• Measuring Up: 2012 Social Finance Forum in Toronto

    By Rebecca Byers, Community Manager of SocialBusiness.org

    In November I attended the 2012 Social Finance Forum at the MaRS Centre, which focused on impact investing and social return on investment. The conference was very well attended, with over 400 guests and only standing room in many of the sessions. It offered a variety of engaging and informative speakers and workshops, conveniently organized with a legend that signifies who a workshop is targeted toward, like not-for-profits and charities, investors and asset managers, market builders and financial service professionals, and social ventures and coops, as well as several targeted toward everyone.

    The conference began with opening remarks from Royal Bank of Canada president and CEO Gordon Nixon, who spoke adamantly of the opportunity of social finance and announced RBC’s investment of $1 million over five years in support of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.

    The conference’s opening panel featured Andy Broderick, Arlene Dickinson, and Antony Bugg-Levine, and focused on an investor insight into defining impact. The prominent investors discussed what they look for when they invest in social ventures, with the panel agreeing that the business does need to have a promise of investment before they can think of investing.

    I attended SiMPACT Strategy Group’s workshop session ‘Social return on investment 101,’ an Albertan firm whose community investment measurement and evaluation methodology has been used by ventures in the public, private, and third sector in the province since 1993. SiMPACT employs outcome-based evaluation measures, includes stakeholder perspectives, links program reach and implementation, and reflects intention within the program’s logic model, and maintains that SROI is “a story, not a number.”

    Overall I felt the workshops were well organized, specific, and highly informative. There was a consistent energy in the room, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the pitches from the students of the Ontario School for Social Entrepreneurship.

    The conference’s first day featured another announcement in addition to Gordon Nixon’s, as Federal Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development the Honourable Diane Finley spoke during lunch and announced the Canadian government first social finance initiative, a two-month (recently extended to January 31, 2013) call for plans on social finance, for which a website was created.

    I was uncertain at first as to whether or not Minister Finley’s announcement would be well-received – while some have in fact lobbied to Ottawa for recognition and support, like the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing itself, through its Canadian Task Force on Social Finance – however, as pointed out by Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar, they were seeking changes to tax code in order to allow “self-financing social organizations to qualify for tax credits,” and rewarding those who invest in social enterprise. It would seem then, that the general opinion is that the government is trying to alleviate some of the weight of providing basic help to those in need of it most, or, even more general, to private public services. It’s also obvious that some, as Carol Goar alludes, believe the call for concepts is asking those in the social finance realm to steer their time and efforts away from their own efforts, which could use support from the government instead of the other way around.

    I can’t say I entirely disagree with this view, but I also think it’s long overdue that the national government recognized the social finance at all, as this was the first official time. I think that it would be easy for this to be frustrating for social entrepreneurs who have been pushing social finance for years, and then to all of a sudden have it kind of thrown in with the government’s austerity measures.

  • Social business and mentorship

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    The social entrepreneurship community — especially online — is intensely tight-knit. On Twitter, Facebook and email, there are copious amounts of exclamation points and thank yous, however genuine.  Pascal Finette recently wrote a piece called “Get Yourself a Mentor… Maybe Two” for the Unreasonable Institute. In it, he writes:

    Intuitively we all know that having a good support network of smart people around us will make us stronger, help us make the right decisions, allow us to see things from a different perspective, and pull us through those inevitable dark moments of being an entrepreneur. Leaders often don’t tend to talk about their respective mentors – but you can almost guarantee that any well-known (and less well-known) successful leader has a roster of other people they trust and rely on. When they do talk about their mentors, it’s often with a voice filled with admiration, passion, and love.

    A good mentor will become your mirror. The person you can be vulnerable with, who holds you up, cheers you on, tells you off when you do something stupid, and generally makes you a better person. And often they are friends for life.

