Cowork Niagara's IndyBlog

A wrap-up of Niagara’s Social Enterprise Forum

We recently kicked off Niagara’s Year of Social Enterprise with Social Startups, a forum where social entrepreneurs from across the region gathered to co-create what social entrepreneurship/enterprise training and support will look like in Niagara in 2016.

Why we’re doing this:

The Year of Social Enterprise will help us bring a new entrepreneurial mindset to solving many of the social and economic issues our community is confronting. In 2016, we can begin to grasp our challenges and opportunities and address them as a collective.

Read the back-story on social enterprise and Cowork Niagara’s involvement. (http://www.trevortwining.me/blog/2015/09/28/year-of-the-social-enterprise-in-niagara.html)

This event was created to find out what tools and resources we need to focus on providing in 2016. It was the first of many that will bring together current and aspiring social entrepreneurs and the organizations that support them to build our social entrepreneurial community from the ground up. Many of us have been working on this for a while, including community leaders at Cowork Niagara, Niagara College, Niagara Community Foundation and a host of other organizations. That day gave us an opportunity to discover what we know about social enterprise, where our knowledge gaps are and how social entrepreneurs can access resources. We also planned some meaningful next steps.

Here are my 5 takeaways from the forum:

1) Successful social entrepreneurs focus their passion on solving real problems

Creating and effectively operating a social enterprise is rewarding. It can also be difficult, frustrating work that requires perseverance, patience and tenacity. Our success as social entrepreneurs will depend on us finding ways to problem solve and overcome obstacles, so we should create social enterprises that address issues we’re already passionate about.

“That thing that keeps you up at night” can provide a good foundation for your enterprise’s mission, said Sean Campbell, the event’s keynote speaker and Director of Scaled Purpose, an agency driven to scale the social and environmental impact of social purpose organizations. “Find that issue that drives you crazy. Love your problem…hit it with solutions and see which one sticks."

2) Projects should produce objective value and measurable benefits

Social enterprises don’t necessarily have one defined customer and there can be differences between funders and beneficiaries, but these organizations must provide demonstrable social, environmental and financial benefits to build and receive sustainable support from the community.

We should provide business solutions that matter. “If the community stops paying you, they don’t value what you’re doing,” said Campbell.

3) Explain our value by speaking the same language as our stakeholders

To fulfill our missions and sustain our enterprises, we need buy-in from dedicated stakeholders, partners, funders and community members. To achieve that, we need to clearly, effectively and continually demonstrate our value. Campbell advised organizations to speak the same language as our stakeholders. Start by finding out what they care about, choosing metrics deliberately and being transparent in accounting practices.

4) To find commonality, sometimes we have to put our labels aside

Social enterprises can be created under private, not-for-profit and for-profit structures, but we face many similar challenges and opportunities. One of the day’s most inspiring calls to action came from an audience member who highlighted the power each of us have to influence the conversation by finding out what we have in common.

“We have to overcome. Take the labels off…love a problem and work together,” she said.

5) We can address risks and knowledge gaps by building a strong network

Because social enterprises take time and support to create, nurture and deliver value, stakeholders take on some risk while they mature. While there is no shortage of knowledge gaps and challenges (including bridging gaps between social needs and business objectives, growing membership, finding investors and partners and defining our missions), we can pool our talents and resources to address them. We’ll also gain a deeper understanding of one another.

At a round table discussion titled Herding the Vision, led by Heart Niagara executive director Karen Stearne, we were reminded that strong communities depend on high-quality connections - “you have to be people who know people.”

Also, each of us has to contribute to the network - not just talk about problems but offer our resources (time, knowledge, talent) to find solutions to our organizational challenges.

Niagara's co-operative community addressed this challenge by establishing the Niagara Co-operative Network, which represents credit unions and co-operatives from across the region. Our goal is to raise awareness of the co-operative movement and work toward a better Niagara.

Event co-organizer Jeff Sinclair wrapped up the day by stating we’ve already started building our ecosystem through many grassroots efforts. “This was already happening. We were already strong here. We just didn’t realize it.”

If we continue to work hard, engage and raise awareness, we can be a leading region in establishing and operating successful social enterprises.

What’s next?

We each have a role in building a healthy, agile social entrepreneurial ecosystem in Niagara. Organizers of the forum will use community feedback to plan a series of events, including a conference, workshops, social startup weekend and regular meet-ups so our community can stay connected. Of course, we’ll also create a website to keep you updated on exciting developments and upcoming events.

Interested in getting involved? Please contact Trevor Twining https://twitter.com/trevortwining, President of Cowork Niagara.