CSC Conference: Many Hands Many Voices - Recap and Commentary


A few weeks ago, I sat down with my colleague Robert, and he went into detail about the power of collaboration within the field of social enterprise. If you read that post, you’d remember that the focus of our talk was the DirectioNS Council, an organization comprised of 29 agencies providing employment and services to adults with disabilities.

That underlying need for collaboration on community economic development in Nova Scotia is what drove the Many Hands Many Voices Conference, which took place from the 3rd-4th of this month in Membertou First Nation, Cape Breton, and was organized as an initiative by the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia. I heard about the experience from a few of my friends and colleagues (it was a popular conference, with about 250 attendants), but spoke to CGS team member Chloe Donatelli about those couple of days and the discussion session that she helped facilitate.

Chloe had to acknowledge that the setting and physical space of the conference couldn’t have been better. She explained that the building in which the conference took place, the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre, is just one of a “bunch of businesses that operate for the most part as traditional ones, but all of the profit goes into a non-profit structure that owns all of the private businesses. Some of the profit that they make is used as equity to continue to build more economic opportunities and some of it is used to invest in social services in the [Membertou] community." That sounded like a social enterprise structure to me. It became clear that such a structure emerged as a necessity, as Chloe continued:

“A lot of the profit goes to things like topping up educational programming and other social services in the community that the federal government does not provide adequate funding for. They not only do a lot in their own community, but significantly contribute to the community of the CBRM by offering services that are utilized by and benefit the entire region." She stated her amazement at the Membertou community’s success, and the fact that so much of what they’ve built has happened only in the last 17 years. I’m interested to learn more about Membertou’s story, and as Chloe suggested, theirs certainly warrants a full blog post in the future.

For the discussion-based session that she helped run, Chloe told me that she was joined by Erika Shea, Vice-President of Development with New Dawn Enterprises and the Vice President of SENNS, as well as Adam Power, chair of the Social Enterprises Sector Table, which runs in Cape Breton to bring social enterprises together once a quarter to work on initiatives together. He's also the Assistant Director at Haley Street Adult Services, a DirectioNS Council member housed in North Sydney.

"Adam spoke of the different and sometimes conflicting priorities for his organization as it operates as a social enterprise, non-profit and charity. He highlighted how it can be difficult to carry out social enterprise activity while also offering a considerable amount of day-programming for individuals who benefit from the community, life skills, and supportive environment but will never be employment-ready." To date, Haley Street must generate or fundraise roughly half of its operating revenue. Power worries that the more government encouragement and policy direction focuses on social enterprise (which would benefit some of the members of Haley Street) the greater the chance would be for those who are deeply marginalized at the Centre to fall even further through the cracks.

Erika Shea, of New Dawn, offered another perspective to the discussion. In Chloe’s words, “New Dawn is all about creating self-reliance in Cape Breton. The fact that they earn all their own revenue and are not government-funded has given them huge freedom to criticize the government, and be vocal about different visions they have for the community that may not be in line with the direction of any level of government.”

The distinction brought out by Power and Shea comes down to whether there can be an enterprising solution to an issue or need. I’ll admit that I myself was surprised when first hearing about Power’s concerns--working within the social enterprise sector, it can be almost too easy to forget that not every problem has a solution that may be reached through enterprise. Some services--which the organizations providing them would argue are essential--need continued financial backing through social infrastructure.

Yet the struggles such organizations face are a reminder that this is still a country where, often, you must be careful not to bite the hand that feeds you. The work of organizations like New Dawn, which has established itself as a force for positive change in Cape Breton, seems essential, especially when such self-reliant bodies may act as vocal critics of government practices (and conversely, the lack thereof). The social enterprises in Nova Scotia that rely less on outside support are well-positioned to work towards creating a more supportive environment for essential social services that must remain, in part, externally dependent, like Haley Street.

The motto of the Many Hands Many Voices Conference was “Working Together for Stronger Communities,” stressing the collaborative theme that underpins the whole of the social enterprise sector. I’d like to suggest that not only does the sector have to work with itself, which is likely the easier part. It also has to work with different levels of government to try and lobby for policies supporting social entrepreneurship, but that also benefit those most in need of support: those with differing levels of ability; seniors; youth. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur; not everyone can work. In an economy where almost everyone must walk the line between dependence and self-reliance, we must remember that many hands must work together to provide for all of us.

Written by: Sam Krueger

Sam is from Toronto and lives and writes in Halifax. He has spent the summer conducting research at Common Good Solutions HQ for the Social Enterprise Network of Nova Scotia, and is excited to bring a voice to the office, its people, and Nova Scotia’s social enterprise community.