I don’t write many blogs but I was quite excited when CCEDNet asked for a blog from those who attended the Social Enterprise World Forum this past September. There were a few key takeaways for me. The first takeaway is how many diverse models of social enterprise exist and diverse people as well. The second takeaway was how inspiring it was to be surrounded by like-minded people. The third key takeaway was how much more we will be able to do if we all work together!
One of the plenaries featured a woman from Ethiopia who spoke about her social enterprise, Tsehai Loves Learning, which focuses on creating meaningful educational opportunities for young children who otherwise have no access to these resources. As she went on, she spoke about my favourite part: the expansion of Whiz Kids to a youth-focused broadcasting company. She shared the intro of “Tibeb Girls” which you can view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KviXJvWe9w
My first reaction when I saw this video was how I hoped that they will make it in multiple languages and play it across the world. Okay, my unfiltered thought was “Netflix needs to pick this up!” As much as it echoes some characteristics of other animated shows, it also sets itself apart in really great ways. The three main characters have superpowers that are often identified as weaknesses in women. For me, the very fact that the creators are taking empathy and logic and turning them into superpowers rather than highlighting them as weaknesses is something is an incredibly smart idea!
I believe it was the same day where there was a man who went up and spoke about his social enterprise. He created a social enterprise that operates ambulances in Ethiopia called “Tebita Ambulance”. There were no standards whatsoever for people who were acting in an emergency responders previously and there were really no ambulances in the first place. It forced the audience to sit back and think about how fortunate we are that the existence of emergency response services is built-in to our societies.
At Operation Come Home (OCH), we operate social enterprises that serve the community with a product or a service rather than a need so extreme as an ambulance. The need that we serve more specifically is providing meaningful employment opportunities for at-risk youth so that they can retain jobs in the community once they have graduated from the program. It is also a very important need that we fill, but it was amazing to sit back and realize how different the lives are from country to country but how social enterprises can act as a solution across the board.
As I sat there and moved from workshop to workshop, I had the opportunity to meet and hear from some of the kindest and most genuine people I’ve ever met. That part didn’t entirely surprise me, it was one of the aspects that I was most looking forward to in this trip. But the part that I did find surprising is how many “bull dogs” I ran into. I don’t mean this in the negative sense whatsoever, but in the sense that they stand their ground rather than get pushed around.
For example, Mike Curtin from DC Kitchen shared a story of the time when the government was in the process of renegotiating their contract with DC Kitchen. DC Kitchen provides jobs to homeless and former convicts who are looking to get back on their feet. They have grown to such a size that they provide meals to many of the shelters and soup kitchens in the Washington DC area. As a result, the government provides some of the funding. However, when the previous contract had expired and it came to negotiation time, the government repeatedly delayed.
Weeks turned into a few months when Mike and his Executive Director at the time made the decision to stop serving all of the soup kitchens and shelters. Up until that time, not only had the demand for services increased, but they were no longer receiving any money to feed the thousands of meals they were supposed to every day. Traditionally, charities, fundraisers and others in the non-profit world are expected to do what they do out of the goodness of their hearts and keep on doing it no matter what the circumstances. Well DC Kitchen did not let the government use that as their crutch. Rather, they cancelled services until an agreement was signed and Mike and his Executive Director both went on a hunger strike until the agreement was signed. It took six days. Who knows how long it would have taken had they not taken such extreme measures.
A lesson that we have learned at OCH is that even though we are a bunch of social workers and social support workers, we have to treat our social enterprises as businesses first. This means that some hard decisions are made in the best interest of the long-run sustainability of each social enterprise. We practice this incredibly well internally and have not had much of a need to practice it externally. However, seeing what DC Kitchen had to do and accomplished was eye opening in that they acted as a business with a charitable twist. They stood their ground but said, “we’re in this too” by participating in a hunger strike. So I suppose it doesn’t need to be business first and so cut and dry, we can put our own charitable twist on our activities as well and still accomplish as many – if not more – of our goals.
Simply walking around Edinburgh was inspiring too. Each day I walked by a restaurant that had an image drawn in the window of a homeless person seated and panhandling. Each day it was closed by the time I walked by. I did some more research and it turns out that this was a high-end restaurant called “Social Bite” that serves homeless people as well as their paying customers. As a matter of fact, paying customers often buy an extra meal to be served to a homeless person. Now that all sounds fine, but I was more interested in what the follow-up process was. How do they actually ensure that the meals make it to the homeless people? Are these folks legit?
And then I walked by at about 3:05pm one day and I saw the restaurant was half closed. They were only half closed because the staff members were at the door and there was a line up of homeless people waiting to receive the sandwiches, coffees and snacks that had been set aside for them. There’s certainly no easier way to guarantee the meals get to the right people than doing it yourself!
This conference was incredible in so many ways. Being able to engage and network with people across the world and see what everyone else is doing has triggered me to think about what more we can do in Canada and what more I can do with Operation Come Home and our partners. We’ve got a lot that we can still do and I am looking forward to being a part of that journey!
Director of Development – Operation Come Home