Doing Well While Doing Good

PERC was happy to send a handful of volunteers to a workshop with the Ottawa Eco-Talent Network last night, at the beautiful Commons room MediaStyle made available in the heart of downtown. It was a mediastyleheaderretrospective of what OETN was formed to do, how it has done those things, and a visioning of what the future of the group might look like. Successes were celebrated, delicious food (from Kraker’s Katering!) was eaten, and some really excellent conversations took place.

 

commons

You’ll get a lot more about OETN in the upcoming Spring 2018 PEN edition, so we won’t spend a lot of time on it here, but one of the recurring themes that came up over and over again was the relationship of the non-profit sector to businesses and other for-profit entities, and how that has been shifting to include social enterprises and other novel setups.

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PERC volunteers and OETN Board members dishing out some delicious dinner from Krakers Katering.

We have a tendency to think of a non-profit entity as inherently more virtuous than a for-profit entity, probably because we mentally compare a group like the Ottawa Food Bank to a business like Wal-Mart and that seems to be the case. But if we compare a charity with revenue streams (say, PERC with it’s advertising revenue – email info@perc.ca for details on this) to a socially conscious business (say, Your Credit Union with it’s community support grants and constant efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions), the moral distinction isn’t really clear. Businesses provide services, sometimes useful and necessary services, sometimes less so, but they’re a major part of our society, and if they are trying to operate on a “triple bottom line” model or otherwise do more good in the community, we can probably agree that they should be supported over their less sustainable, more exploitative competitors.

Several people sit around meeting tables in a trendy downtown meeting space.
Intense discussions on the nature of non-profit, for-profit, and social enterprise structures underway.

This might take the form of “voting with your dollar” and shopping more locally or more sustainably, but individual consumption is only part of the economy. Obviously no one thinks multi-million corporations should be getting more support, they can afford to pay for the support they might need, but what if a small co-op marketing a locally made, sustainable product needs some design work done? It clearly benefits the community, and the people they will employ, if that group can get off the ground, so if people are willing to volunteer their time and skills to make that happen, is there a downside to that just because the recipients of that time hope to one day turn a profit? Where’s the cut-off point where a business switches from the latter to the former? Is it a profit margin? A stage of business development? How flexible is it?

Questions like this become increasingly relevant as social enterprises like Causeway Work Centre blur the lines between businesses and service groups, and as we (hopefully) begin a transition to an economy that focuses more on people, communities, and happiness versus simply dollar profits. We may need to re-evaluate some of our opinions of for-profit entities: after all, if they can be financially sustainable while solving problems, doesn’t that benefit everyone?

Man in checked shirt gesturing at bar graph in powerpoint presentation.
Jason Garlough, ED of Ottawa Eco Talent Network, presenting some feedback – the blue bars mean good news!

Should more charities and non-profits be adding revenue streams or considering social enterprise models? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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