    Interestingly a lot of young leaders don’t have a mentor. It is not due to lack of mentors, or a mentor’s unwillingness to work with people who haven’t cut their teeth in the world of business and entrepreneurship yet. It is because young entrepreneurs don’t ask. Often they think they either know the answer (they generally don’t), don’t want to be perceived as weak and vunerable (a misconception of leadership), or don’t have the guts to ask. Don’t be that kind of leader. You owe it to your idea, your employees, your customers.

    Interestingly, however, I have interviewed a few social entrepreneurs who haven’t been so optimistic about the value of mentorship. Sometimes it seems like more of a rite of passage than an actual source of knowledge and progress and social entrepreneurship. But for many, a mentorship is a valuable process for both or all parties involved. What is more, a traditional or more formal mentorship program is not always the most valuable. After interviewing dozens of social entrepreneurs at all stages of their career, many of them attest to being involved in less formal mentorship activities. For instance, maybe they seek out a friend for advice here and there. Many people also have found advice  through social media and people they’ve only met online. That can prove valuable since it’s sometimes a new relationship and thus, you and your social business gets the advantage of a fresh set of eyes. Have you had any fulfilling mentorship experiences? Or perhaps any horror stories?

  • Rethinking CSR

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    I never went to business school, which is why, my first thought after reading Sandra Waddock’s “Hollow Men at the Helm” article was, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me. I studied international development student.” But it’s this kind of thinking that has left us all shifting the responsibility to others – either the government, business, social enterprises or NGOs. Although not a business student, I work with social businesses. A common definition of a social business is a company that follows business principles, but a company that is dedicated to working toward solving a social issue. All profits are put back into the company in order to create a sustainable business that doesn’t accept donations. While doing my B.A. at McGill, I spent learning not so much about “integrity” as Waddock refers to it, but more so about social and environmental awareness. Of course, I believed in similar things like equity (not simply equality) and social good long before I started my undergrad, but my ideas and beliefs have become not only stronger, but more my own. I’ve known many students who have studied management, business and/or commerce at school, but it’s safe to say that we have had a fundamentally different educational experience. While I’m a cynic about something like CSR, those who I have met who studied business in school are more optimistic about it. Published in the Globe and Mail, Konrad Yakabuski’s article, “The Kindness of Corporations,” really explored what I feel, for the most part, about CSR. I have been taught to see right through greenwashing and I am critical about many charities — international, domestic and local — not because I don’t care but because I know that most “aid” goes to paying for flights, salaries and the like. Most CSR is an attempt to sell more products by getting the consumer to think that the company is doing good – or even better, by getting the consumer to think that they themselves are doing good.

  • Empathy: it’s all good, right?

    By Tiana Reid, Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    Empathy has been studied seriously since the 1960s as something more than an emotion. It’s an affect, yes, but it has implications for things outside of the personal realm. Social activist and cultural critic bell hooks cultivated an idea of “engaged pedagogy” which centers on the idea of mutual recognization.  “Engaged pedagogy rests on a compassionate premise: to be effective, teachers need to be engaged with students, to nurture not only their classroom performance but their whole well-being: mental, physical, and spiritual,” writes Janet M Lucas in her 2011 dissertation “Not just a feeling anymore: Empathy and the teaching of writing.”

    How empathy works in social businesses may be difficult to assess. After all, it goes back to whether or not intentions matter. But empathy has been and continues to be a hot topic online in the social entrepreneurship world. I’d say it’s pretty much a buzz word by now. Intentionally or not, affect and emotion have always held a premier role in social business. Especially when it comes to companies selling products, it takes emotional marketing and/or a “virtuous” feeling on the part of the consumer, to sell a fair trade, environmental, ethical (etc.) product, considering that it’s usually at a higher price.

    Empathy: it’s all good, right? Well, maybe not. In “The risks of empathy: Interrogating multiculturalism’s gaze,” which was published in Cultural Studies, Megan Boler argues that “passive empathy… falls far short of assuring any basis for social change, and reinscribes a ‘consumptive’ mode of identification with the other.” Consuming the other (or “eating the other” if we look at this again through a bell hooks lens) is already a huge issue in social business. The so-called exotic is sold, bought and traded through goods manufactured (but sometimes not) in the Majority World.

