Transformation: The Story of Creating EBW
Innovation through Times of Change
The idea for Evergreen Brick Works emerged as part of Evergreen’s efforts to create a greater impact. We were rising from a wave of major growth and looking for new, innovative ways to engage more people in urban sustainability issues, to raise the profile of our mission and move our work into the mainstream. Creating a tangible place to showcase our work felt like the right strategic move as a means for enabling greater systems-level change.
Diversifying and strengthening Evergreen’s revenue model— in this case through new social enterprise activities—was also a must if we were to continue to grow. In particular, we were looking to establish a more stable, predictable revenue base, different from the program-to-program format of traditional grants. And, very importantly, we were looking for a project that would galvanize the interests and energy of staff.
“It began with this notion that Evergreen could begin to develop some social enterprise dimensions of our work with revenue-generating activities,” says Geoff Cape, Evergreen’s executive director. “We’ve had a history of entrepreneurship, so it didn’t seem like a big step for us to go there.” This spirit of entrepreneurship was central not only to the genesis of the original social enterprise idea, but was also a key driver necessary for sustaining the increasing scale and complexity of the project and the related organizational growth during the eight years it took to move Evergreen Brick Works from concept to reality.
A business plan competition offered by philanthropist Bill Young, founder of Social Capital Partners gave us a forum to present our original idea for a “triple-bottom- line” native plant nursery providing employment and skills development for marginalized populations, propagating native plants to green the urban landscape and generating revenue to support Evergreen’s programs. Bill was offering $1 million to the winner to support the implementation of a significant social enterprise initiative.
Evergreen didn’t win Bill’s competition, but he liked our idea well enough to give us an impromptu second place prize of $50,000, essentially seed funding to help us refine our business plan and keep the ball rolling. This funding was a turning point for Evergreen, and it was this initial investment that was leveraged into a $55-million capital undertaking and, eight years later, the opening of Evergreen Brick Works.
Social Capital Partners was created to help finance social enterprises, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and is currently providing financing to franchise businesses that will hire people who would traditionally face barriers to employment. “This work requires taking the long-term view and proving the business case for our employment model,” explains Bill. “Ultimately, we need to make it easy for people to do the right thing. We want to change the way society is thinking.”
From charitable, not-for-profit organizations to social- based businesses that sell goods or services, social enterprises span the full spectrum of the marketplace. Each enterprise has a blended return on investment: financial, social, environmental and cultural. In the case of not-for-profit organizations, the bottom line is also blended, with earned-revenue strategies combining with traditional philanthropic or fundraising efforts to deliver mission-based work. Social enterprise is an emerging opportunity, as charitable leaders become entrepreneurs and as businesses look to do something good while turning a profit. It is also not without its challenges, however, in such areas as public perception and awareness, as well as potential for “mission drift” and lack of available financing mechanisms.
— “Strength, Size and Scope: A Survey of Social Enterprises in Alberta and British Columbia”, BC–Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance, 2010; and “Mobilizing Private Capital for Public Good”, Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, December 2010.