m doing. I’m not sure I’m “there” yet social enterprise-wise (as Gertrude Stein said, “When you get there, there’s no there there.”) but every day brings me a bit closer to the ideal of doing sustainable and sustaining purpose-driven work.

As SSE Director Marjorie Brans said when I started discussing the daily challenges I still face, “Every day we are all channelling our challenges into productive work.”

Yes, we are. Now if only we could see that more consistently and clearly as what we are really about, and what is important about how we do things differently.

SENO – Social Enterprise Northern Ontario’s mandate extended

wheelbarrowSocial Enterprise Northern Ontario, or SENO, has supported over 40 startups in Northern Ontario since its inception through its CoStarter For Change program.

SENO is a collaborative project between NORDIK, the Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship (SEE) Northern Region Partnership in Sault Ste. Marie and PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Their funding has enabled them to extend SENO for two more years.

SENO is a micro-loans and grants program to support capacity building for social enterprises. SENO supports the creation of either for-profit or not-for-profit businesses rooted in addressing issues that matter to people and the planet. SENO supports entrepreneurs in developing their ideas into viable initiatives that sustain economic development and pioneer social innovation.

Aspiring entrepreneurs apply for funding with an idea, workplan, budget and a basic business plan, committing to working full time for at least 12 weeks in the program. If successsful, small grants or a combination of grant and loan provides modest startup funding for things like rent, equipment, materials and labour. The program involves weekly workshops/training sessions, consistent communication with a mentor/advisor, participation in peer-to-peer events, and setting and meeting milestones for each social enterprise.

The project catchment area stretches throughout Northern Ontario from Parry Sound west to the Manitoba border.

PARO itself is partnered with several other organizations: the Thunder Bay CEDC, Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre, Sault St. Marie Innovation Centre

Shaun Loney on social enterprise, First Nations and the failure of government

Developing independence from the grid and food self-sufficiency are just two of the goals Winnipeger Shaun Loney sees social enterprise solving.

“We can use entrepreneurial tools to solve social problems and environmental problems,” Loney told The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti.

According to Loney, social enterprises are economic ventures that solve problems while shying away from government funding.

“In Canada, we believe the defining issue is connecting people who most need the work with the work that most needs to be done,” he explained.

Loney co-founded Akki Energy, what he calls a social enterprise incubator, in Manitoba.

“Aki’ is an Ojibwe word for Earth and we’re doing geothermal on First Nations. But we’ve started several other social enterprises through it on many other First Nations in Manitoba,” Loney told Tremonti.

Above quote from CBC website. Loney was on The Current this morning (Nov. 29th, 2016) as part of their series The Disruptors.


Loney has a new book out (and you know how we LOVE books!):

Cover of An Army of Problem Solvers by Shaun Loney
Shaun Loney’s book on #socent is available from Mcnallyrobinson.com

Loney says his new book, An Army of Problem Solvers: Reconciliation and The Solutions Economy, looks at all the different ways the government gets in the way of progress happening and wants to challenge the government to think beyond the colonial past.

“Let’s look at Canada and how it can be in its next 150 years.”

Indeed, on the cusp of the sesquicentennial there is no better time for forward thinking innovation.

The business of social enterprise advocates

We have been going through some changes in 2016.

The focus of our work in Toronto is on supporting purpose-driven businesses and organizations through legal support, business planning and grant writing. Through our partners, we also support website, communications design and marketing.

We continue to provide legal services to our individual, professional and corporate clients in Toronto, Winnipeg and in northwestern Ontario through Beamish & Associates. Legal services include corporate governance, contracting, incorporation and corporate maintenance, franchising, leasing and real estate, business purchase and sale, succession planning, copyright and intellectual property matters.

The Road Ahead: The virtual office, advocacy and location-independent services

How legal practice can respond to technological opportunities and economic realities.

In August, 2015 Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, opened the annual gathering of the Canadian Bar Association by calling on the profession to become more accessible and efficient without compromising professional standards.

“In the age of the Internet, people are questioning why they, the consumers of legal product, should be forced to go to expensive lawyers working in expensive office buildings located in expensive urban centres.”

It was not the first time Justice McLachlin spoke provocatively about the need for change in the profession. In 2011, she called for lawyers to make legal services accessible to all, not just the wealthy.

This past year she also called on the profession to embrace new technology, artificial intelligence in particular. (Lawyers’ intelligence is  already pretty artificial, as clients frustrated by legalese certainly know:)

At Social Enterprise Advocates, we are facing these challenges in some practical and unexpected ways.

The Virtual Office

The law firm of the future may be in your pocket, or on your wrist.
The law firm of the future may be in your pocket, or on your wrist.

We joined the Centre for Social Innovation community in Toronto in the fall of 2014 in part to address accessibilty. By paring infrastructure to a minimum, thanks to shared amenities, we kept fees below the national average – with further discounts for CSI community members and friends – while serving a community of people whose work we support and encourage at every level.

