Every non-profit needs to seriously consider social enterprise

Every non-profit needs to seriously consider social enterprise

But have you noticed that more for-profit businesses are creating social impact? And more non-profit and charities are selling products? At the intersection of business and non-profit is social enterprise, and I believe non-profit are in the perfect position to become the leaders in this growing space.

Non-profit understand what works and what’s broken with our system because they live it day in and day out. They are already creating new and innovative projects because of resource and funding constraints. And by definition, they are legally mandated to prioritize our community.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a social enterprise is an organization that uses business principles to achieve a social objective. It can be as broad as solving food insecurity in Canada, or as narrow as providing opportunities for people experiencing homelessness in Guelph. There are approximately 10,000 social enterprises in Ontario, and 67 per cent of them are less than three years old.

Through my journey both studying social enterprises and creating them for non-profit, I’ve become fascinated with understanding what makes them great. To me, the ones that truly stand out are the ones that fill a business need just as well as their for-profit competitors, while simultaneously and effectively solving a real social issue. In other words, they’re creating a parallel (and better) system.

But in order to build a better system, you first must deeply understand why the current system isn’t working. There are many social enterprises that seek to do good, but ultimately miss the mark because they don’t fully understand the complexities of the social issue as well as a non-profit would. If we equipped non-profit with the right business tools and knowledge, they’re in the best position to design a better system that addresses our most pressing social issues.

For example, let’s imagine a non-profit that offers free groceries to those who need it. Because of the pandemic, they expect demand for healthy produce over the next few years to outgrow the donations that sustain it. So what can they do?

What if this non-profit started a market garden that grew their own produce? And what if takeout meals were sold to sustain the garden, which then sustains their grocery sharing? This is essentially using the farm-to-table model we see in business, but making it more effective because all of the profits benefit our community. The more meals they sell, the more food is shared with our community. Who wouldn’t want to buy a meal that's farm-to-table-to-community?

A well-developed social enterprise shows our community a better way of doing business. It proves without a doubt that their purchases can make a difference in both the short and long term. With charitable giving down 12 per cent over the past two years and the younger generation giving differently, I believe social enterprise needs to be considered by every non-profit. It can be the key to sustaining their social impact, while inviting the community in to be part of the change.

I started The Community Company in 2018 as a passion project to build a better community. We partnered with non-profit to create products like holiday cards and tote bags that invited people to be part of the change. Now, we’re equipping and working alongside non-profit to develop and launch their dream social enterprise.

I believe social enterprise is the future for non-profit because it combines their existing social impact and expertise with the efficiencies of business. It’s not an either-or anymore — it's both.