Publications, opinions, and speeches


Social enterprise in action

Published on 19/11/2009

My wife Judy and I started Maytree almost thirty years ago with some serious ambitions but not very much capital. As a businessman, I figured out pretty quickly that we better interest ourselves in leverage if we wanted to have any success achieving our ambitions.

While over the ensuing years we have managed to build our assets with infusions from business profits, we have never had enough money to solve all the social problems before us. In fact, we all share that. I would argue that even the biggest foundations, NGO’s, or social enterprises in the world, if they aim their ambitions at the big issues, don’t have enough money to fix things. At best, they might be able to make a big dent.

It has been our conclusion that the best way to overcome the big issues and problems is to change the way society thinks and acts. It is by tapping into the power of our collective will, and attendant large public budgets, that we can take the great strides forward. The greatest advances in the wellbeing of populations have always come from public measures: public sanitation systems ended the plagues; public education systems have carried nations into prosperity; vaccination programs virtually wiped out polio and tuberculosis; seat-belt laws have reduced road carnage; and anti-smoking ordinances have reduced lung cancers.

So Maytree has focused on public policy as the biggest lever available to us in building stronger and more equitable societies. It is our view that without a public policy lens on our work, we are just engaging in a plethora of pilot projects which miss that chance to be transformative for more than a relative handful of people. And while I would never scoff at helping a handful of people, it seems more responsible to our public obligations to seek the leverage that could scale up and multiply the positive impact of our work. In our view, that comes from affecting the way we act together.

I hope you’ll forgive me for having begun by talking about my organization, but it is what I know best. Through Maytree and our related organizations like The Caledon Institute or The Tamarack Institute, The Refugee Law Centre or UBC law professor Ben Perrin’s work on modern day slavery, we have developed a belief in the power of a policy perspective.

I’ve talked specifically about public policy and what we do collectively, but there are other large scale policies which can have a broad affect, mostly in corporate policy. One of the areas we’re active in at Maytree is corporate employment policy, in which we’ve engaged through the work of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council. TRIEC has been working with employers to change their human resource policy and practices to dismantle barriers to immigrant employment, at the same time we work with immigrants to make their adjustments so they can succeed in the labour market.

The leverage of government and big corporations is too powerful to ignore. If we want to change the uptake of immigrants in the labour force, we need to change the behaviour of employers. If we want to improve the lot of poor children, we need to get governments to adopt the Child Tax Benefit, one of Caledon’s signal achievements. We get them to do so by coming up with a persuasive policy instrument that is ready to use.

Being “Policy Ready”

So an important question is, “how can we think about our work in terms of policy initiatives and instruments that will pull the big levers of power”? Once we accept the efficacy of a policy approach, then we need to know what to do.

It is easy to have a two day event like this where everyone states what their idea of a perfect world would be. We can voice noble thoughts, grand ideals, and paradigms of perfect behaviour. It is a lot harder, though, to think about the distance between that idealized world, and where we are now, and then to begin to construct the real bridges about how we can get there from here.

It is also easy to simply become part of what I call the Culture of Complaint, where we describe, in increasingly exquisite detail, what is wrong and who is to blame. It is, of course, important to know what the problem is, and to be able to describe it. But that is just the first step toward designing and implementing solutions. We often engage in the problem description, and then wait for someone else to fix it.

When Ken Battle and I founded The Caledon Institute of Social Policy, we agreed that we didn’t want to be part of the culture of complaint, but wanted to recommend solutions. We wanted to focus on how to fix things, and thus have been very focused on public policy. People say that Caledon produces work that is “policy ready”. That is, policy makers can take our work and see immediately how it fits into existing policy frameworks, and how it can be done.

Former Alberta treasurer Jim Dinning used to ask of groups appealing to government that they “bring me something I can say yes to”. What he meant was that he did not want to have to take a germ of an idea and do all the work, both substantive and political, to make it happen. He asked that proponents of an idea spend at least part of their time putting themselves in his shoes, seeing what the obstacles might be for him in doing what they wanted him to do.

The other thing that is really useful, I think, in talking about problems, is getting practical and realistic. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called “Million Dollar Murray” in The New Yorker about what he called power numbers. He began by tracing the costs to the system of a down and out Las Vegas alcoholic named Murray, a nice and harmless fellow who periodically, four or five times a year, binged so badly that he ended up requiring massive medical intervention, to the cost of about a half million dollars a year. Gladwell commented that it would be better for Murray, and cheaper for the state, if they rented him an apartment and a personal nurse.