    Last year, Ashoka launched their empathy initiative in which they outlined the following: “Empathy. We don’t hear the term every day, but Ashoka Fellows over the past thirty years have shown time and again that there is no practice more fundamental to the human experience and no skill closer to the heart of what it means to be a changemaker. Its presence–and as profoundly, its absence–can be seen amongst the myriad challenges that populate our daily headlines, whether school bullying, ethnic conflict, crime, or the global preparedness of tomorrow’s workforce.”

    But is it really possible to “identify with another person’s feelings” as Mary Gordon’s Cultivating Empathy describes empathy? How could a straight able-bodied white middle-class North American male identify with the feelings of a poor black lesbian from Zimbabwe? But this isn’t about the Oppression Olympics. Rather, if I go back to Boler, it’s about being active in not consuming identities because claiming to empathize is far different than acknowledging someone’s right for self-determination and ownership.

    To problematize empathy isn’t to disregard it, but rather, it’s to take a look at how promoting empathy can blind being critical, which is crucial, especially in an industry that purports to care.

  • Africa is ‘On the Up’

    By Rob and Nikki Wilson, Co-Founders of On the Up and READ International


    How often do you read a good news story about Africa? Not often enough in our opinion. That’s why we made it our personal mission to uncover Africa’s most exceptional changemakers. In late 2010 we got married and throughout 2011, we took an extended honeymoon and traveled over land from Cape Town to Cairo to find these stories. This year we’ve released a book about our adventure, On the Up.

    From a Zen Buddhist who is training rats to sniff out landmines, to an ex-playboy millionaire who is using his fortune to tackle multinational mining firms, the people we profiled are not your archetypal charity workers. We were specifically seeking out ‘social entrepreneurs,’ people who are shedding fresh light on social and environmental issues. Ranging from social businesses, to registered charities to mass movements – the means that social entrepreneurs use to achieve their goals can be multifaceted and diverse. What makes them unique, however, is that they have created innovative solutions at a grassroots level. From the bottom up, they are driving real, lasting change that larger players, like governments or international charities, often fail to achieve.

    Thanks to networks like Ashoka, we managed to identify an incredible suite of social entrepreneurs across the continent.  And to our delight, getting them to share their stories has been a total pleasure. With open arms we have been welcomed in to spend a day or two with each individual, giving us plenty of time to unpick what makes them tick and their projects fly. Reliably thought-provoking and always deeply inspiring, we are yet to visit anyone whose work did not leave us moved. And in reading our book, we hope our followers will be left feeling the same.

    No matter what flicks your switch when it comes to a good news story, On the Up has something for everyone. Here’s a taster of the kinds of people and projects featured:

    South Africa – Charles Maisel. As controversial as he is kindhearted, this is one man whose view point shakes up charity thinking. Founder of many social start-ups including the award winning employment agency Men on the Side of the Road, Charles takes a founders fee from his portfolio of projects and earns himself a tidy wage in the process!

    Zimbabwe – Betty Makoni. Betty’s incredible organization, Girl Child Network, has empowered hundreds of thousands of girls across Zimbabwe to stand up for their rights and speak out against the injustice of abuse. But Betty has given up more than most to achieve her vision, and has been forced to live in exile by the Mugabe regime.

    Zambia – Simon & Jane Berry. After years of development, Simon and Jane have developed an aid container which fits neatly into the excess space in Coca Cola crates. In a world first, they are about to kick off a trial to deliver essential medical aid to remote areas of Zambia using the Coca Cola distribution network.

    Tanzania – Bart Weetjens. At the bottom of the Uluguru mountains in Tanzania, Bart Weetjens’ organisation, APOPO, is training African Giant Pouched Rats how to sniff out landmines. This story is guaranteed to make you think differently about the powers of our furry friends!

    Rwanda –Mary Kayitesi Blewitt. Without Mary, organizations set up to support the survivors of the Rwandan genocide would not be where they are today. Her efforts to build the capacity of numerous Rwandan NGO’s has helped thousands of widows and orphans to move on from the past and build a brighter future.

