Marty Donkervoort is one of Canada’s most respected veterans in the field of social enterprise, a man who has proven one can make a difference in our communities by balancing financial know-how with good ‘ole fashion social consciousness.
For a decade, Donkervoort led the highly venerated Inner City Renovations (ICR), a social enterprise working in the construction sector dedicated to helping those living in the margins gain productive employment. In his new book, Donkervoort traces his social entrepreneurial journey, from his beginnings as a corporate honcho to his life today as a consultant, teacher, speaker and writer in the area of social enterprise.
SEE Change spoke with Donkervoort about this new book, the challenges he faced as a social entrepreneur, what he learned from working in the field and how best to achieve that formidable balance between profit and purpose.
You made a transition from the corporate world to social enterprise mid-career. What advice would you offer others who are thinking of doing the same?
Do it. It will probably change your life for the better. Most people search for happiness in their lives and I was no exception. True happiness is related to finding a meaning in one’s life and is not usually associated with accumulating wealth. The challenges associated with starting a social enterprise can be very difficult while at the same time providing personal satisfaction and rewards. Some people are dissatisfied with their work and yet continue on till they reach retirement age hoping to finally achieve the happiness that they have been looking for. No need to endure and wait. Make the leap, put your experience to good use and make a difference in people’s lives, community and society while striving for that elusive happiness; it is worth it.Read our review of Inner City Renovation in our On Our Bookshelf section
What would you say are the top factors that account for Inner City Renovations’ success?
Like any successful enterprise, success comes from various factors coming together at the right time. In ICR’s case it was the opportunity to renovate the abundant boarded-up dilapidated housing in the inner city with a large and eager-to-learn labour pool. Community leaders from business, labour and academia volunteering for the board of directors. Winning the Social Capital Partners business plan competition with its funding and technical support. Much of the success, however, is related to the commitment, passion and leadership of the senior management group.
What were ICR’s greatest challenges and did they evolve over the years?
Some of the greatest challenges include finding and maintaining sufficient work to keep the workforce employed full-time year-round, not common in the construction sector. Finding and maintaining competent middle management and crew supervisors was also a challenge. The biggest challenge, however, was dealing with the employees. Transitioning people from the margins of society to regular full-time work comes with many challenges. Just getting people to work every day on time, ready to work, was one of the biggest challenges. It requires patience, understanding and providing supports.Marty Donkervoort’s new book
Can you share a couple of lessons learned on how you achieved the daunting goal of juggling social and
Managing for multiple bottom lines, financial and social, is a daunting balancing task. One cannot jeopardize financial sustainability for the sake of pursuing social goals, nor focus on financial goals that may jeopardize the social goals of the enterprise. It is a constant juggling act, which shifts over time depending on the situation at hand and the economic environment.
One lesson we learned very early on was that the social needs of the employees were demanding too much of management time, affecting the overall performance of the enterprise. We subsequently hired a part-time social worker to provide support services to all of the employees. This allowed management to concentrate on running the enterprise.
Having sufficient access to financing to get over the humps that inadvertently come along was also an important lesson learned. It can be difficult to access additional funds once in a crisis mode. Pace your growth, as growing too fast can be as disastrous as not growing at all. Also know when to limit the size of the enterprise based on management time and capabilities.
ICR started out renovating residential houses for non-profit community housing organizations. Although this was a good start, ICR diversified into commercial, institutional and traditional residential sectors. It also started building new structures in addition to renovating. Diversification served ICR very well.Read our review of Inner City Renovation in our On Our Bookshelf section
Elisa Birnbaum is the co-founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, and works as a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant. She is also the president of Elle Communications.