The brave new world of Social Enterprises


By: Helen Corbett
Oct 8th, 2013

I recently sat round a table of charities and non-profits and traded notes on challenges to our bottom lines.

Everyone groused about some common themes: less money from the government, tightened strategic giving, and the new imperative to become a social enterprise.

The funny thing was, everyone was digging deep to bring an entrepreneurial flavour to “doing good”.  Around the table we went, sharing what we were selling: office leases, fitness classes, and get this – sex toys.  I couldn’t compete with the novelty of the latter, but as an environmental non-profit, my company is focused on cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, among other things.

It’s not an easy path to chart, especially as C3’s social purpose is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a mission that hardly lends itself to entrepreneurial opportunities.  But C3 is not alone in embarking on a future of limited government funding; in order to thrive, we need to leverage the power of the private sector to achieve our social and environmental mission.

Last week I was one of about 1,200 delegates who attended the Social Enterprise World Forum in Calgary (and sponsored by the estimable Trico Charitable Foundation).   Imagine social entrepreneurs from 30 countries aiming to solve the world’s most complex and confounding social challenges.

Here are a few gleanings from the forum:

  • Craig Keilburger, arguably Canada’s most dynamic export on the social enterprise front, burned up the convention centre with his passion for change.  Murmurings went through the crowd as he challenged us to rethink food banks from places that hand out tinned food to “bustling hives of healthy food, community building and empowerment.”
  • While he wasn’t there, the thinking of Harvard corporate strategy guru Michael Porter pervaded the place.   Porter’s call for corporate shared value is a key underpinning to transforming business thinking to better serve people, the environment, as well as profit.  We heard about the global B Corporation movement to “redefine success in business.”
  • The UK has led the way with community interest companies, creating a 2005 framework that has spawned over 7,000 companies that operate for community benefit rather than private advantage.  BC has followed suit with its legislation to create Community Contribution Companies (with its copycat acronym, C3) and Nova Scotia passed the Community Interest Companies Act in late 2012.  Will Alberta see similar legislation to enable this growing sector?  Not any time soon, grumbled some legal minds in the room.

At the end of the conference, Edmonton-based Localize walked away with the $20k as the Good Deals Pitch Contest winner. Next time you see their Localize labelling tags on supermarket shelves, recognize a successful social enterprise in action – and one that’s set to spread across Canada.


Helen Corbett, Executive Director of All One Sky Foundation, has worked in the environmental non-profit world for over two decades, as a communications director, documentary filmmaker and journalist. 

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