SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP: The Missing Piece to Our Social Policy Puzzle

Written for the Government of Alberta’s Social Policy Framework

by Tammy Maloney

In a province as abundant and innovative as Alberta, we are perplexed by our inability to find solutions for our most complex social challenges. The reason for this is simple. Our society is bifurcated. We are either for-profit or not-for-profit. We live in the midst of a seemingly never ending public vs. private debate and we ALL suffer as a consequence. Our health care system is overburdened. Over 500,000 Albertans access mental health services every yearSuicide is a leading cause of death73,000 of our children live in poverty and we spend over $7 billion a year maintaining Albertans living in poverty. The list goes on and on. If the sectors continue to operate in silos, strong relationships, joy, security, good health, love and all other elements of true wealth will remain an unattainable dream for both the rich and poor in our province.

Social entrepreneurship can reconcile the paradoxical nature of our values. Adding it to the Alberta equation will allow us to remain fiscally conservative AND care for our people. It doesn’t have to be about either/or anymore. It can be about BOTH. If we leverage the principles of social entrepreneurship to unite the sectors we can save taxpayer dollars AND help more people.

I had a quick grasp of the secret to sanity, it had become the ability to hold the maximum of impossible combinations in one’s mind. ~Norman Mailer

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

As per the Canadian Social Entrepreneurship Foundation, a social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to directly address a social issue (a social enterprise).

Social Entrepreneurs are often associated with a “triple-bottom line” business model that values a blend of social, economic and ecological outcomes (people, profit and the planet).

As you can see from the Return on Investment Continuum below, social entrepreneurship (as represented by the pink boxes) bridges the existing divide between the public sector (including charities and not-for-profits) and the private sector.

used with permission from the Trico Charitable Foundation (slightly modified)

Social entrepreneurship is the missing piece to the Alberta social policy puzzle. Without it, social policy at its best can only maintain the status quo. With its addition, we can build a bridge between the public and private sectors, provide a viable exit strategy for people overly dependent on government social services/charities, end our bifurcation and become the first place in the world that creates wealth, health, happiness and meaningful employment for ALL of our people.

“Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.”  ~ Canadian Social Entrepreneurship Foundation

Finding a Specific Gap for Social Entrepreneurship to Fill in Alberta

In 2006, I left a 10-year career in Alberta’s oil and gas industry in order to determine how to use business to end poverty. I obtained a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) with a focus in Social Entrepreneurship from the IESE Business School in Spain. Upon graduation, I joined the William J. Clinton Foundation in Nigeria as Chief Operating Officer.

In 2009, I returned to Calgary determined to find a gap that social entrepreneurship could fill. To familiarize myself with the social justice landscape, I volunteered for 5 different programs at The Mustard Seed and was hired as a youthworker at a Boys and Girls Clubs homeless shelter for teens. In 2010, I launched The Social Entrepreneurship Academy for Change Ltd. (SEA Change) and spearheaded several social enterprise pilot projects with youth I met at the shelter.

Through these experiences I came to intimately understand that just because the “market” doesn’t value Albertans facing challenges such as homelessness, mental health, disabilities, addictions, English as a second language, legal issues etc., doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. Everyone is born with gifts and everyone deserves a chance to find meaning and self-worth through employment.

Social Entrepreneurship is a Solution, Not a Band-Aid

The number of people dependent mainly on government social services/charities to meet their basic needs could be lessened if we leverage the principles of social entrepreneurship to build an economic bridge between the public and private sectors. In essence, this bridge would serve as a compassionate economy that values inclusiveness as well as profit. It would consist of social enterprises that believe disabilities and life’s other challenges are gifts, not “severe handicaps” or disorders.

I think it’s fair to say Albertans believe people should earn their way, but the barriers to employment some people face are real and cannot be overcome by trying harder or increasing their desire to work. Job training seminars, resume writing support, and job search assistance can only go so far. Business owners in the mainstream economy do not have the training (or the profit margins) required to accommodate people with higher needs. I’ve witnessed people lose hope and resign themselves to surviving on public assistance after failing several times to live up to the expectations of their employers.

