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.

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.

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.

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

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.

http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-november-29-2016-1.3871187/problems-can-only-be-solved-if-we-support-problem-solvers-says-entrepreneur-shaun-loney-1.3871325

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.

Advocacy

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.”

 

Four social enterprises for art museums

Art. Future. Change. Canada Council for the Arts report on the state of the visual arts in Canada, 2015The Canada Council for the Arts publication of a major report on the state of the visual arts in Canada (discussed here) inspired us to look afresh at how social enterprise concepts might play in the arts. This quote from the report was the spark: “[M]uch can be learned from innovative strategies in start-up culture, social enterprise and experimental development; as well as emergent non-profit business models that are being explored across other sectors.”

What are the startup and social enterprise strategies the report is referring to? And what is to be learned from them?

The mantra of social enterprise is “people, planet and profit.” And for both startups and social enterprises, success has to be measurable, producing both social and financial returns for investors and the enterprise.

Globe_reconstructionSocial enterprise is defined in this this Reuter’s article as “a business that solves a social purpose.” The article is about the UK’s Globe theatre raising £5m (CAD $7.5m) through a “social impact bond” (SIB) issue.

The UK government has 31 SIBs as of this year, more than there are in the rest of the world combined. A government issued SIB is typically calculated to produce a return on investment in the form of savings on how government is currently doing things. For example, a bond issued to support home care over hospital care, will produce savings in overall health care costs. As performance goals are met, bond holders receive financial returns proportional but not eating up all the savings. Everybody wins, maybe not as much as in the private investment world but enough to make a difference.

For Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, it is not yet clear whether the bond will be designed to produce actual financial returns or is more like philanthropy by a sexier name. But in terms of “social return on investment” or “social impact” the Globe’s impact looks impressive: in the first six months of a 24-month world tour launched in April 2014, 89 performances of Hamlet were staged in 54 countries to approximately 54,000 people.

Taking social enterprise literally

A more literal approach to using startup and social enterprise strategies would be to try them out. There are a host of enterprising things museums do already. To be strategic, pushing toward the triple bottom lines of people, planet and profit, would take just a little tweeking:

Hospitality Industry Training

Dress these folks in black and turn those smiles upside down and you'd have something like a group of shot of museum professionals
Take off the hats and turn those smiles upside down and these folks wouldn’t look too different than a group of museum professionals.

Typically, services in public institutions like museums and art galleries are “extra.” The primary tasks are to collect and preserve and present artifacts or art. Guests are welcome but secondary to the primary mission. Financing similarly is not tied to the mission. There’s a correlation of course between donors, sponsors and visitor support and the quality of program but it is indirect. No-one buys a curator’s decision to show a particular artist, least of all the public.

All that is fine, but when it comes to visitor services, public galleries have learned that numbers matter and holding numbers requires more than simply delivering great exhibitions in great, well-kept spaces. Increasingly, they are required to pay attention to the “visitor experience.”

Receptionists and docents know just how often they are asked for directions to restaurants or other attractions. Yet, few people working in the arts are properly trained in how to anticipate and respond to visitors. This is the territory of “customer relations,” and “hospitality,” familiar in the travel and accommodation industries. This is not to say that today’s museum goer is not welcomed and helped. They are. And museums are increasingly attentive to, and developing expertise in this area.

At the same time, there is also a need for trained people in the tourism and hospitality fields. As Richard Florida pointed out over a decade ago, the whole economy has shifted toward services. As manufacturing moves offshore and leisure becomes more important for a larger, aging and relatively financially secure demographic, services training is needed.

Museums could strengthen and broaden their public role by focusing on, and enhancing, visitor services. To be able to invest in improved services, an entrepreneurial approach could be taken. Museums could create visitor centres that are a training grounds for tourism and hospitality workers. They would simultaneously get the benefit of the people learning on the job while also producing people with experience and enthusiasm who are 100% more  likely to search out or even create new opportunities to put their greeting/hosting/serving skills to use.

Official Guide Training Program

The institutional credibility and intellectual pedigree of museums make them a natural seedbed for highly specialized training.
The institutional credibility and intellectual pedigree of museums make them fertile ground in which to grow highly specialized training programs.

In the UK, Blue Badge guides are among the most respected people working in the hospitality and tourism industry. The training is rigorous: they study for up to two years at university level, taking a comprehensive series of written and practical exams which qualify them to become Blue Badge Tourist Guides.