Our presence is now largely “virtual.” We do not maintain a regular office but rely instead on a combination of shared “hot” desks, borrowed offices and meeting rooms that can be booked. We use a cellphone rather than landline. We share office supplies, and faxng and copying costs. Volunteers (DECAs) provide reception services and sort mail. Two listservs are essential tools in engaging the community both socially and professionally.

In 2015, we focussed on serving the CSI communities in the areas of start-ups, estates and wills, and non-profits. This arrangement worked very well; by mid-year however, our outlook expanded beyond the bounds of the social innovator context.

Working remotely

We had been developing ties outside of Toronto that held promise, and over the summer of 2015, we took our law practice on the road, logging some 14,000 kms in travel to and from Toronto and Northwestern Ontario. By September, an opportunity came up to associate with a small law fim, Beamish & Associates, located in Sioux Lookout. The firm serves a very wide catchment area that includes over twenty First Nations communities, as well as the towns of Kenora, Dryden, Red Lake, Ear Falls and Pickle Lake. This is in the district of Kenora, which is the largest, yet least populated electoral district in Canada.

This development is changing the nature of our practice is some important ways.  In Northwestern Ontaro, we now do family law and civil litigation in response to the need for this type of service. In Toronto, we continue to focus on “startup law” and wills & estates.

In Northwestern Ontario we are also working more with First Nations people, who make up about 35% of the population. In Toronto, an opportunity arose to participate in a sensitivity-training workshop offered by Bear Standing Tall, with whom I share office space at the Regent Park CSI. That helped me gain confidence in working with First Nations people, while also tieing my northern experience back to my urban law practice.

A year ago, I would not have imagined that it might be possible to  stretch a law practice to reach over 1500 kms.

Location-independent services

I am hoping that the CSI community will embrace this new reality and continue to use our services.

Our Toronto clients support a more equitable distribution of services insofar as we are working for more diverse and dispersed communities. We also provide services across a broader economic spectrum than many law firms, from aspiring entrepreneurs in Sault Ste. Marie to people on fixed incomes living in downtown Toronto. This is not merely “pro bono” work, it is an integral part of what we do, providing quality services based on need not means.


The noun “avocat” is, en français, the word for lawyer. In English the meaning of “advocate” has been broadened to something more general and active like “standing up for.” In all our work, we “stand up for” our clients in many ways, but we also believe in “standing for” certain things – advocating values and ways of doing things.

Our approach to legal practice values accessibility and client relations. We are open and transparent about what the law can and cannot do for you. We will discuss how the law works and why, so that you are as well informed as possible. Our northern experience is helping us learn new ways to talk about and explain the law.

Lawyers today have an awesome array of tools that promote better quality work, greater efficientcy and effectiveness. Text messaging, email, Skype, all make it possible to work “without borders” but also with a degree of responsiveness that is unprecedented. In the north, tools like video conferencing have become essential in the delivery of medicical and legal services. Necessity is promoting innovation. Which perhaps, leaves us with this maxim, a thought for the New Year:

Innovation does not always lead from the centre, but from where the need is greatest, which may well be on the periphery or margin.



Doing law on the road in northern Ontario

Finalizing the incorporation of a new social enterprise at the Hwy 17 turnoff to St. Joseph's Island, near Bruce Mines, Ontario.
Finalizing the incorporation of a new social enterprise at the Hwy 17 turnoff to St. Joseph’s Island, near Bruce Mines, Ontario.

I spent twenty-six days on the road this summer, travelling between Toronto and Winnipeg, most of it in northwestern Ontario between Sault Ste. Marie and Kenora.

Yours truly, with Katie Elliot. Project Coordinator at the Nordik Institute in Sault Ste. Marie ON
Yours truly, with Katie Elliot. Project Coordinator at the Nordik Institute in Sault Ste. Marie ON

I met many new people and learned new things while also spending a lot of time actually outside in the landscape. One wonders why more people don’t do this. (We have the tools, yet cling to fixed places, routines and ways of doing things.)

I am especially grateful to a few people who encouraged and supported this time of exploration. Marjorie Brans at the School for Social Entrepreneurs connected me to Katie Elliot at the Nordik Institute in Sault Ste. Marie, which gave me the opportunity to give a workshop on the structure of non-profits and social enterprises. This prompted me to start visualizing the different ways enterprises can be structured and compare them; something that I hope to develop into a more polished presentation. Katie in turn connected me with Roslyn Lockyer of the PARO Centre, an organization that supports women entrepreneurs in Thunder Bay and across northern Ontario.

Also persistent chipmunks running off with morning toast when you're not looking.
Also morning toast from sneaky campground chipmunks.

An important  outcome of all this traelling was connecting with Cathy Beamish, the force behind Beamish & Associates, a small law firm located in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. I started working part of every month in August, filling some gaps in their legal service offering while continuing to develop my connections in northern Ontario.

Working on the road is challenging. Meeting people face to face can be challenging, depending on schedules, money, and the unpredictable factors of weather, road construction, even wildlife. But folks in the north understand these things and roll with whatever comes up. By being flexible and understanding, the work gets done. More importantly, I believe there is a qualitative difference in the relationships that are formed and the work product itself. Hard to measure, but doing work in the north, on the road, or remotely, is never “just business.”