    Uganda – Alexander Maclean. African prisons are not pretty places. But at age 18, Alexander set about bringing hope and dignity to the inmates at Ugandan Prisons. His organization,  the African Prisons Project, is dedicated to providing healthcare, education and justice to society’s most condemned.

    Kenya – Nick Moon & Martin Fisher. A new spin on micro-finance, Nick Moon and Martin Fisher founded KickStart to develop and promote technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises.

    Sudan – Emmanuel Jal. A former child soldier, Emmanuel has transformed his life and is now a world renowned rap star. Using music as his medium, he is inspiring the Sudanese youth to overcome destructive divides and unite for a better future.

    On the Up became a reality thanks to generous support from the Vodafone Foundation and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. If you’re looking for funds for an inspirational journey, this might just be the place to start! You can buy the book on our website. Please ‘Like’ our page on Facebook.

  • Ways to use social media for social business

    By Tiana Reid, Senior Editor of SocialBusiness.org

     This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can help the small social business owner start up and consider their social media options. The best thing about social media is a low-cost way to spread your message – and meaning – in the way that maximizes productivity. But, yes, it can be time consuming. And that’s time that’s precious for start-up social businesses and enterprises that already have their resources spread thin.

    Canadian entrepreneur Amber Mac was featured on the Lavin Agency’s YouTube channel and she discussed how, for some, social media can be overwhelming. It’s true that even though there’s an immense amount of stuff (What stuff?!) available on our smart phones, laptops and hey, even on our digital wristwatches. Mac notes that there are statistics to prove that many people are less productive in the workplace. “It’s about using the right tools and being smarter,” she said. “You don’t need to live inside Twitter all day long.”

    Remember: be effective and be productive. Don’t waste your time, because in the end, your time is your company’s resources.

    Frame content for distinct platforms

    “Social media” is a broad, broad term that encompasses everything from web-based technologies like blogs to mobile-based technologies like iPhone apps. The list goes on and on, of course. For businesses, it’s important not to lump all of it together. Here are a few tips for creating distinct content among those social media platforms that you do decide is best for you and your social business. For instance, I advise not to cross-post Twitter and Facebook (or any platform!). Twitter is a place where you can tweet 12, even 24 times a day and you won’t necessarily annoy your readership. It’s the norm. But Facebook is a slower paced friend, and its users gravitate toward image-friendly links and albums. So utilize that to the best of your ability.

    Say what you mean

    If you’re doing a mini study on LinkedIn about what you think your customers would like (or not like), ask them straight up! Or maybe even use a platform like Survey Monkey if you think your customer base is strong enough in terms of participation rate. Don’t beat around the bush or undermine the intelligence of your customers.

    Mix it up

    Pictures and links and questions, oh my! These are a few of the things that make social media users click, share and engage. It’s important not to get stuck in a rut of the same old, but rather, make a conscious effort to vary your content. If anything, ask yourself what you’d like to see from a company that you love.

    Use hashtags and participate in Tweet Chats to maximize your reach

    Moving World collected a resource of the top 13 hashtags for social entrepreneurs, enterprises and investors. No need to memorize them, but keep them in mind, especially when prioritizing your messaging.


    Keep an eye out for new social media platforms that are taking off. For instance, while many people jumped on the Pinterest bandwagon, it hasn’t yet completely taken off in the social business world. If you set yourself ahead of the curve, you could reap the benefits. In the case of Pinterest specifically: do you have awesome images of your product and/or service? Consider new platforms and if you think it would work for you but don’t just join and use your time if not.

  • The problems with so-called “conscious consumerism”

    By Tiana Reid, Editor and Community Manager at SocialBusiness.org

    Is “conscious consumerism” an oxymoron? While the social business and social enterprise spaces have allowed for somewhat of a rebirth of a socially centered business model, materialism can’t be the motivation for innovation.

    As an editor and community manager, I come across – and write about – dozens of purpose-driven companies. Some like FoodCycle and MyBnk Fair Finance are service-oriented, meaning that their direct line is working with people toward social and environmental justice.

