ATN: Our Journey of Social Enterprise

The Journey of Social Enterprise

Making a social enterprise happen is more than having guts. In social enterprise, you dare to think beyond what your eyes can see, to the point where no one really understands what the hell you are doing. At least that is how we felt when we started.

ATN Access Inc. (ATN) supports people with barriers to find meaningful careers. So, it made sense for ATN to dig its heels into social enterprise as it gave us another set of tools through which to help individuals facing barriers.

In the beginning stage, when we began to envision ATN’s social enterprise, it is quite accurate to say that we had more questions than answers. The team typed up pages and pages of questions that seemed to question just about everything. The only thing we knew for certain is we wanted to start a community grocery store. Beyond that, all we had was our idea, the idea that maybe, just maybe, a grocer can do something positive for our clients and the local community.

It is one thing to dream about social enterprise. But, it is another adventure altogether to leap in.

The team working on this initiative was quite eclectic. The business guy was a Dutchman, who flew over here because he closed his eyes, pointed to a map and landed on Canada. Surprisingly enough, the Researcher on this project, grew up in EoA (East of Adeleide) in London and was fresh out of graduate school ready to make a mark in the community. The Executive Director and overseer of the operation was both a sh*t-disturber and a lover of people that built ATN from absolutely nothing to the community-driven non-profit organization it has become. Onward the team pushed, challenged by Board members, advisors and funders into this unknown territory. Armed with an idea that a food desert could be transformed, while training individuals with barriers to work in the food industry, all while generating a profit, we continued on our journey.

First on the checklist, research, research and even more research. From statistics to a massive literature review of the community, industry and consulting with folks who knew what they were talking about, the team began to understand that we really did not know as much as we thought we did. Any researcher knows, there really is not a finishing line in collecting information, but eventually, you need to say STOP, and start moving on. This idea challenged us -but we persevered.

The team thought the research was hard. Oftentimes, we took a step back as a team and just listened. Listened to the community, experts, people who knew the food business, and we just gulped their wellspring of knowledge. You could say we were in over our heads, but it was the most beautiful feeling of drowning in the uncharted waters of social enterprise.

In August, we turned a corner, literally. The team walked together around the Somerville Building on 630 Dundas Street in London, Ontario– the location of the future grocer. We were struck with a mass of supporters chatting, smiling, all standing with us. Following this tour, however, the questions did not stop and frankly, they probably will not stop and this is good. 

Your mission and vision are the driving force behind all you do: remember them. As we to researched, read, analyzed and consulted, through pages of research, floorplans, community meetings and partnerships, funding applications and grilling, we always remembered our mission, and used it as our compass, even during the dark days.

Your mission and vision are the driving force behind all you do: remember them

Ready to launch in 2016 with David Cook, ATN is happy to present the Old East Village Grocer, a community grocery store in East London that will provide more than just food. It will provide supports and needed training for individuals facing barriers in our community. For some, this will be the first opportunity they get at accessing full time work to get a full-time job to support their family. For many it will be training they cannot access anywhere else. Clients will experience a new beginning, and learn the skills to take control of their lives. This was our journey, and our story. We had to create our own path based on the story we wanted to build. In your social enterprise story, what will your path be?

By Bethany Innes-Mejia, Community Researcher, ATN Access, Inc.
ATN provides opportunities for individuals with injuries or physical, sensory and learning disabilities to gain access to employment or reach their learning goals through a variety of assessment, skills upgrading and personal development services.  ATN is led by Executive Director, Vicki Mayer ( Feel free to reach out. 

ATN Access,Inc.


Social Enterprise and the Role of the Board of Directors

Board of Directors

Social Enterprise and the role of the Board of Directors

While there is much written about social enterprise and the role of Management teams, there is little written about the role of the Boards of Directors. As a board member, one’s role is to direct and protect the organization. While there are different types of boards, the role of a board member is to govern and to manage the risk level of the organization while ensuring its ongoing operation. In many ways social enterprise directly challenges the role of a board member. It creates new organizational risks. It is a departure from the known model of operation into something which may be completely new. It merges traditional public and private sector roles and the “grey” area that it represents in both tax and the law may leave more conservative boards of directors uncomfortable.

Boards, like organizations, are a spectrum. They can be ultra-conservative, to completely open and unorthodox, from structured to relaxed. The culture of a Board goes a long way to determining the culture of the organization. It will determine the latitude given to an Executive Director and team to experiment with new ideas, their aversion or openness to risk, and their ability to challenge the status quote. In short, the culture of a board can determine an organization’s success with social enterprise.

If an organization wants to be successful at social enterprise, they have to create a board and organizational structure that is conducive to this operational structure. All facets of the organization must be organized to support social enterprise activities, from reporting to financial statements, to team roles and responsibilities.   This is because social enterprise is a radical departure from traditional not for profit and charity work. It means adopting market principles and embracing risk, encouraging innovation, design-thinking and a private sector attitude. In spite of all of this, social missions sit at the heart of most organizations and balancing social mission with business principles can oftentimes leave board members confused at best.


