Brendan Reimer on Canada’s Social Enterprise Ecology: The Past, the Present Crossroads and What Gives Him Hope for the Future

August 7, 2014

Brendan Reimer has been involved in some form of social enterprise activity, though it wasn’t necessarily called this, for about 20 years. Brendan, current Regional Director of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network, also spearheaded the launch of Enterprising Non-profits (ENP) Manitoba, about two years ago.

As Brendan moves on from both those roles to join the Assiniboine Credit Union later this month, the ENP-CA news service caught up with him to discuss some of his insights on Canada’s social enterprise ecology over the time of his engagement: its state when he joined, the present crossroads and what gives him the most hope for the future.

This is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

How would you describe the state of the social enterprise scene when you became involved? What’s the difference today?

Twenty years ago, nobody in Canada was using the language of social enterprise. Or, if they were, it was in very select small pockets.

Mostly, people called them non-profits, maybe community enterprises.

And so, as much as we talk about vagueness in definitions or endless debates on definition, 20 years ago there was no debate because there was no terminology around this.

And while certainly there were those who were doing it, such as Ten Thousand Villages or Goodwill, nobody was seeing those enterprises as a sector.

But today, we do have the terminology, we do have an analysis of what social enterprises are and their value. We do have an emerging sense that this is a sector as opposed to just a bunch of random businesses that happen to be non-profits.

As for the growth of the acknowledgement and support of the sector by government, it isn’t that government didn’t support these kinds of organizations previously. Ones that employ people with intellectual disabilities, for example, have been around for many years and have always had provincial support.

There has been government involvement for a long time with non-profit daycares and non-profit housing in the social economy enterprise kind of categories.

Social enterprise in the arts and culture world has also had government support of different kinds for many years.

What’s different now is the increasing government support for the social enterprise sector as an industry in itself.

What was the state of ENP when you got involved and what strikes you about the contrast today?

When I got first involved, we kept hearing about the good work happening through ENP in B.C., both in terms of promoting the model and providing people some of the education about how to go about exploring the model so that it’s done right and not just jumped into blindly.

ENP B.C. was also providing some resources to do, for instance, feasibility studies that nobody else really funds.

We kept hearing about this over the years. But now to see an emerging federation with ENP models across the country is very different than it was even three to four years ago.

That’s really exciting for a number of reasons.

One is to see the model that’s been refined and honed to be the best it can be over 10 years and over hundreds of presentations now being drawn on to implement for success in other parts of Canada.

And then, with the federation model, it’s great to see that people won’t be operating in isolation.

Not only will they be relying on lessons learned from the past, but they will now be able to, in real time, draw on lessons learned from each other. And while each region is a bit different, it will be a whole collection of people working on a very similar model in different parts of Canada. There can be a solidarity and sharing of resources or tools. Whether it’s addressing evaluation or methodology or tackling new questions and challenges, we can share insights with each other, so not everybody is having to trail-blaze on their own.

As you move on to other work, how would you sum up the single most important “gift” your time in this sector and with ENP has given you?

What touches me the most, always, are the human impact stories, to see how people’s lives are changed.

Where I’ve seen that with the greatest kind of impact is through the social enterprises that are providing training and employment for people that no one else is going to hire. The gratitude and the legacy that is created in these folks when they are given a chance is absolutely profound.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people tell their story about how they’ve come to a place where absolutely no one will hire them, no matter how hard they try. And then finally this social enterprise gives them a chance and now they are eternally grateful.

The impact is not only in terms of a career path or income, but in generating a different worldview. So many times I’ve seen people’s worldview change to one of wanting to give back, both to reach out and create opportunities for others, but also to just more broadly give back to the community.

I’ve especially seen this in people who have been involved with gangs and the justice system. They know they’ve spent a lot of their lives taking from community and they’re used to getting the message that they are not valued. And then when someone believes in them, when someone says, “you are a very important human being, you do have value, you have great potential,” that triggers something in people that is quite profound. They start to look at people, at the world in a different way and want to contribute and to treat others the way they’ve just been treated.

Seeing all of this both grounds me in terms of why this work matters so much and fuels my fire to make sure that more of this happens.

That’s a gift that will stick with me for a long time.

What’s the crossroads the social enterprise sector faces today, from your perspective?

For years the work has been about trying to get people’s attention with the concept and with the stories. It’s been about hoping that somebody somewhere will listen and understand and get excited about it.

And while there is still a lot of work to be done there for sure, at this point it’s more about managing growth. By growth I mean the growth of intention.

There are so many ways that social enterprises can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and expectations can be completely inappropriate for what they can do.

For example, there could be government or funders who see this as the magic answer that now absolves them of funding non-profits.