‘Tis the season to be cycling, and one Ottawa neighbourhood is taking advantage of a new bike-share program to do just that. Hear from the founders about how they turned this social enterprise dream into a reality and what they learned along the way.

A fleet of bright purple bicycles has hit the streets of one Ottawa neighbourhood. It’s the city’s newest bike-share program, RightBike, and it’s a social enterprise that came about thanks to some creative thinking and an innovative partnership to encourage sustainable transportation, create jobs and promote local business.

Two years ago, when community environmental group Sustainable Living Ottawa West (SLOWest) was looking for ways to get more people on bikes, it called on the Causeway Work Centre, an organization that supports people facing barriers to employment. Causeway operates Cycle Salvation, a social enterprise employing people to rebuild and sell used bicycles. Two area business improvement associations got on board, and RightBike was launched.

SLOWest spokesperson Bill Shields explains that rather than bring in a commercial bike rental service, RightBike’s organizers decided to base the bike-share on partners’ strengths, resulting in a program that was “far more feasible, less expensive, more local, and more people-oriented.” The RightBikes are all used bikes donated by organizations like Habitat for Humanity and refurbished by Cycle Salvation. For a modest seasonal membership fee, members will receive a card they can use to borrow a bike. The benefits: more people getting exercise, buying local and getting to know their neighbourhood.

RightBike is just the latest creative endeavour for Causeway, which started in 1977 with a mandate to assist people with mental health issues to find work. Causeway now provides services for clients facing a range of challenges, and operates employment-generating social enterprises that include a catering company and a groundskeeping service. According to Don Palmer, Causeway’s executive director, “My philosophy’s always been if you can’t find somebody a job, make them a job. So that’s how we really started with our social enterprises.”

Focus on goals, but look for opportunities

Causeway stays focused on its goal of helping people obtain meaningful work, but is open to new ways to fulfill that mandate. Palmer knew that Cycle Salvation had the expertise that RightBike needed, but saw a further opportunity in RightBike to create bicycle mechanic jobs.

RightBike, like Causeway’s other social enterprises, came about after Causeway identified a demand for a service, and confirmed it had the necessary skills. Its first social enterprise, Krackers Katering, started in 1999 after visitors to Causeway commented on how good the food being prepared in its kitchen was. Its second social enterprise, Good Nature Groundskeeping, began as a partnership with a seniors’ centre to remove snow for their residents, but expanded to serve commercial clients.

Palmer says that Cycle Salvation grew out of his own love of bicycling. As a cyclist, he knew it was difficult to find second-hand bikes for sale. He also observed that many of Causeway’s clients cycled year round, even in winter, because they couldn’t afford bus tickets. They told Palmer they had learned how to fix their own bikes. “I realized that obviously people had the aptitude to fix bikes, and there was a need, because the market wasn’t filling that need,” says Palmer. After conducting a feasibility study and business plan, Causeway launched Cycle Salvation in 2007.

Foster innovation and an entrepreneurial organizational culture

“We’ve got all sorts of projects that have grown out of staff interest,” notes Palmer. “I think it just makes it more interesting for everyone to work in an organization that encourages innovation.” An example is an in-house vermiculture project that recycles Causeway’s food waste. “Eventually, we hope to grow that to the point where we can actually sell the product through our groundskeeping business,” he explains. Causeway also holds “innovation Fridays” where staff meet over lunch to brainstorm solutions to problems. “We’ve come up with some fabulous ideas,” says Palmer, including a program of financial literacy training and another to provide loans to clients who want to start their own businesses. “If you recognize the opportunity you just have to go for it,” he says. “Some things work, some things don’t work, but you can make almost anything work, I’ve found.”

“I came from Montreal, and social enterprise in Quebec has been going for a long, long time…I grew up in that culture,” adds Palmer. His arrival at Causeway in 1993 soon coincided with a board that was ready to take on social enterprise. “We had people on the Board that I think realized that as the funding environment was changing, organizations had to become more entrepreneurial to figure out ways to keep themselves going. As the needs in the community expand then you have to find another way to meet them. You have to become a little bit more creative, entrepreneurial.”

Spark creativity through partnerships

Each of the RightBike partners brought a different set of objectives and strengths, resulting in an initiative with a wide range of benefits. “We now realize that the future really is in these kinds of partnerships,” says Palmer. “One of our critical factors now is to really develop social enterprises that can engage more partners.”

“Managing partnerships is difficult. It’s a matter of balancing everybody’s priorities,” he adds. “Partnerships take a lot of work, but they’re worth it.”

Causeway has teamed up with several other organizations in Ottawa to create the Collaborative for Innovative Social Enterprise Development (CISED). “One of the reasons why we started our CISED project was to really help organizations discover social enterprise, and look at some of the links that they can make within their own communities,” says Palmer.

Causeway is now finalizing plans for a new organic gardening and sewing business, and has several other ideas in the works. “I think over time, you get one [social enterprise], then you get two and you just get better at it,” explains Palmer. “One idea sort of cascades into another idea and it opens doors and creates opportunities. So we’ll be certainly pursuing more social enterprises as the years progress.”

Denise Deby is a freelance writer and program management and evaluation consultant who specializes in social, environmental and international issues. You can find her at denisedeby.wordpress.com.

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