    Many social businesses, however, are product-focused. Everything from bracelets made out of bona fide ammunition to one-for-one shoe products and fair trade fashion lines make the cut here.

    How does consumerism and materialism fit into an industry that, perhaps, makes profit from pain? Undoubtedly, many social enterprises reinvest a significant portion of their profits to further the social benefit. What are the implications of encouraging consumers to buy – regardless of the outcomes?

    Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign has been criticized for being problematic for a number of reasons including, but not limited to blind clicktivism, misrepresentation, the use of good/evil language, spending habits, the “White Savior Industrial Complex” as novelist Teju Cole called it, their emotional tourist strategy, the lack of Ugandan participation and the not-for-profit’s militaristic approach to arresting Joseph Kony.

    “Yes, it’s great that social media is buzzing with something about human beings instead of bright, shiny objects,” Forbes contributor Anthony Wing Koster wrote earlier this week. “And it’s great to think of the internet as an engine of altruism instead of materialism.” Really?

    The video goads buying Invisible Children’s products to “make Kony famous.” The ‘Kony 2012 Action Kit’ is $30 and comes with “Everything you’ll need to take part in our KONY 2012 campaign,” according to the online store. What’s more, “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome.” Awesome. Moreover, the Kony bracelet is dubbed as the “the ultimate accessory” and the model in the image is black, which is significant since most Ugandans couldn’t afford a $10 bracelet, and most people in the video on the “activist” side weren’t people of color. Both products are sold out.

    In 2012, recent UC Berkeley Business Administration graduate Rosalind Chu expressed her internal back-and-forth debate when deciding what career to pursue. In a post called “Excess, wealth, and materialism and how that fits into a career in social enterprise,” she wrote: “society — American society especially – breeds a culture of excess, consumption, and materialism. We are bombarded daily with new products or new ‘somethings,’ and are constantly reminded of how awesome it must be to be rich and wealthy.”

    But are the problems of consumerism exempt from social business? Of course not, but what would an ideal version “conscious consumerism” even look like?

    Consumption – conspicuous or not – must slow right down in order to make up for the dirt in our air, our oceans and our lives… I mean, ideally, the story might go like so: if I need (or, okay, really want) to buy a new lipstick/t-shirt/pair of shoes, I’ll opt for buying the product from an ethical producer rather than from a corporate giant with opaque production practices. But maybe, really, I’ll get both, but I’ll feel better for having also chosen the former.

    Environmentalist, activist and writer George Monbiot said that “[g]reen consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.” He argued that cause-conscious campaigns – whether hybrid cars or poverty-alleviating shoes – draw in people’s self-interest in that those products will help to beef up your social status. Furthermore, he emphasized the need to crusade for our values rather than conforming to the status quo, an apathetic politically hollow atmosphere. In essence: structural change is needed to mitigate the mess we’re all in.

    While I push for the accessibility of fairly produced products, I just can’t wrap my head around buying yet another thing I don’t need, bought from the convenience of my sweatshop-produced MacBook. But, too often, it comes down to the question of “What’s worse?”

  • Do intentions matter?

