Interview with David LePage: Advancing Social Enterprise

Interview with David LePage: Advancing Social Enterprise

A year in review and what’s next for Canada’s growing blended-value sector

We first met Enterprising Non-Profits (ENP) team manager David LePage more than three years ago as a presenter at the third Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise.

At that time, ENP worked only in Vancouver and Toronto. Now, the organization that equips nonprofits with business skills to create succesful social enterprises has expanded across the country, replicating the model in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Next year, Calgary will host the Social Enterprise World Forum.

Axiom News was curious to learn what’s behind this growth, and what can be done to foster more social enterprise development in the next 10 years.

What better person to give us this insight than David, who is a member of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada and the BC Advisory Council on Social Entrepreneurship. Here's the Q&A:

ENP team manager David LePage

David, in your opinion, what's the most exciting thing happening in Canada’s social enterprise scene?
What’s fascinating to me right now is that there’s been a significant shift in the last two years in all three levels of the groups we work with.

We’re starting to see much more maturity in the nonprofit and the social enterprises, they’re much more about business and much more starting to understand this isn’t just a way to find more money to do what they’ve always done. It’s more about an actual cultural shift to looking at how do you use a business model that is self-sustaining in the most part, or contributes to what we’re doing, and achieves our mission at the same time? So, we’re seeing maturity in the whole nonprofit sector and the social enterprise sector.

In government, we’ve seen some big innovations in the last three years, especially at the provincial level. Nova Scotia is supporting ENP, and Nova Scotia just introduced hybrid legislation.

Ontario is still trying to figure out how do you use procurement to address poverty issues. Ontario just appointed a special advisor (Helen Burstyn) to the minister of finance on social enterprise.

Manitoba just announced its support for ENP and social enterprise and they give tax credits.

B.C. has the 11 recommendations coming out of the premier’s Advisory Council of Social Entrepreneurship that they’re actually working on implementing.

Three years ago, none of these governments were in that space.

You’ve got the federal government  supporting this sector with Human Resources Development Canada asking what are the ideas out there in social finance. Obviously looking for what’s the space that they can be working on, that wasn’t part of their language three or four years ago.

So, on the government side we’re seeing this shift, and then on the private sector side we’re starting to see more and more companies looking at moving CSR as being out there as something we do as philanthropy into their daily operations.

So that means companies like KPMG looking at their procurement, and instead of at the end of year doing philanthropic gifts, saying we buy catering, we buy printing, we use courier services. So, KPMG uses A-way Express couriers in Toronto, they use Phoenix Print Shop and Potluck and other social enterprise caterers here in Vancouver.

So, we’re seeing private sector moving into this space, government moving into this space and you see the nonprofit sector maturing in this space, so I think that to me is quite fascinating.

It is amazing, what do you think is behind it?
I think more and more people are realizing that mission and market are not oxymorons.  I think what’s fascinating is the younger people I meet, they’re not worried about the corporate structure, they’re just interested in how do I do a business that does good?

I think there is a shift in how we’re viewing business. It’s no longer business on one side of the divide and it’s all black and white, and on the other side it’s charity, and it’s all black and white. We’re actually seeing that blend of mission and market. I think as more people see success, government see’s success, nonprofits see success, than we all start to go there.

Based on the momentum you’re seeing now in just three years what do you think could happen in 10 years?
I think in 10 years we could have quite a phenomenal shift if people can get through some of the cultural barriers, and I think that’s the biggest problem. When I refer to the cultural barriers that’s the behavioural things because everything else is in place.

It’s not much different than the environmental movement, which shifted people’s behaviour over time. When you had a major purchaser of forest goods saying we’re only going to buy wood that comes from sustainable forests, all of a sudden the forest companies start to say we don’t have a market unless we do sustainable forestry.

As we see more of the demand side, when governments start to say we’re not going to purchase anything unless it has a Community Benefit Agreement or a social component, social enterprise is going to have to be more competitive in service delivery and private sector businesses are going to have to ask how to do that? For example, how do we hire people with disabilities.

So, that’s using market mechanisms to change behaviour, and I think in 10 years if we can keep on a good trajectory as we are now, we will see a really healthy social enterprise system, we’ll see business very much engaged in a blended-value procurement model, and I think we will see governments playing a different role, more of a facilitator and a convener than a funder. Because we know government’s role has to shift. If we can shift it in a positive way that would be great.

Are there any sectors where you see a lot of potential for social enterprise?
I don’t see a sector where there isn’t potential, especially in a lot of rural communities where people are retiring who are small business owners. Their sons and daughters have left, so it’s not going to be a family business, but it could be an essential business, it could be a hardware store or a grocery store.

Mission Possible is a social enterprise that employs residents from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to provide property maintenance services.

In Northern B.C., an aboriginal band didn’t have a gas station or a retail store so they set up a grocery store with two gas pumps — huge success.

If there’s a community need, whether its employment that’s missing, or arts and culture, or whether its retail, social enterprise is able to go in. In Nelson right now the movie theatre closed. The city owns the building, and there is a nonprofit group negotiating with the city so they can reopen the theatre in Nelson because that’s a community need and it’s not something necessarily that some business person is going to come along and say ‘what a great opportunity.”

For community events and community cultural events, it’s important, so the community can make it work in a social enterprise model, because they’re not just being driven by having to create profit. If they break even that would be great, but they will be adding a huge component to helping Nelson be a healthier community in terms of art and culture.

You’ve mentioned in a past interview that social enterprise is a means, not an end. What should be our ultimate goal, and how could social enterprise be part of that?
I think if our ultimate goal is creating healthy communities, then we say what’s the best role in that for the private sector, what’s the best role for government, and where does social enterprise fit in there?

Then you’re not looking at just the business model, but you’re looking at the social impact created by that business model. So you could have four thrift stores and one could be training new immigrants, another could be employing people with disabilities, another one could be making money hand over fist to support emergency services. Another one could be there to make sure there is clothing and household goods available to support low-income families.

It’s the same business, but you change the social purpose and you change how you do that business. So, the objective is not the business, the objective is the social impact.

That’s why we always say social enterprise is a verb. Everyone wants to define it, everyone wants to put it in a little box, there is no little box called social enterprise. There is no definition of social enterprise. Social enterprise is the activity of using business to create social value.

If we look at it that way, then it’s not just in food or employment or arts, it’s in any sector doing anything.

When someone says to me that they want to start a social enterprise, I always say why? It’s the why question, not the what question.

We can get lost arguing and trying to define social enterprise. But if we ask why, and if for example, it's to create cultural activity in Nelson, than we have the impact defined. Now we can ask what’s the business to get that done?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

David LePage is the team manager at Enterprising Non-Profits (ENP), which supports the development and growth of social enterprises. 

David has been blending practice and policy in the non-profit arena for over 35 years. His community development work has been in inner cities, and remote communities, diverse cultural communities, while serving  in multiple roles, from board, manager, staff, and funder.

David is a member of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada (SECC), the Policy Council of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet), the Social Enterprise World Forum  Collaboration, the Board of the Social Enterprise Alliance (North America) and the BC-based Social Impact Partners.