Art museums already train and use docents, and increasingly are looking at digital audio/media supports for the visitor experience. For sure, digital media are intriguing, for now, but nothing compares to the caring and knowledgeable personal guide. A program that trains people, older and younger, to develop their knowledge and presentation skills to encyclopedic levels would prove its value in two concrete ways: enhancing workforce skill levels but also by adding credibility and respect to the institutions that would employ those people. In the highly competitive tourism marketplace, distinctiveness and quality are prized and hard to achieve.

Art Bank

Browsing the Art Bank collection during the 40th Anniversary open house or shopping for something to take home?
Browsing the Art Bank collection during the 40th Anniversary open house or shopping for something to rent and take home?

Started in 1972, the Canada Council Art Bank was as innovative a social enterprise concept as you are ever likely to find. Artists would “bank” their work there, having been paid well for it, retaining a right to “withdraw” it at any time for the same price. The presumption was that years later, the value of the work having gone up substantially, the artist would be able to buy the work back at cost and sell it, capitalizing on the increased market value.

For the Art Bank, the money wasn’t in the escalating price of the work but in renting it out while they held it. Government and corporate offices throughout Ottawa showcased the best work being done in Canada. It was stunning and a model that worked fabulously well for many years, producing surpluses year after year. Eventually, however, the model failed. The vaults kept growing, storage and maintenance costs ever increasing, but the rental market was saturated and redemption was rare. Most Canadian art isn’t worth more than it was the day it left the studio.

Today the Art Bank is still struggling to find its way. But it has created a fine history of respectable failures to learn from. One obvious lesson is that an enterprise that hopes to succeed in the marketplace needs to have the agility to move with it. Failing to change its art acquisition policies when the rental market was saturated (and in fact started to collapse as government cost cutting eliminated rental budgets) was fatal.

The most important lesson of the Art Bank lies in the relationship between collection and marketplace. Many art galleries have rental services but the work they rent is generally not very valuable and not very good. One assumes the reasons, risk of damage, theft, insurance costs. Yet the Art Bank was able to place artwork valued in the 10s of thousands in public and private buildings, often in high traffic areas. Why shouldn’t artworks in museum collections be rented out directly to conscientious patrons, businesses, organizations and local government?

Or how about this even more radical idea? Imagine a dystopian Fahrenheit 451-ish future in which collections are distributed among the people, housed and cared for piece by piece; it would be the “museum” as it started, with the impulse to collect, conserve, study, only distributed and organized as we are able to do now in the 21st C.

Sunday Painters

Winston Churchill was a Sunday painter. The important thing isn't whether he was any good, but that he thought painting was worth his time. You can't tell me that isn't a lesson museums are trying to teach.
Winston Churchill was a Sunday painter. It isn’t important  whether or not he was any good, but that he thought painting was worth his time. That’s a lesson all museums are trying to teach.

The art world has spent the past 30+ years learning not to judge everything from the white European male perspective. Just as barriers to women, black, hispanic, gay and other artists of all kinds fall, perhaps the final frontier of inclusiveness will be opening the doors of privilege to the genre and amateur artist.

It is difficult for art museums to show local amateur artists, except maybe once a year, in hallways. Wildlife artists like Robert Bateman continue to be ignored despite their global popularity. What’s going on? It’s not like the “high arts” can’t handle a challenge. In fact, critical challenge is what the best of the arts are supposed to be good at. As Andrew Hunter, now curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, showed in his early curation-as-art practice, art is liminal, an effect produced at the interstices of place, object, object and encounter, i.e. contextual.

I know it sounds improbable, but the assumptions around things like Sunday (and other genres of) painters warrant testing. There is something so obviously “social” in these practices. And engaging audiences more as active producers than passive spectators can’t be a bad thing. It’s a clumsy idea. It’s unclear where the “enterprise” part might come in. Some amateur work is produced in gallery art classes for which the artists already pay. Wildlife or naturalist artists like Bateman would draw staggering numbers of visitors of course, selling out the gift shops. I have no conclusions in this final example. I’m just throwing it out there. Perhaps you see it more clearly.

The point of this exercise, these four ideas, has been to look at things differently. Social enterprise is about finding ways to accomplish important social purposes in ways no one has thought of before. It’s willing to risk failure for the chance to do something unprecedented and remarkable.