    By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

    Social businesses, like charities, often have lofty ideals about changing the world through their mission, message and impact. Press material, websites and Twitter bios are often swarmed with rhetoric like “changing the world,” “making a difference” and “join the movement.” Regardless of how the overuse of these sayings can prove meaningless, mission statements should reflect the intentions of the organization itself. In a recent interview with Sissy Rooney, the founder of the UK-based social enterprise Street Style Surgery, she urged aspiring social entrepreneurs to write their mission statements right off the bat. She had hers posted above the computer from which we Skyped. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems,” a current Apple executive told the New York Times in January in a piece about American job loss and foreign manufacturing. “Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” That speaks mountains. While I would consider the “best product” one that takes in mind problems in its home country, that is, unemployment, traditional corporations, of course, don’t operate like that. Of course, the very idea of a “social business” conjures up ideas of good intentions—no matter what.  The quote speaks to the notion that a sentence or two can encapsulate how the main goal, or “obligation,” of a business is engrained into day-to-day operations. Because they’re unquantifiable, how do you judge the mostly good intentions of social businesses and social enterprises? Do we even need to or is it impact that’s more important? I’ve been writing about social businesses and working for SocialBusiness.org for over a year now, but even before then, I’d been skeptical about the relationship between intentions—whether good or bad—and outcome. As a wide-eyed undergraduate in international development studies, I was full of good intentions and I thought that my zealousness would be reflected in everything I studied. But regardless of intentions, bad things happen. Unintentionally or not. Also, intentions portrayed to those outside of the organization aren’t necessarily the intentions that dictate business behavior. How and why do social businesses negotiate intentions into their business models and daily practices? Let’s take a look at TOMS, a socially driven for-profit, and a company that some consider paramount when it comes to the successful integration of money and meaning. I’ll use TOMS as an example because the brand is exceptionally popular, especially among students. The idea for TOMS started when Blake Mycoskie was traveling and met Argentinian children with no shoes. Since then, he’s been providing shoes for children all over the world through, well, selling. Now, I’ll save my complaints of consumerism for another piece but here’s one way to think about it: Is buying a pair of shoes that donates a pair better than buying a pair of shoes that doesn’t? And what’s the alternative? There are countless criticisms of TOMS. In 2010, GoodIntents.org posted a succinct point-form criticism called “TOMS Shoes: Good Marketing – Bad Aid.” In a similar vein, Kelsey Timmerman of Where Am I Wearing? points out that TOMS products are made in China, and thus don’t create jobs for local communities. A free pair of shoes won’t last long. Yes, it means children are in a better position to attend school, but the impact of a well-paying job, water infrastructure or clean and reliable energy would undoubtedly have more of an impact. “Yes, someone giving you a pair of shoes would sure be nice if you didn’t have a pair,” wrotes Timmerman in a blog post. “But a job that allows parents to send their kids to school could change your family tree forever.” Timmerman uses the example of SoleRebels, a company SocialBusiness.org covered in 2011:

    Let’s say that every worker at SoleRebels has five kids (the fertility rate of Ethiopia). The workers send all five kids to school and since they have an education they don’t grow up to be shoemakers. They do something that pays better and they send their five kids to school. A job, a good job, has an exponential impact. Within a few generations the 100 jobs at SoleRebels have impacted tens of thousands of people. Within six generations, the jobs have impacted millions. Now imagine if SoleRebels sold as many shoes as TOMS. This isn’t just life-changing stuff, this is possibly country-changing, poverty-fighting stuff.

    The YouTube video “A Day Without Dignity” spun off of the TOMS “A Day Without Shoes” publicity stunt is a dig-deep take on how donations create a tremendous amount job loss. According to the video, which was put on by GoodIntents.org, handing out free goods out-competes local markets. What’s more, used-clothing imports to Africa caused 50% of the increase in unemployment between 1981 to 2000. This isn’t to say that TOMS didn’t (and doesn’t) have good intentions, for the business, for the people who receive the donations, and for the world. But intentions don’t predict outcome or prevail over the messiness of complexities like local government, natural disasters, corruption, etc. It’s unscrupulous to ignore mutated results even when someone is sincerely trying to “do the right thing.” Intentions, too, shift. They transform and they mutate. Clearly, good intentions aren’t enough to create on-the-ground impact. What’s necessary is, yes, purpose, but also checks and balances, transparency and the willingness to admit, perhaps, that your outcomes have overpowered your intentions. What are the needs of the community you are serving? Have you asked them? Have you considered all the parties involved? Who and what will be affected? It’s about looking beyond mere “giving” and toward partnership. Peppering your messaging with intention-revealing buzz words can have an impact on engaging an audience that might not otherwise care about your cause, however, there runs a risk of losing integrity. And integrity in social business, by the nature of the field, is crucial to creating an image with the public, doing well financially and serving local communities, which should have been the point of creating the company in the first place.