Assaf Weisz
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Last time, I wrote that social enterprise and entrepreneurship is a movement, not a model. I suggested that people could undertake various forms of action within its framework and still be tied to each other through the connective tissue of a common vision. It seems that notion is gaining traction.

At the end of March, YSEC held the re:Vision 2010 conference – the first provincial scale meeting of young social entrepreneurs – in the heart of downtown Toronto. The gathering was a challenge to break out of the boxes of project design we’d become accustomed to, and think differently about how we make change. It was hugely inspiring to spend a weekend with some of the faces that I think will comprise the future of this movement.

This time, I want to shed light on two emerging social enterprises that I see not only as verging on success, but as examples of this vision come alive. It may be a glimpse of what’s to come. And it’s worth noting what they do and don’t have in common.

Volunteering 2.0

Our country’s voluntary landscape is huge – 1.1 billion hours volunteered annually in Ontario and BC alone according to Imagine Canada – but it’s an inefficiently used asset. Christine Ho and Kevin Tsoi intend to change that by converting some volunteer power into revenue for charities. Well of Change is an online platform that allows volunteers to enter themselves onto a marketplace, where they sell services to the public and send the money earned back to their charity of choice. Anyone from a twelve-year-old with a lawnmower to a partner in a law firm can contribute in a useful, meaningful way to their chosen cause.

When I first met co-directors Christine and Kevin, I was impressed by their insights given that neither of them had an extensive background in the voluntary sector. Both made forays into the corporate world after university, gaining an experience set they have drawn on to nail down a revenue model that can sustain them – they take a modest admin fee for ushering money from the purchaser back to the charity – and an elevator pitch that clearly articulates the gist of their idea. That has been refreshing in comparison to my usual interaction with brand new nonprofits, who all too often have difficulty explaining what they want to do and how they’ll live from it.

And the idea is novel. Their model could change what the volunteer resource means for nonprofits and charities, and what a volunteer commitment means for those who want to support their cause without doing admin or committee work. It remains to be seen whether this large scale behavioural shift has traction, but if it does it could alter the voluntary landscape in a big way. That’s worth watching.

Nothing works, but everything works out

So goes the motto for Operation Groundswell, a conscious backpacking nonprofit venture. It was founded by a couple of twenty-somethings who were fed up with volunteer experiences abroad that were exorbitantly expensive and provided little. Or with those that brought groups to build schools for two weeks and sent them home very self-satisfied. They wanted to provide their own “off the tour bus” experience that gave trip participants independence and cost about half the price of other comparable experiences. They believed that doing so would forge a human connection between young people here and people in other corners of the world, coupled with the belief that better understanding underpins better policy creation.

So Jonah, Jo and David decided to run their own trip to Ghana in 2007. And four months later they did, bringing with them 11 guinea pig travellers who kind of liked the experimental vibe. They were so successful at providing affordable trips that another trip company sent an email urging them to raise their prices. Full disclosure: Operation Groundswell is housed under the same umbrella nonprofit as Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada. Operation Groundswell has never had a strategic plan, and they’ve never needed to show one to anybody because they’ve never applied for grants.

This year – their fourth in operation – Operation Groundswell will take more than 100 young people from Canada, the US and the UK on eight trips to west Africa, east Africa, Southeast Asia, India, Guatemala, and Israel/West Bank. Realizing that the cumulative effect of all that air travel can diminish the benefit they want to provide, Operation Groundswell has instituted a policy to purchase carbon offsets (with a reputable firm) for all flights.

As their numbers grow, the organization that started as an impulse is now turning into something that has real growth potential, strong community connections in each destination, and so far, a 100% satisfaction rate among participants. That’s worth watching.

Common threads

These two budding social enterprises don’t have much in common. Their founders have vastly different backgrounds, their organizations focus on completely different causes, and use completely different mediums.

But what they do have in common is telling, because it is exemplary of the initiatives of young social entrepreneurs we come across regularly. Neither “wanted” to be a social enterprise, but both did it because it made the most sense. Neither of them got bogged down in multi-year strategic plans that the nonprofit sector – especially funders – puts so much emphasis on. Rather, they’ve relied on their agility to carry them through. Both of them thought big from the start and weren’t afraid to pursue their vision. And both have potential to reach far beyond their home cities. Which means they might be coming to yours soon.

Assaf Weisz is executive director of the Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada – the nation’s hub for young social entrepreneurs – and a supporter of their social enterprises.

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