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Working with social enterprises can be extremely rewarding with benefits on multiple levels. For the last couple years I've been working with Tradeworks Custom Products, a social enterprise that trains women in carpentry living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Working with and representing them with my corporate clients, putting together corporate gifts and promotions, has led me to believe that value is generated in multiple ways. I recently sat down with Mary Sturgeon of Junxion Strategy, a leading consulting firm focused on the human dimension of sustainability,to talk about social enterprises. By working with social enterprises, beyond providing training and job experience for marginalized people, genuine value and bottom line benefits are built for the companies that support them.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Many corporations have philanthropic giving programs giving out cash and in kind support to non-profits to help them achieve their missions. This type of philanthropy is important as many organizations rely on this type of funding to keep their programs running. However, a hand out is a hand out, well received and appreciated but not empowering. Social enterprise on the other hand empowers individuals directly working to improve their lives. The skills being learned by the employees in social enterprises makes life better for people, opens up new opportunities and builds confidence and self esteem in people working to improve their lives. In many cases purchasing from a social enterprise is more expensive when compared to conventional products or services but the synergistic value is often greater when compared to a purely philanthropic donation. As long as the values are aligned between the corporation and the social enterprise the relationship and value is worth more than a simple donation. It may cost more in your marketing budget but a company can save money and maximize value when looking at marketing and community relationships/philanthropy together as a whole.

Creators vs. victims

Working in a social enterprise builds confidence and self esteem. Empowering marginalized people to have a sense of control over their lives, feeling good about their work and learning transferable skills that open doors and opportunities. At Tradeworks women living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, one of North America's most marginalized communities, learn carpentry and woodworking skills, opening doors for careers in the trades. Some former participants have gone on to start their own businesses, further education and training in the trades and gainful employment at other companies in the community. As I've said, donations are important and play a role, but donations do not empower people where social enterprise does.

Making people feel good - HR benefits

More and more research shows that people want to work for socially and environmentally responsible businesses. Attracting and retaining top talent is a profitable sustainable business strategy helping to reduce the costs associated with training and turnover. If employees feel good about the work they do and the companies they work for then profitability, efficiency, quality and customer service all improve instep. By working with social enterprises that have values inline with your company and staff you can empower your employees by feeling good about their work and how it contributes to improving their community and environment.

Top 3 tips for working with social enterprise

1) Find a social enterprise operating in your community that you or your employees share values with. Having the values in line is strategic in terms of the benefits and exposure your partnership will produce. Working together for mutual benefit is a strong value proposition.

2) Go on a tour to meet the people managing and working in the social enterprise. Check it out, shake peoples' hands and look in peoples' eyes. The value I've received seeing smiles of peoples' faces has made my work with social enterprise worth it alone. This is also a great way to engage your employees and get them to see the value first hand that their partnership and work together creates.

3) Be patient and do whatever you can to help social enterprises build capacity. Developing working relationships with social enterprises takes time, resources and patience so take it slow, offer your time and expertise and help however you can. Remember and honour the social element of their operations, there's more than a financial bottom line and we must look at social and financial considerations in equilibrium for social enterprise and long term working relationships to work.