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Social enterprise study reveals an ”overlooked” sector’s economic impact

Good works can pay unexpected dividends.

Take, for example, EPIC de St. Malo Inc. (SMILE of St. Malo Inc.).

The 38-year-old non-profit organization serving people with intellectual disabilities has 62 full-time and part-time employees — making it the largest employer in the RM of De Salaberry.

Some workers run the recycling program, which serves six surrounding municipalities. Others work in product construction and assembly, make or package a large range of goods, including pet toys, survey stakes, fishing gear and emergency candles, for national companies. A sewing department turns out thousands of bags handed out at conventions.

And their wages stay in the community because those working here live here too.

“Everyone gains from this,” says Hélène Larivière, the organization’s executive director.

A new study that looked at her organization plus another 117 other so-called “social enterprises” in Manitoba shows they pack a considerable economic punch. The organizations, two-thirds of which are located in smaller centres, collectively generated $55.4 million in revenues, made at least $41.5 million in sales, and paid wages of $25.3 million to more than 3,750 people. The data was gleaned from their 2010 fiscal reports and collected by the Canadian Community Economic Development Network.

“I suspect that most people are aware of the rich contributions of these organizations,” said CCEDN official Brendan Reimer.

“But we tend to say ‘that’s a good social program’ or see the social side of their equation instead of seeing that as a good chunk of our local economy.”

The groups surveyed are engaged in a host of activities, including resource management and construction, food services, retail sales, arts and culture, and health and social services.

If you haven’t heard much about “social enterprise,” you’re not alone. It’s not a term used widely because it’s not a legal definition like a co-op, sole proprietorship or charity, said Reimer.

The CCED’s definition for this research was “a business venture owned or operated by a non-profit organization that sells goods or provides service in the market for the primary purpose of creating a blended return on investment, both financial as well as social, environmentally and culturally.”

Organizations known primarily for their social mission aren’t usually regarded “as real businesses,” but their economic impact certainly is, said Reimer.

“If you look at the employment numbers, revenue generated from market activities and contracts, and sales and even income tax paid, some of them are quite significant,” he said.

The survey could have included more groups, said Reimer, noting social enterprise can encompass a broad range of ventures, such as farmers’ markets or even local curling clubs.

“This was a starting point,” he said. “We got a sampling.”

The challenge now is getting the word out, said Reimer. The organization wants to get the study into the hands of more community leaders and economic development officials, and promote the idea that the social enterprise model is “another tool in the tool box” for pursuing economic development.

“This is a model that, like the co-operative model, offers some answers to those things,” he said. “The core purpose of this business model is to benefit local people.”

Similar surveys have been done in B.C. and Alberta, and are underway in Ontario and Eastern Canada.

The research is a joint effort between the CCED Network, Mount Royal University’s Institute for Non-Profit Studies, and Simon Fraser University with funding from the United Way, Assiniboine Credit Union and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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