Provoking innovation through stories of social entrepreneurship

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are…”

―  Thomas King, The Truth About Stories (2003)

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

Case study created for JUMP-Math. Photo via Trico Foundation

In 2015, the Trico Charitable Foundation published four extensive case studies on the 2013 Social EnterPrize winners. Each case study was developed in partnership with the winning social enterprise and a post-secondary institution, converging the rigor of frontline experiential learning with the rigor of a critical academic lens.

The result? “A series of social entrepreneurship case studies that, in terms of the breadth of the organizations studied and the depth of the analysis, is the first of its kind in Canada” (Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015). Together, each social enterprise and academic team revealed and codified key insights, challenges and lessons from these four thriving social enterprises.

“Storytelling is one of the most powerful forces in humanity. As a private foundation, we have learned that our work is better when we tell stories and when we listen to them.”

― Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2015

It is clear that an appreciation of the power of stories spurred Trico’s interest in developing the case studies. Why are stories so powerful? An audacious question, but one that provokes serious consideration of the role of stories in our lives.

In the context of social innovation, the defining stories we tell each day reveal our core beliefs and the conditioning beliefs of our broader social system.They tell us something about what we value, who we value, and what purpose we believe our systems (and selves) exist to serve.

Photo via Trico Foundation

TurnAround Couriers. Photo via Trico Foundation

In sharing – in depth – the story of the four Social EnterPrize winners, Trico Charitable Foundation contributed to a narrative that values business as more than a vehicle for profit maximization. ‘Social entrepreneurship’ is a story of sustainable social processes leveraging market solutions to serve social purpose. It advances another, broader story about our economic system, one where the economy thrives as products, services, and experiences put the best of our capital (financial, human, knowledge) sustainably to work producing (and reproducing) positive social and ecological outcomes.

The story of a new economy

Each case study offers a window into how this new story is taking root and reshaping economic life. Each case exemplifies business models succeeding not in spite of their social process and purpose, but because of it. And, to explain this success, each case brings to light that the triple bottom line of social enterprise (or social purpose business) is more than people, planet and profit – it is also process, purpose and outcome.

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

Cover of Citizen-Led Innovation for a New Economy. Photo via Fernwood Publishing

This is the triumvirate of a new economy where, similar to the case studies in the recently released book Citizen-led Innovation for a New Economy, “organized citizens are forging innovation, prying open cracks in the prevailing economic system and seizing opportunities to redirect economic life” (From the book blurb - Purchase the book here or the PDF summaries of the cases).

Stories describe where we come from and why we exist. They define ‘the good life,’ our expected roles in the society or how we should relate to each other. Stories tell us what our essence is: good or evil or somewhere in between; independent or interdependent; fundamentally threatened or enriched by difference. Above all, stories reflect and influence our perception of the world and, in doing so, our actions.

“A fundamental sociological premise is Thomas theorem: what is perceived as real is real in its consequences. We would add: how we think about and understand the world frames our actions. Indeed, we can be even more basic: whether we think about things matter.”

― Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, Michael Patton, Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed (2006)

embers-300x123

Each Social EnterPrize winner understood that “whether we think about things matters.” Whether we think about the potential of low-income folks living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (EMBERS); the common need for safety and comfort by travellers, students, women in crisis, families in transition or with medical issues, seniors and refugees (YWCA Hotel/Residence); the untapped work ethic of job-ready, at-risk youth (TurnAround Couriers); or the pedagogical opportunity to empower every student to be a math prodigy (JUMP), it is actually noticing and thinking about these things that shapes our understanding of the world, frames our actions and, through our actions, reimagines our communities.

How do we follow in these footsteps? Thankfully, the case studies not only exemplify how these social entrepreneurs advanced a different perception of the world – and in doing so, ignited cascading opportunities – each also reveals how that acute perception translated into tangible insights, challenges, solutions and outcomes. They lend evidence and advice to others seeking to leverage a new worldview and market opportunity to achieve sustainable, measurable social and ecological outcomes.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

The inside lobby of the YWCA-Hotel in Vancouver. Photo via Trico Foundation.