What is a board member or Executive Director to do? Use the following principles as a starting point for establishing social enterprise in your organization:


  1. Establish your mission. What is it that you stand for? If money was no object what would your organization do?


  1. Establish social enterprise vision and long-term goals. Why do you want to enter the social enterprise space and what do you want to accomplish?


  1. Let your mission and goals guide your strategic discussions. These two items are your compass and map. They will be your “why” you do what you do, and will give you the path to get there.


  1. Decide what you sell or do. Most organizations are already businesses. The funders are the customers, and what funders are willing to pay for changes over time. Rather than suffer from mission drift, you have to ensure your organization “sells” something or provides a service that stands the test of time and is fundable by someone.  Social enterprise is simply saying, let’s turn the problem on its head. What do we do well, and what can we offer the public/government that is of value? Why do we exist as an organization should be the principal question driving your discussion.


  1. Develop a constraints matrix. Every organization is limited by constraints. If you do not know what those constraints are, you cannot effectively deploy your resources in a way that will bring you the best returns. Ensuring everyone knows the constraints, makes it easier to dedicate resources to particular causes


  1. Make your resource inputs match your desired outcomes. I have seen organizations involved in community development focus all their energy on doing a community event. The intended benefit is community building, but entire days and weeks of planning might be involved for an event that could have been organized in few short hours by an experienced event manager. The ideology behind this is that it empowers those involved to learn how to do something through self-discovery, however, the reality is that most of us learn best in teams and particularly if those teams are led by an experienced individual that can guide the project. People in turn, will learn by observing and participating. As they gain experience, they can then, take on additional responsibilities. If the focus is social enterprise, then a proportionate amount of energy has to be put into developing the project compared to what their desired outcome is. Programs can only run if the organization itself exists. Therefore, if social enterprise is the focus, then all activities must connect to social enterprise on some level and drive that mission forward.


  1. Change your financial reporting- I cannot tell you how many not for profits give Board Members line by line reporting, copies of bank statements, and transactional level information. A board member, with the exception of a treasurer does not require a copy of every transaction, but rather high level information that will help them see the big picture. Executive directors cannot give a list of expenses to a board and then wonder why the board wants to micro manage.  Give your directors information to match the level of involvement you want them to have.


  1. Give them tools to compare. Give them a basis of comparison so they can have standards to make decisions by. How is success measured in your industry and what are examples of other businesses that have achieved success. By giving them a basis of comparison, it makes decision making easier for them.


  1. When presenting, don’t give them problems. Give them solutions.  A solution oriented ED is focused on saying–this is the challenge I faced, and this is the decision I made, rather than always seeking board permission. It is easier to start a conversation around the words “what I did”, rather than “what I propose”. What i propose suggests you are seeking their permission. A strong ED, is not afraid of making mistakes, and so does not seek permission, but rather makes decisions and recommendations. I remember once telling an ED that it was easier to beg forgiveness than seek permission. While this is not something I recommend, it is important to remember that being assertive and bold in social enterprise will get you farther than being meek. This does not mean acting irresponsibly, but rather making informed decision and having the courage to stand by them.


  1. Do not fear failure. Understand it, calculate it, and then find ways to mitigate it. Always be aware that failure is a reality of any business venture. By definition it is inherent in everything we do.  Focus your energies on fighting and preparing for failure, and you will be farther along than most when it comes to ensuring the success of your venture.

While entire books could be written on this subject, I hope this begins to guide your discussions on the importance of boards and social enterprise  and over the coming issues, we will continue to look at different ways boards can support social enterprise in your organization.

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Fostering a culture of innovation

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

“We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Innovation often seems to be the buzzword of the day. Used by the government and private sector alike, innovation is a catch all term used to identify both the act or process of creation, as well as the outcome of the process. Innovation has become one of the most overused  business terms of the last decade, and its permeance is not just limited to the world of commerce but extends through many aspects of technology and culture as well.

In academic literature, there is much discourse about innovation systems–the flow of information and technology among, people, enterprise and institutions as key to driving the act of innovation. How we let information flow and how that flow is facilitated by technology are key to fostering a community that is innovative. Yet, no structure can be created for innovation independent of people, companies and the institutions that support them. The social web we create around us and its many parts are as equally important as the framework we build to drive innovation.

There are two principal types of innovation,process and product innovation. Product innovation is largely driven by changes to technology. It is found in groundbreaking scientific developments, the ones that allow Elon Musk to build fast electric cards, develop rocket ships and fulfill the prophecies of science fiction writers. It can be imagined as leaps, that change paradigms within industry and take us to places we have never been before, from Mars, to nanobots inside of our bodies. It is truly the stuff of dreams.

