The Third Sector

The Third Sector

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the gala dinner of the country’s first Social Entrepreneurship Summit. It was like walking into a riddle; I arrived not knowing exactly what “social entrepreneurship” was but believing that the term must be code for something, and I was determined to crack it. It wasn’t easy. Social entrepreneurs themselves have trouble defining exactly what they are, though like all good entrepreneurs they know a kindred spirit when they meet one. But here’s what I did learn: governments in the United States and Britain have made social entrepreneurship—whatever it is—a major priority, while in Ottawa it barely registers on our government’s radar.

The simplest way to describe a social entrepreneur is someone who’s in the business of social and environmental change. They are not the Birkenstock hippies you might imagine; they’re too driven for that sort of thing. Exhibit A: Tom Heintzman of Bullfrog Power, an electricity company that will power your home with eco-friendly generation sources such as wind power. Exhibit B: Benjamin Land of Exit West, a company that matches international-development organizations in need of labour with large corporations in need of team-building exercises. (Fun chat. The way Land sees it, companies can either bring their staff up to a Muskoka lodge for some “trust your co-worker” scenarios involving Lego, or they can send their staff down to Guatemala to build and install a real roof atop a housing project. In other words, they can give their employees a contrived challenge or a real one, depending on whether they want to teach contrived teamwork or the real thing.) Exhibit C: Geoff Cape of Evergreen, a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping urban spaces green. Cape was crowned Social Entrepreneur of the Year.

These three examples give you some idea of the promise held forth by social entrepreneurship as a whole. Land is being just plain resourceful, filling a social need and providing an innovative professional-development service in the better-mousetrap tradition. Heintzman and Cape are doing things governments would be doing if they were not lazy and entrenched. And many governments, rather than being embarrassed, are thankful someone is plugging the holes without their urging. The U.S. Congress order paper is, I’m told, full of bills intended to help spur more social entrepreneurship. The Blair-Brown New Labour Government in the U.K. is so enamoured of social enterprise that they created a cabinet ministry dedicated to it. The details are delightfully British. They call it the Office of the Third Sector (after the public and private sectors), cobbled together from existing functions in the Home Office and the Department for Trade and Industry. They track the sector’s activity (estimated at about two per cent of GDP), fund it and generally help it along without being too meddlesome. They even created a new category of legal corporation, the Community Interest Company, which makes it easier for social enterprises to incorporate.

In Canada, nothing. Or at least nothing from this government. Paul Martin’s last budget, in 2004, made a big to-do about social entrepreneurship, promising recognition and funding similar to the U.K. model. The current government has walked away from those commitments, which is foolish. You’d think a Conservative administration would be all in favour of spreading entrepreneurial verve into areas of non-profit activity.

Social entrepreneurs do need to help their own cause by learning to speak crisply and clearly about their mission. As it stands, there is lots of purple prose that obscures what social entrepreneurs actually do. (“Artscape is a non-profit enterprise that builds creative communities and expands knowledge about the dynamics of creative places.” Like a breeze through my hair. You’d never guess Artscape was a low-cost housing landlord for artists.) But that’s small potatoes. Social entrepreneurship is a growing force in Canada and worldwide. It isalso, for now, the latest emerging policy area in which our federal government trails the world.