Similarly, in New Zealand, the activist Vivian Hutchinson looked at the high unemployment rate, and some related spurt of petty criminality which had risen at the same time, and wondered what could be done about the idle young men who were both unemployed and involved in the antisocial behaviour. He talked to some old mates who were in politics, and the result was The Mayors’ Task Force for Jobs. Eventually 85 of New Zealand’s 88 mayors came on board, and they began to count heads.

For example, in the town of Greymouth, they counted eight unemployed young men between 17 and 25 years old. In Kaikohe, it might have been 14. And the mayors convened the local employers and said, “in Greymouth, we need eight jobs”. So the guy who owned the lumberyard came up with one, so did the grocer, so did the local government fisheries office, and so did the nursing home. And they began to pick away at the problem bit by bit, through local initiative. And it all starts with the practical approach of knowing how many jobs you are talking about, getting to the data before resorting to the theory of unemployment.

The theorist would say for high unemployment, you need to cut business taxes. The pragmatist would ask, how many jobs do we need? And then would get the employers in a room.

Orthodoxy and dissent

I want to talk about Orthodoxy and Dissent. All of us, particularly if we identify with a group or point of view, have some version of orthodoxy. We have a way of organizing our thoughts and views that involves some shortcuts and code, and that we take for granted, especially when we are talking to those in our group. It is actually very good that we do this. It saves a lot of time, and it bonds us to others in a way that can have great utility in the public arena.

But sometimes that orthodoxy can get in the way of our moving forward. It can become an anchor that keeps us in one place when we want to be making progress.

The left had for years an orthodoxy about the venality and corruption of the business community. The business community has had an orthodoxy about the waste and lack of innovation in the third sector. The right has an orthodoxy about lower taxes as a panacea for all that ails us.

It is easier to see the constraining quality of orthodoxy in others than to see it in ourselves, but it is easier for us to change it in ourselves than to change it in others. We probably all have orthodoxy, and it is worth reassessing our basic beliefs and ideas from time to time. In the fluid world in which we live, some old ideas hold, and some hold us back.

And if the group won’t change, even when we think it should, we need to think about dissent. Can we dissent without our colleagues excommunicating us? Is your company, organization, or group open to dissent? Do they embrace it, tolerate it, or ban it? It would be good to know, wouldn’t it?

Most of the brave ideas have come because someone dissented against their own group. It wasn’t always the outsider busting in, but often the insider busting out. Often that is the braver course, but the less popular one.

In social enterprise, as we move from one financing or revenue paradigm to another, we may be so locked into our story and our way of doing things that we can’t re-engineer to meet the new model. The combining of the “social” with the “enterprise” may require us to revisit all we do and leave some of it behind, because it is unsupportable. And what we have to leave behind might be our favourite things.

Of course, we have to keep the things that are most important to our enterprise, the things that our clients or customers value the most, and the things that produce the greatest positive change. These are what in business we call the key business drivers. But orthodoxy has a funny way of unbalancing the equations by which we calculate these things.

Instruments for Success

Finally, I want to say how important I think it is that you are all here, being a part of this exploration for a new way of looking at working in our communities. You are doing it at a difficult time, when governments and businesses are under enormous revenue pressures. Governments in particular are reluctant to visit innovation that has any impact on their revenue, so that some of the traditional measures of support for enterprise, particularly the use of the tax system, aren’t readily on offer.

As you know, this movement will founder if it is based on notions of a new alchemy. Social enterprise must be based on enterprise. Multiple bottom lines which aren’t sustainable financially only work when people are prepared to be paid on the same multiple basis.

In the meantime, we have important work to do in finding those effective new instruments for the support of social enterprises. It is critical, of course, to move beyond the aspirational stage where we identify ends but wait for others to develop the means. It is important to develop the means that are practical and ready to be implemented.

So it is important that we move belong the language of consider, seek, learn, and explore in which we advise others to come up with solutions. We have to develop instruments, test how they work, model their collateral impact on such things as government revenues, investment returns, risk, and volatility. Then we can take workable instruments to the people we want to adopt them, and we can give them something they can say yes to.

If we are able to do this, and to do it at scale, we will have made a giant step forward for social enterprise.


Civic engagement


Speech at the Third Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise on November 19, 2009.