Social Enterprise and Community Economic Development: EconoUs 2017

I was joined again this week by the wonderful Lauren Sears, who recently told us about her work with the Impact Incubator as a business developer for CGS. Lauren spoke with me about her experience as one of more than 370 attendees at the 2017 EconoUs Conference, which took place in Calgary, AB last week from September 13-15th.

2017 marks the 13th year of the Conference, which is organized by the Canadian Community Economic Development Network. CCEDNet defines itself as “a national member-led organization committed to strengthening Canadian communities by creating economic opportunities that enhance social and environmental conditions.” Their annual EconoUs Conference offers opportunities to connect with social innovation leaders with like-minded passions, learn what’s working in the national landscape, share experiences and ask questions, and generate new ideas, practices, and connections. (It sounds like there are chances to see some great art and eat delicious grub, too, which never hurts!)

Lauren shared her insights with characteristic energy.

Who’s Who

“They seemed to bring together a lot of different stakeholders that were all concerned with economic development, and it wasn’t just social enterprise folks, there were a lot of people there representing worker co-operatives, government, private corporations as well as charities, non-profits--the usual suspects.” Many people in attendance were new to social enterprise, and Lauren spent time explaining her position. More generally, there was interest in local as well as national action, and participants came from varying levels of on-the-ground engagement. A key focus for many, it seemed, was learning about and incorporating new models into existing ones, especially if they could be working better.

“For example, I met up with a woman who was working for the City of Calgary; they’re working on affordable housing projects, and no one that she works with is aware of social enterprise or understands how some of those models might be beneficial to affordable housing. And so she was just really exploring to see ‘what is this thing, and could it be worked into what we’re doing?’” Lauren was able to offer her expertise during several such talks over the course of the conference, contributing the voice of social enterprise to the national conversation around community economic development.

A National Project

CGS co-founder David Upton sits on an important national committee with a long name: the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy Co-Creation Steering Group. Two fellow members of this social finance committee, David LePage and Roselyne Mavungu, were present at EconoUs to give a presentation on the six pillars of social enterprise. Lauren explained that they were also there to ask for feedback on the definitions that the Social Enterprise Network of NS (SENNS) applies to these pillars. My curiosity was peaked. As a writer with an interest in both language and social enterprise, a conversation around consensus on a national lexicon to describe social innovation is about as good as it gets.

So there’s an active project of defining social enterprise nationally going on right now?

“That’s what it seems like,” Lauren answered, “because we still don’t have a clear-cut definition of social enterprise.” That’s only true when taking “we” as meaning Canada at large. Here in Nova Scotia, SENNS defines social enterprise as “a business or organization operated for the purpose of addressing social, cultural or environmental challenges. The majority of profits and surpluses are reinvested to support community needs.” Yet just as with all definitions, this one leaves space for discussion and debate. It can be hard to employ the right words to describe what is really both a core set of values and a nebulous, growing idea.

Co-operative Structures to Co-operation

Just as words may be defined, ideas, too, need definition, in both senses of the word. One instance that stood out in Lauren’s mind was how many attendants of the conference worked for or with co-operatives, and sought to understand both the meaning and value of social enterprise as it might relate to their work. She learned that there is an apparent divide between the two.

“There were folks in the room who work with co-operatives and didn’t necessarily see the value in social enterprise because of the lack of democratic opinion.” In this way, at least, social enterprises that operate much like a traditional business may be defined in relation to a co-operative structure, where all members generally have a say in election of leaders and operational policy.

The Executive Director of Diversity Foods, a social enterprise started at the University of Winnipeg when, coincidentally, Lauren was a student there, responded to such comments by saying that not everyone who wants a job also wants to be part of business operations. “You have people who are the most marginalized, that have been systemically pushed out of education, that have been pushed out of the economy, that haven’t participated in a really long time--they might not have an interest in owning part of this business as a worker.”

Rather than one between social enterprise and co-ops, the real divide might be more of an education gap: “There is a divide in the education that someone might need to operate a co-operative or be part of one. You can’t assume that everyone would want something similar.”

Béatrice Alain of Chantier de L’Économie Sociale in Québec provided what was perhaps the most salient point: that when it comes to work that affects people’s lives, quality is crucially important. Lauren summarized Alain’s comments on co-operative structures by saying that “you need to consider the quality of the democracy. Having a democratic leadership would assume that a) you have members that are really engaged; b) you have a board that’s very engaged; and c) that those parts are working together. That’s not always the case.”

Adding her own opinion, Lauren commented that organizational structure is not truly at the heart of the issue. “For everyone to be a co-operative doesn’t really make sense,” nor does it have a bearing on measured impact--instead, “we’ve got to make sure that people are really adhering to their mission. The punchline of that whole session was: As long as both social enterprises and co-operatives are values-driven, then we’re all winning.”

The Take-away

Social economic development for everyone, right? That’s an idea more and more people seem to be taking heed of, and one that Lauren mentioned proudly as a major take-away of the conference. “People that are outside of our little [social enterprise] world are starting to look in and realize that maybe there’s a piece that they’re missing that could be valuable, that could create more impact for more people.”

Having spent part of my summer doing research into business networks in Nova Scotia, I had to ask: Do you see this event as being part of the ongoing construction of a national social enterprise network?

“Absolutely.”

In 2018, the EconoUs Conference will be held in Moncton, New Brunswick. Lauren said she’s looking forward to the chance for Atlantic Canada to demonstrate our success and push our own social initiatives forward, onto the national stage.

Written by: Sam Krueger

Sam Krueger 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.