How Small Communities Can Own Their Economic Future

With local farm direct, fresh food now being supplied to a hospital, seniors' home and college in Comox Valley, Sandra Hamilton turns her attention to other Vancouver Island communities.

How Small Communities Can Own Their Economic Future

What are the possibilities in social enterprise, social procurement?

After hearing Sandra Hamilton present on social enterprise and social procurement, members of the Ladysmith Chamber of Commerce and a number of partner organizations have committed to working together to leverage these new tools to advance the social and economic development of their Vancouver Island town, population 8,000.

A social enterprise consultant who worked as business manager for CEO John Furlong of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Sandra has been presenting on social enterprise and social procurement to chambers across the central and north parts of Vancouver Island this spring. Using examples from her work as project lead of FEED Comox Valley at North Island College, Sandra’s presentation touches on the hot topic of food security and ways to increase the supply of local food into public sector institutions, such as hospitals, colleges and seniors homes.

  Sandra Hamilton

Her message centres on how small communities can take ownership of their economic futures and the advantages of bringing the non-profit and government sectors into business and economic development discussions.

One in 10 Canadians work for a non-profit organization and government spending is responsible for 40 per cent of the national GDP.

What if those two sectors began behaving differently, namely through recognizing and leveraging the opportunities in social enterprise and social procurement? That is Sandra’s key question. “I believe that our tax dollars can be better leveraged to achieve targeted and desirable social outcomes,” she says.

A story from the 2010 Olympics exemplifies the possibilities in social procurement with respect to providing jobs. The floral contract for the 2010 Games included a requirement for the supplier to provide a community benefit. The successful florist named a commitment to employ women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, also known as one of North America’s poorest postal codes. Years later, a good portion of these women are still working as florists. Changing a few words in the contract, quite literally changed lives, says Sandra.

“Today, knowledge of social procurement is currently where environmental considerations were 30 years ago,” Sandra says. “But sustainability strategies are starting to move beyond ‘do no harm’ to proactively ‘do some good.’ It’s about balancing the needs of people, planet and profit.”

Sandra estimates that the government and non-profit sectors are easily accounting for approximately 30 per cent of many small community economies on Vancouver Island. “Yet we know little about their economic or social impact. Currently, these two sectors are not sufficiently incorporated into economic development discussions,” she says.

  Fresh local produce is supplied directly from Sieffert's Farm in the Comox Valley, to the cafeteria at North Island College. Other institutions, participating in a 2015 local food pilot will be announced shortly.

“Surely the non-profits and community social services are at the very heart of how we look after each other in these small communities,” Sandra says.

“Chambers can play an important role in bringing non-profit community assets and resources into the business conversation and into the economies of small towns.”

Community investment shares are just one example of a tool that can sustain an economy in a way that aligns with community values.

For example, a service in the community may not be considered viable from a for-profit business perspective in that it doesn’t necessarily generate sufficient financial return to investors, yet the service is important to the community and/or keeps jobs in the community. So the community may decide to create a community investment share opportunity in order to maintain the service.

“I think keeping jobs in these small rural communities is actually going to be the value that people are looking for, more so than merely considering the returns needed by outside investors, who often only look at the financial bottom line” Sandra says.

“Increasingly, communities are supporting businesses that seek a blended value return, where profit margins are balanced with community contribution, such as employment opportunities for our youth, apprenticeships, or solving a community problem by retaining a valuable service.

“Social enterprises exist to solve problems, and some have dubbed this The Solution Economy. Whatever you call it, social enterprise is a do-it-yourself approach to economic development, building bridges between sectors and filling gaps in society (that are) left when government or private business recedes.”

Sandra notes that globally other countries are ahead of Canada with respect to social enterprise, some having supportive legislation already in place across Europe. In Canada, this is an emergent field, which offers untapped opportunities for communities. Sandra will shortly become Canada’s first Executive MBA to graduate with a specialty in Social Enterprise Leadership.

“In social procurement, it all comes down to knowing how to structure the ask, there is certainly a lot more that we could be doing with our tax dollars,” she says.

Sandra Hamilton has been invited to present June 18 to the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities on the topic of social procurement and food security on Vancouver Island.

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A version of this article was originally written for the Enterprising Non-profits Canada news service. This repost, for which we received permission, follows the style guidelines of the original post.

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