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Posted on Jul 23, 2013

Lessons from Ontario: How Government Can Help Social Enterprise

Lessons from Ontario: How Government Can Help Social Enterprise


Support social enterprises and make them partners in tackling social challenges, says Helen Burstyn

The social and economic domains have historically been viewed as mutually exclusive. Social organisations operating as businesses? Businesses focusing on social services as well as profit?

There are now fewer blank stares and questions, thanks to a growing number of social entrepreneurs and socially conscious investors seeking to finance their activities.

Britain saw about 1,000 of the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, investors and strategic partners gathered at Oxford University for the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship.

Now in its 10th year, this annual conference launched by eBay co-founder – and fellow Canadian – Jeffrey Skoll provides a meeting ground where social entrepreneurs can learn from one another and scope out opportunities for collaboration and global expansion. The forum shines a spotlight on the sector, inviting governments, investors and global leaders to see what it means to be a social entrepreneur and what it takes to support social enterprises.

Together with about 20 social entrepreneurs, I travelled from Ontario, Canada to be part of the forum because I believe that today’s social enterprises are wave of the future – socially aware, economically viable, and ultimately sustainable.

During my years as chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a government agency that makes some 1,500 grants annually to not-for-profit and charitable organisations, I’ve seen social entrepreneurs generate new solutions to old problems by turning traditional approaches on their head.

Today, as chair of the Partnership Forum, an Ontario government advisory body on the not-for-profit and charitable sector, I continue to marvel at how adeptly social enterprises develop and deliver innovative, cost-effective alternatives for dealing with social, economic and environmental challenges. Many are also generating a healthy financial return on investment. Don’t let the term ‘social’ fool you. These are lean and effective businesses that meet not just one bottom line, but two or three of them.

There are countless examples of successful social enterprises. One of the leading lights in Ontario is Jump Math, an organisation founded by mathematician and playwright John Mighton, who developed a system that provides teachers with a radically different way to teach students to be proficient — even excellent — in math. The Borough of Lambeth, right here in the UK, raised its year-6 pass rate by 10% when it introduced Jump to its students in 2007.

There’s also St John’s Bakery, which produces wholesome organic bread and sweets while providing jobs for people on the margins of society, including those who live below the poverty line or struggling with mental illness. Another is Good Foot Delivery, a courier service in Toronto that provides social and environmental benefits by employing people with developmental disabilities to deliver packages on foot or by using public transit.

The social enterprise sector is the most exciting area of economic activity, wealth creation and job growth in Canada, and in many other parts of the world. Not surprisingly, the sector is attracting investors who are clamouring for good social investments but finding there aren’t enough in the pipeline.

There are many compelling reasons for governments to support

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social enterprises. But doing good is not enough; we have to do it well. Piecemeal approaches must be replaced with an integrated, co-ordinated and collaborative social enterprise strategy that supports innovative organisations. The right kind of support helps social ventures move good ideas from the drawing board to the marketplace. It creates the conditions for these enterprises to be profitable and also generate a strong social return on investment.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the provincial government established an Office for Social Enterprise within the ministry of economic development, trade and employment to support established and emerging social ventures. I was asked to be the province’s special adviser for social enterprise – a role I was only too happy to accept.

There is a lot happening in Ontario on a number of fronts. To make it easier for social enterprises to apply for funding, last year we launched Grants Ontario, a web-based platform for administering grant applications. It provides a central portal where applicants can get information on 60 different provincial grant programmes, as well as file and track their applications online. This means new efficiencies and better service delivery for grant-seekers and grant-makers alike.

Ontario’s new Solutions Lab is bringing together multidisciplinary teams to explore ideas and develop innovative programs that tackle complex social problems. We’re also piloting a Social Innovation Partnership to encourage collaboration between social enterprise start-ups and established businesses, ranging from insurance companies to public utilities. The pairing allows the more mature companies to bootstrap younger enterprises, while the newer, nimbler social ventures contribute fresh thinking and innovative practices to the relationship.

Getting access to financing is a major issue for social enterprises, just as it is for many businesses. Through partnerships with venture philanthropists and impact investors, the province is now developing new social financing tools that channel private investment for public good.

Pending imminent approval from the Ontario Securities Commission, the province will soon launch a Social Venture Exchange, an online platform that will connect social venture capitalists with investment-ready enterprises.

Investing in social enterprises is a form of building community, and Ontario is a leader in this area, partly owing to the strength of its non-profit sector. The province has enjoyed a robust social economy for many decades, with some 50,000 non-profit organisations that account for almost 30% of the total non-profit sector in Canada and close to 45% of total sector revenues in the country.

Whether they are for-profit or not-for-profit, social enterprises are the bedrock of strong, vibrant and sustainable communities. They present a huge opportunity for all parts of our economy to work together on issues that matter to all of us. Instead of government acting alone to reduce poverty or provide affordable housing or conserve energy, we are increasingly looking to social ventures as partners who can deliver programmes and get results.

Social enterprises are the rising stars of the global economy. That’s why public sector organisations in the UK, in Canada and around the world are working hand in glove with savvy social enterprises. Together, we are tackling social challenges that are too tough and too important to be left to governments alone.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Guardian. Helen is participating in the SEWF 2013 session ““3 for 2023”, a Discussion: Three Things Public Policy Needs to do for Social Enterprise to Thrive in 2023 “.

Helen Burstyn, Special Advisor, Social Enterprise, Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Trade & Employment

Helen Burstyn

Helen Burstyn

Helen Burstyn has enjoyed a 30-year career in government, business, and community service. She currently serves as Special Advisor, Social Enterprise at the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Employment.

Helen is the former Chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a government agency that makes grants to not-for-profit and charitable organizations in the social services, arts and culture, sports and recreation, and environment sectors. In 2010/2011, together with Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Dr. Eric Hoskins, she co-chaired The Partnership Project, an Ontario government initiative to strengthen the not-for-profit and voluntary sectors in the province. She continues to chair the Partnership Forum, an advisory body on the not-for-profit and charitable sector.

Helen is also a Principal at Counsel Public Affairs, based in Toronto, Ontario.

Helen sits on the boards of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Luminato, The Walrus Foundation, the Canadian Journalism Foundation, The Learning Partnership, Harmony Hall, and the Koffler Centre for the Arts. With The Boston Consulting Group and MaRS, she recently co-founded the Pecaut Centre for Social Impact, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

She is also a founder, past-president and honorary board chair of Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto and a founding member of Equal Voice. She served on the boards of the Canadian Club of Toronto (Past President), Canadian Stage Company, City of Toronto War of 1812 Commemorative Committee and the Mayor’s Task Force on the Arts. In the 2011 general election, she was the provincial Liberal Candidate for Beaches-East York.

Helen received the YWCA Women of Distinction Award for Community Leadership in 2010 and the Ontario Citizenship Award for Volunteer Service that same year. She has four daughters and a granddaughter, and lives in Toronto