Process innovation is different. It is largely driven by small incremental changes. It is the improvements to a process, the change in a work environment, or a new way of doing something. It depends on people and its whole is generally greater than the sum of its parts. It is built by the tacit knowledge and human capital we bring to our workplaces each day, and solidified by the relationships we develop and how ideas, information and visions are shared. It depends on people and can be imagined as steps leading upwards to a better way of working and doing things.

Each form of innovation has a role.We adopt the paradigm shifting visions, but at the end of the day, most of us depend on people and on each other,to continue innovating. Our innvoation is not found in rocket fuel, but in how effectively we are able to harness the power of our organizations and our people to collaboratively work together towards a common vision and mission.

Creating a culture of innovation is not easy. It requires bringing together very diverse people, creating a learning and work environment that is organizationally lean, transparent, and rewards risk. This is why we see so many startups being innovative. They are lean, team members work together, openly and constructively.   The risks of a start-up are enormous. Despite this, many individuals work long grueling hours for below average pay,with no benefits in order to get start-up experience.. Employees are passionate, driven and innovative.

There is a passion found at start-ups, that is hard to replicate in established organizations. Established nonprofits and companies, have a much harder time being innovative because they are established, cannot afford to take uncalculated, and unmeasured risk and have a more difficult time adjusting lean and transparent organizational systems.  THe organizations that do succeed have done so by following three principles:

  • Let it go- Just as a Disney princess can let go, so must managers let go of micro managing, documenting and measuring. Not everything needs to managed or measured, and most people given the opportunity will do their jobs. We live in a society of distrust. As managers, measuring helps us to justify that what we are doing is right. Unfortunately, innovation is difficult to measure and we need to create more  room in the work we do for the unpredicted, the spontaneous and risky. This is a terrifying concept to most large companies, but unless they can adopt this crucial first step, they will never achieve strong innovation.  
  • Learn to appreciate risk and failure- We have been conditioned to think of risk as a negative term. Failure scares us, particularly amongst those of us who are high achievers.  We need adopt an attitude that rewards risk, accepts failure as a part of learning and moves on.  Until we are prepared to accept that failure, experimentation and risk are an inherent part of success, we will never become truly innovative
  • Adopt design thinking.  We need to adopt the type of thinking processes used by artists, creators and inventors. We need to remove the boundaries and constructors of how we think innovation should occur and learn to appreciate innovation for what it really is: the coming together of minds to produce something better. Nothing is rejected until it is proved dysfunctional. All ideas are equally valuable and real innovations is built up block by block rather than identifying the formula that we think can replicate that success time and time again
  • Implement our Changes company wide- Innovation is not just one lone department in an organization. It must permeate organizational boundaries, from owners and managers, to advisory boards. All components of the organization must be willing to adopt these principles. The tools and technologies you adopt must mirror the structure or lack of structure you wish to create. So if you need leaner reporting to enable innovation, do so.
  • Develop your Community of Practice-Communities of practice was a concept developed by Etienne Wenger. They exist everywhere from manufacturing firms to tree planting camps. They are formal and informal associations that exist in the networks and relationships we build and they enable the transfer of tacit knowledge amongst community members.  Imagine an apprentice long ago. They learnt their trade from their Master, and then passed it down to their apprentices. This type of knowledge transfer existed before literacy was widespread and was built on mutual trust and understanding. This community is what shaped entire industries, and it was largely informal in nature.

As your organization begins to delve into changing its culture to become more innovative, remember that entire books have been written on this topic, but these high level guidelines will give you a way to start approaching innovation and diffuse it from an idea, to a way of being for your entire organization.  It will be hard work, but the benefits far outweigh the trials you will face.

The Power of Storytelling

Stories  are as ancient to human culture and civilization as the concept of humanity itself. In oral societies, stories were how lessons were passed on from generation to generation. Stories are core to human emotion. They help us to express joy, sadness, anger and melancholy. They symbolize both our experiences as well as our hopes for the future. They can fill us with happiness or sadness, evoke empathy, and stir anger. Marketers continually tell us to use stories as a part of our marketing strategies.  Storytelling has the power to transform what you do and make it better.

The power of the narrative is huge. By telling stories, we teach others our lessons learnt, and we make sense of the world around us.  We are able to transform the story of the individuals we serve, the people our business help, and turn it from numbers into something more basic that connects us as human beings. We create empathy, emotion and an awareness that reaches at the core of our being.

The most successful enterprises are those which are able to harness the power of story telling. They are able to display their most authentic selves in a way that people can rally behind and support. Seth Godin often speaks about the power of the tribe, and how finding your tribe is one of the easiest ways to succeed in marketing. He states:

“What tribes are, is a very simple concept that goes back 50 million years. It’s about leading and connecting people and ideas. And it’s something that people have wanted forever”.
-Seth Godin

We need to create, find and assemble our tribes. We need to harness the ability to turn what we do into stories about the people we help, the lives we improve, and the changes we make. Only then can we connect with our audiences and truly become successful social entrepreneurs.  The more we tell our stories, the more powerful we become.