In startup land, there’s a lot of buzz around concepts like “disruption.” Many things that we assumed had to be the way they were, aren’t that way anymore, bookstores for example. This kind of change may not always be good, at least not in the way we have defined “good,” but it is always interesting, which is, as artist Don Judd once said, the whole point.

Measurables and milestones and economic impact analysis

Libraries contribute to the quality of life in neighbourhoods and as an educational resource but also in real economic terms. Look at the numbers associated with library use. Borrowing and reading a book is an economic activity.
Libraries contribute to the quality of life in neighbourhoods and as an educational resource but also in real economic terms. Look at the numbers associated with library use. Borrowing and reading a book is an economic activity.

Impact is a word you hear often these days. For social enterprises, non-profits and charities it tends to be teamed up with “social,” as in “social impact,” referring to the good you are doing. For business it tends to be partnered with “economic,” as in how much money you make, how many people you employ, plus also how your business stimulates other businesses, contributes to consumer spending power and the overall economy (GDP). Most of us would like to think they are the same thing: that qualitative effects can be evaluated in terms of quantitative results or even dollars, but that isn’t always the case, and I don’t think it should be, if only for the sake of clarity.

We recently completed a business plan for a non-profit community organization that needed to show its funders that it has capacity for real economic growth that will help it be financially sustainable for the long-term. Our research found that, while it will never be free from needing grants, it has a strong track record of private support from donors and sponsors, which when coupled with consistent results in winning grants makes it possible to predict with confidence that it has capacity to do more, to grow these sources of revenue and diversify them. We also found considerable potential to increase self-generated revenue from existing programs and by adding new facilities and programs. Here, however, even though we were talking about very concrete, business-like things, it was difficult to project results with confidence. Two things were lacking: data about how the organization is already working from a program/services earnings perspective, and in-depth understanding of the marketplace, who and how it is serving.

These are concrete and measurable things but the reality is that most non-profits haven’t the time to stop and gather data about their programs or the inclination to study the community they serve as if it were a market, evaluating what is working to determine how to improve or what more/different might be needed. Intuition tends to guide them and quite reliably so, thanks to the caring expertise of the people who work there. But in today’s world where measurables and milestones are the order of the day, more is needed.

I think there’s some fear that using business tools (for looking at social enterprises from a market and revenue perspective) is like joining the “forces of darkness,” that principles, mission and ethics will be compromised the moment you associate dollars with them.

Information graphics are great tools for showing where the money is.
Information graphics are great tools for showing where the money is.

Before you judge, it is worth looking at the tools, some of which have been developed by the communities that use them to help put dollar values on the indirect “intangibles” that non-profits deliver. One example, is this calculator created by Americans for the Arts (AFTA).

Economic impact calculators use multipliers based on detailed study of various industries. The AFTA calculator produces suspiciously big numbers for indirect and “induced” (even less direct, like ambient) impacts of arts organizations like museums, until you consider that cultural industries actually produce bigger impacts than traditional industries like manufacturing. The multipliers used for the auto industry, for example, take into consideration indirect impacts on parts manufacturers and materials suppliers and even less direct (“induced”) impacts on industries that in turn supply them. But arts organizations engage more and more varied kinds of industries, many of which are closer to the surface of consumer society. Impacts are felt far beyond supply, in adjacent creative industries like fashion and design, and flowing right through to consumer products and the media; film, television and new media. (As discussed in this UK study.)

Another interesting tool to look at is a calculator called the Tourism and Recreation Economic Impact Model (TREIM) created by the Government of Ontario. Its multipliers are much smaller than those used by AFTA, but still produce impressive numbers for organizations for whom audiences or visitors are a primary driver. Audiences are measurable and so are their impacts, and organizations can set goals for themselves, milestones that will verify their assumptions and validate their strategy, or, if the numbers don’t materialize the way you hoped, allow you to course correct and try something else, just like businesses do.

In the end, the important thing is not whether you have 15  or 500 people you serve (clients, customers, visitors or whatever) but whether you can verify the number before you start and measure how it changes because of your program or project. If you can do that, and measure other impacts, you will not just be satisfying a funder’s seemingly arbitrary requirements;  you will find it useful, helping you to do a better job achieving the goals you set.