Final takeaway

The ability to unlock market solutions that successfully redeploy capital to achieve transformational social and ecological impact often demands challenging the prevailing beliefs of our day. It butts up against the way so many people currently see or understand the world. The Social EnterPrize case studies remind us to know intimately the story we are telling through our actions and through our words…by whom, about whom, for whom, to what end. This story is our compass. As are these case studies which, with practical and inspirational insight, reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact.

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world

—     James Baldwin

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Note: This article was originally published on May 4, 2015 on socialfinance.ca. It has been cross-posted with permission from socialfinance.ca and the Trico Charitable Foundation.

The Social EnterPrize Awards were created by the Trico Charitable Foundation in 2011 to recognize and celebrate leadership and excellence in social entrepreneurship across Canada.

Social-EnterPrize-Jubulation-crop-10-1080x675The awards look for the best practices, social impact and innovation of organizations and their social entrepreneurial strategies. Presented biennially, the awards provide organizations with funds and support that can be used to take their social enterprise to the next level. Awardees have included: Potluck Catering, Mission Possible, Caroline Arcand of Groupe Convex, Embers Staffing Solutions, YWCA Downtown Vancouver, TurnAround Couriers, and JUMP Math, and applications are now being accepted for the 2015 Social EnterPrize.

Over the past four years, we’ve been privileged to learn about and from these Canadian social enterprises. Trico’s goal for these awards has always been the chance to shine the light on the best examples in Canada, as well as provide resources for their continuation. However, it has not been just a journey for the awardees, but the awards themselves. In 2013, our jury had just met to decide the Social EnterPrize winners when Kevin Starr published Dump the Prizes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Starr wrote: “Too many of these things are winner-or-very-few-take-all, and too many focus on the usual suspects. In any case, the notion that even a smart selection jury can somehow discern which is best from a dozen stellar organizations is kind of silly.” While we winced at his commentary, his call was the first that perked our ears. Rather than simply disagreeing with his premise, we took a look at where our awards were not living up to their potential.

YWCA-CoverOur first insight was that a biennial awards process leaves the entire “off” year with little opportunity to learn from our winners and better understand their journeys. A video segment had always been part of the production of the awards, but with our 2013 winners, we went a step further. Coordinating with four post-secondary institutions across the country, we developed case studies on each of the organizations. The collaboration between academic institutions meant that professors and students were involved with the social enterprises themselves – providing an academically rigorous, yet practioner-based case study. Our goal was to develop a case study that would give the reader key takeaways to implement in their own social enterprise. We are pleased to be releasing these case studies, along with our own analysis, throughout April and May 2015 at Trico Foundation.

Our second insight came from the case study process as it enlivened our own understanding of what it takes to successfully implement a social enterprise – the internal operations, the organizational readiness, and the team behind-the-scenes. To that end, we enhanced our ‘prize pack’ by adding consulting services from the Business Development Bank of Canada and bringing the recipients to the wealth of expertise at the 2015 Social Finance Forum.

At the same time, we were involved in dialogues that asked questions around “How can we attract talent to social enterprises?”, “How do we find COOs?”, and “How do I have a career in social enterprise?” that started us thinking that somehow we’d left behind the teams of the social enterprises, by focusing solely on the founder. We are in good company in this mistake, as many Awards processes do. However, we started to take inspiration from Mass Challenge and Hult Awards in how they celebrate the diversity of the team. In addition, we heard the strong calls to move beyond ‘superhero syndrome’ by social entrepreneurs such as Liam Black.

The combination of all these factors came to us while watching the Skoll Awards in Oxford. We realized that we had the opportunity to improve the 2015 Social EnterPrize awards and kick-start the conversation on teams and to shine the light more broadly across the organization.

We’ve added the team feature for 2015 because two things became crystal clear:

  1. We wanted to get away from the lone entrepreneur myth and have conversations about the value of multi-faceted teams;
  2. We think the winning organizations will benefit from having more than one team member soak in all the wisdom and expertise available through the Social EnterPrize.

We share these insights with you because they mean that in 2015 your favorite Canadian social enterprise benefits even more from the Social EnterPrize. Our hope is that our learnings benefit not just social enterprises, but also the organizations that support them. We welcome you to support your favorite social enterprise by sharing this opportunity with them.

The deadline to apply is May 29 at 4pm MST. Applicants can learn more at tricofoundation.ca and can apply directly at: https://trico.fluidreview.com.