Febraury 2, 2010 - Where purpose trumps profit

Feb 2, 2010, Thestar.com
by Stuart Laidlaw
For the complete article click here.

Most businesses do all they can to keep good employees for as long as possible. But at the Phoenix Print Shop, they can't get them out the door fast enough.

"We work closely with most of them to find work elsewhere," says Andrew Macdonald, general manager of Eva's Phoenix youth shelter.

The downtown shelter set up the small-job print shop 10 years ago as a way to not only raise money, but also to fulfil its mandate to help troubled youth get off the streets and lead productive lives by training them to get good jobs.

"It's really a hybrid vehicle," Macdonald says. "At Eva's, our mission is to work with homeless youth so they get on a path to productive, self-sufficient and healthy lives. And the print shop is a vehicle to that end."

The shop is part of the social economy, a growing and largely overlooked segment of Canada's economic output that includes charities, non-profit organizations, cooperatives and businesses set up to meet a social need as well as earn a profit.

Despite employing some two million people – plus another two million volunteers – and contributing more than $100 billion annually to the economy, the sector is largely invisible to most people and ignored by the nation's business schools.

That indifference needs to stop, say the authors of a new book, Understanding the Social Economy: A Canadian Perspective. In fact, they argue, business schools should be teaching their students about the wonders of non-profits.

"These are organizations that normally aren't considered in business schools," says Jack Quarter, one of the authors and a professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

On Thursday, Quarter and his co-authors – U of T business professor Ann Armstrong and fellow OISE professor Laurie Mook – will take part in a panel discussion to launch the book and discuss the importance of the social economy to Canada's economic and social well-being.

"It would make a big dent in the economy if they were to disappear," says Quarter. "And it would hurt a lot of people."

Also on the panel, at 5 p.m. at the Rotman School of business, will be Bill Young, whose Social Capital Partners helps fund social economy businesses, and Geoff Cape, co-founder of Evergreen, the non-profit behind the revitalization of Toronto's Brickworks.

Quarter hopes the book, which includes a series of case studies of social economy enterprises across the country, including the Phoenix Print Shop, will both explain the social economy and serve as a textbook for business schools interested in teaching about it.

To help business professors who might not know where to start, each chapter includes a series of questions to help lead in-class discussions. The authors have also prepared lesson plans available through the book's publisher, the University of Toronto Press.

"We've really gone to a lot of effort to make this easy," says Quarter.

While the social economy sector is dominated by small operations of only a handful of employees or volunteers, a few have evolved into large-scale operations requiring managers with strong business training, says Mook.

As well, she says, many business people end up volunteering with charities or non-profits once their careers get going.

"A lot of them may be asked to serve on boards of directors, so it's useful to understand the difference" between traditional businesses and the social economy, she says.

The key difference, both Mook and Quarter say, is that such operations place as much importance on serving their social justice functions as on the profit motive.

"Businesses are businesses, and they are there to make money for their owners," says Quarter.

At the Phoenix Print Shop, the need to raise money for the shelter never comes before the imperative to train the shelter's youths to move on to another job – however inefficient it becomes to staff the business with a constantly changing roster of trainees.

"Literally 15 feet from where they are living, they can get a taste of what it's like to be involved at a small business – which is where many people ultimately get employed," says Macdonald.

Of the 25 who start the program learning making business cards, reports and brochures, perhaps three will be offered full-time jobs at the Phoenix Print Shop.

The rest will get help finding work elsewhere, with Macdonald estimating that the program saves employers about six months of training by giving them job-ready staff.