To restore their hope, people facing barriers to employment need hands-on, paid work experience in a caring, understanding and continuous learning environment. This will help them gain the confidence required to ease into independence. Success can be increased if wages are paid in trust to the social enterprise and coupled with a structured goal setting and budget process. This approach will equip people with both the long-term planning skills and financial discipline needed to maintain self-reliance.

Building a compassionate economic bridge that employs people dependent on social services/charities to meet their basic needs is a solution. It provides people with a viable exit strategy from their dependence. For people with disabilities, employment in a social enterprise can add meaning to their lives. For people facing other challenges, employment in a social enterprise can end the vicious cycle of living in and out of poverty and/or homelessness.

The building of this bridge has already begun in Alberta. Examples include: (1) Alberta Job Corps, a government led, on-the-job training program, (2) Vecova Bottle Depot, a non-profit social enterprise that employs persons with disabilities and (3) Autism Calgary and Specialisterne (a Danish IT Company), a non-profit/private sector partnership creating IT employment for persons with autism. (Click here to see more examples)

To scale these efforts we need a cross-sectoral collaboration united towards a shared vision of creating meaningful employment opportunities for ALL Albertans.

Imagine adding a social entrepreneurship led “Jobs Next” strategy to complement the existing  “Housing First” philosophy of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. In this case, if the compassionate economy helped 150 street youth enter the job market instead of the adult homeless shelter system it would save Albertans approximately $20 million/year. (Based on estimates provided by Tim Richter, Former Calgary Homeless Foundation CEO)

This is the power of social entrepreneurship! It saves money and helps people at the same time.

Innovations Required for “Social Impact-Maximization”

Here is a sampling of innovations that could take social entrepreneurship in Alberta to the next level and maximize its positive social impact:

(1) Neutral Organizations to Steward Cross-Sectoral Collaborations – As outlined by Mark Kramer and John Kania in their Collective Impact article, “large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations. Substantially greater progress could be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social problems if non-profits, governments, businesses, and the public were brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.”

In Alberta, the positive social impact generated by the “isolated intervention of individual organizations” isn’t maximized because they compete with each other for scarce funds. To maximize our social impact we need organizations that neutrally steward the shared vision of all stakeholders. As per Kramer and Kania, we require the establishment of a “new set of organizations that have the skills and resources to assemble and coordinate the specific elements necessary for collective action to succeed.”

(2) Impact Investment Fund – According to the report Mobilizing Private Capital for Public Good published by the Canadian Task Force on Social Finance, social entrepreneurs aiming to maximize positive social impact could benefit from a lower cost of capital in the form of low interest loans with longer payback terms. (NOTE: In the case of early stage social enterprise startups or social enterprises employing people with extremely high needs, grants may still be required.)

(3) Infrastructure for Individual Social Entrepreneurs – In Alberta, according to research performed by Mount Royal University, non-profit organizations have launched social enterprises for more than 20 years. Therefore, they have an established support infrastructure of consultants, funding, capacity building, mentors and training. On the other hand, the support infrastructure for budding individual social entrepreneurs is in its very early stages. In my opinion, supporting social entrepreneurs desiring to transition away from the private sector could accelerate the speed with which social enterprises launch because they do need to transform a risk averse, non-profit organizational culture prior to launching.


Similar to Albertans, social entrepreneurship values both social and fiscal responsibility. It’s a healthy marriage of the heart and mind. It isn’t for profit or against profit. It aims to strike a balance between profit and the needs of people in order to create prosperity for ALL.

It’s time to rethink our social policy framework with social entrepreneurship as part of the equation.

First step: Look at the needs of Albertans and determine if they are best met by (1) a not-for-profit model, (2) a for-profit model or (3) the blended model of social entrepreneurship that values profits and people equally.

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