Business Done Differently was our working name for a Community University Research Alliance funded by the Canadian government’s SSHRC. Its formal title was Social Business and Marginalized Social Groups. This project was completed in January 2016.

Business Done Differently was a joint initiative of the:

  • Social Economy Centre of the University of Toronto,
  • The Ontario Co-operative Association,
  • Social Enterprise Toronto,
  • The Toronto Enterprise Fund, and
  • A network of researchers and community partners, primarily from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

The research built upon a research alliance created under SSHRC’s Social Economy Suite (ending in December 2011) that was managed through the Social Economy Centre and funded about 35 projects. That grant was on the many manifestations of the social economy (Quarter, Mook, & Armstrong, 2009), not specifically on social businesses. However, this research built upon the component of that project that had mapped social enterprises and co-operatives in Ontario (see Dart & Armstrong, 2009; Hall, Lasby, Ventry & Guy, forthcoming). Social business may be viewed as one part of the social economy, an approach that has become timely in view of the recession in 2008-09, which it was estimated will throw about 20 million worldwide into poverty (ILO, 2008). Social business is not presented here as the solution, but only as one strategy that is being applied to persons living on the social margins. One objective of this research was to determine how effective this strategy was.

Business Done Differently produced several books. Our research also led to fact sheets and backgrounders for non-academics.

Community University Research Alliance

Our Community University Research Alliance (CURA) consisted of leading scholars and practitioners from 13 universities and 21 community partner organizations, primarily from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The focus was on the Greater Toronto Area because it was a major population centre with a high proportion of first-generation immigrants and visible minorities, and growing levels of poverty, as documented by a series of reports by United Way Toronto (2002, 2004, 2005).

Social business, the central concept of this project, is an unusual category of organizations (some might say an oxymoron) that functions in the market but is created to fulfill a social need. There are at least three distinct traditions that relate to social business.

First, co-operatives — organizations that began to flourish in the mid-19th century to meet social needs (consumer loans, fair price for farm products) that conventional businesses were not addressing appropriately.

Second, the emergence in the past 30 years of the micro credit movement, starting with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and spreading internationally even to wealthy countries such as Canada — a movement based upon the premise that business credit is a right, and with credit, poor people could improve their standard of living and become economically self-sufficient.

Third, the social enterprise movement — premised on the belief that the market can be used to address the needs of marginalized youth, groups with disabilities such as persons with chronic psychiatric and intellectual problems, and those suffering from racism (recent immigrants) and historical oppression (Indigenous Peoples). Social enterprises include stand-alone organizations, mostly nonprofit but also businesses embedded within nonprofit organizations.

These traditions are distinct, but they share the common denominator of attempting to combine an approach that earns revenues from the market while fulfilling a social mission, primarily addressing the needs of marginalized persons. Social businesses are predicated upon the assumption that it is possible to balance marketplace activity with social commitments, a matter that is very contentious, and even more so in view of the recent turmoil in financial markets. Social businesses differ in that, from their inception, their social mission is as important as or even more important than their economic goals.

The objectives of this CURA were:

  • to understand the impact of social businesses in addressing the needs, both social and economic, of marginalized persons in the GTA;
  • to work with social businesses through a community-based participatory research strategy applied to 14 case studies to help the organizations develop strategies in building capacity around such needs as leadership, management, governance, marketing, and external supports such as access to capital and appropriate government policies, and to put in place a process for researching the effectiveness of these strategies;
  • to synthesize knowledge from these case studies plus a broader scan to assist the development of social businesses more generally; and
  • to add to existing knowledge on leadership, management, governance, marketing and finance of social business. This step included the development of education and policies that relate to the capacity issues addressed in the research.

Additional Notes