Phillip Smith

Business models for change

Social Innovators Summit

Two Fridays ago, I spent the day being inspired by some of Toronto’s most innovative business models. (Yeah, I know, I need to get into the habit of documenting these things sooner; bad blogger.) The range was incredible: It included everything from the broad — like new approaches in incubating social research and new financing models for the social economy — to the local, including efforts to reduce our e-waste problems and to bring the sweet taste of natural honey — honey that helps to improve people’s lives in Africa — to our markets here in Toronto. This room full of world-changing ideas was brought together by Tonya Surman and her team at the Centre for Social Innovation and the day was expertly facilitated by Mark Surman.

Lee Davis speaks about NESST

Called the Social Innovators Summit, the event’s intention was to “…seed, support and advance social entrepreneurship.” Our hosts for Thursday night's kickoff dinner were Lee Davis, Co-Founder and CEO of Nonprofit Enterprise and Self-sustainability Team (an international nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting social enterprise in emerging market countries), and Michael Shuman, Vice President for Enterprise Development for the Training & Development Corporation, and author of books including The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition. The next day all 70 participants were exposed to new ideas, got to workshop emerging initiatives, and to discuss innovative solutions to our collective challenges.

So, without further adieu, I will just jump right in and summarize the “speed geek” presentations:

  • Share-IT: presented a community program to address our growing problem of dealing with e-waste that distributes recovered technology to individuals and organizations that can put the technology to good use. (Not exactly FreeGeek, but gett’n close.)

  • uLern: is a social-research incubator and accelerator (their tag-line is “Fueling research partnerships") that brings together research partners to push forward new thinking on everything from environmental toxins to biodegradable cars.

  • Vartana: often called “the charity bank,” Vartana’s mission is to provide new financing mechanisms for Canada’s charities and non-profits, providing them with necessary financial mechanisms to explore earned-income and social enterprise opportunities. Vartana is lead by young social entrepreneur and Ashoka fellow Aaron Pereira.

  • Summerhill Group a “market transformation company” — one of the many organizations in Canada looking at the role of market forces in social change — shared the story of local initiatives to work with retailers and consumers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Mow Down Pollution and Keep Cool campaigns.

  • Care Enterprise Partners is a program of Care — a large NGO that focuses on poverty reduction in developing countries — that focuses on finding sustainable solutions to poverty through social enterprise initiatives. Another Care-related project was presented by Farouk Jiwa — the Director of Private Sector & Development for Care Enterprise Partners — and focused on bringing Kenyan natural honey to domestic and foreign markets while ensuring that profit was only secondary to developing small scale, people-based, sustainable and local production.

  • One of my personal favourites, Mary-Lou Morgan shared the history of Toronto’s Big Carrot Natural Foods Market, the Carrot Common Mall, and then described their new(er) initiative called Carrot Cache, an organization that supports community food strategies and worker co-operatives with start-up stage funding. This is a fantastic example of a long-standing, successful, and sustainable business model that is making an effort to sow the necessary seeds for change in the future.

  • Finally, an effort to provide employment and job-skills training to women leaving Toronto’s social assistance program, Social Capital Partners has invested in a project called Fresh Start Market (no Web site yet). Fresh Start Market aims to be operational and profitable within the first year of opening their retail grocery store.

Social Innovators Summit

After the speek geek sessions, we enjoyed a lunch provided by Vert Catering (the whole event was “green,” with everything from Dark City coffee to having its carbon offset by Bullfrog Power) and listened to the story of Sarvodaya — Sri Lanka’s biggest charity. And, if that wasn’t enough, I had my mind blown by a post-lunch panel on new “social business models,” where Michel Labbe told the inside story of (they are so incredible you most go read about them) Options For Homes Nonprofit Corp., Keith Harding bluntly told us to stop wearing Birkenstocks and shared the powerful example of Family Services Employee Assistance Programs — a commercial operation owned and run by the non-profit Family Services Canada — and, finally, Sarah Knox demonstrated how “thinking small (real small!)” can be replicable and have broad community impacts with the example of the Kinder Garden Childcare Co-op.

I’m usually the first one to get angry a little annoyed when I hear people say “the solution to struggling non-profits is to run them like business” — which I personally feel is not the best suited (or only) approach to operating a sustainable social change organization — but am happy to report that the 4th annual Social Innovators Summit (more photos here) left me inspired and with lots to think about. Hearing about these new models — and being in the room with many of the social-mission organizations that I’m already happy to be using, e.g., Turn-around Couriers and the Working Skills Centre — leaves me with some hope for this city and our movement at large.

So, if you want to hear about the next event, get on the innovators e-mail list — or, if you were at the event and you’re reading this, please let me know if I’ve missed anything… or just leave a comment with a link and a description of what you’re up to!


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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