Social enterprises make good business cents

The Government of Canada’s $755-million investment in a Social Finance Fund could be good news for people living with mental illness.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has long believed that having “a home, a job, and a friend” are crucial tenets of recovery. In the world of mental health, recovery is about living a hopeful, dignified, and meaningful life — not one without limitations but a life that can accommodate challenges when they arise.

Many enterprises across the country are selling goods and services while using their economic activity to achieve social outcomes. And, according to the Canadian Social Enterprise Sector Survey, many of these ventures support mental health. In fact, upwards of 50 per cent are working to alleviate poverty — a condition often linked to poorer mental health outcomes.

The social enterprises that offer such support, like Krackers Katering in Ottawa, give those living with mental illness the chance to learn meaningful skills and contribute to a successful business while receiving the accommodations they need to thrive. In turn, employees act as ambassadors as they break through persistent stigmas by their positive interactions with clients.

From running catering events with CEOs to serving up delicious nibbles for elected officials, Krackers employees demonstrate their professionalism, commitment, and warmth as they shatter preconceived notions about mental illness.

They are also given a safe place to land if their illness temporarily affects their ability to participate. Employees are encouraged to “step in, step up, and step out” — by gradually increasing responsibility as they take on new challenges. If sidelined by their illness, they can ramp down their commitments and remain employed.

It’s this sliding scale, which can accommodate limitations brought on by illness without discounting someone’s contribution, that helps to build a person-centric business — in this case, serving good food for the greater good.

Because profits are reinvested in the company, organizations like Krackers don’t rely so much on public funding. That said, having dedicated seed money to increase the number of socially minded enterprises could do a lot to help solve some of the country’s growing social challenges.

From the opioid crisis to poverty reduction and homelessness, unlocking innovation with money earmarked for the greater good is a smart move — socially and economically.

In 2013, the MHCC’s Aspiring Workforce report was developed to reflect the experience of people living with mental illness who want to work, despite the barriers they face. Because working improves mental health outcomes, increases financial well-being, and strengthens social networks, we have created a toolkit, which was released today at the Conference Board of Canada’s Corporate Culture Conference, to help organizations open their doors to aspiring workers. The Practical Toolkit for Employers to Build an Inclusive Workplace is available for download.

At a 2015 forum called Discovering Hidden Talent, the MHCC hosted more than 100 social business champions. Their rallying cry was to tell the country it needed more funding for governance and leadership models for social businesses.

But whether the goal of a social enterprise is to feed the hungry, house the homeless, or get people living with a mental health problem into the workforce, there is an underlying connection: a benevolence that is a true reflection of our values as a country.

Back at Krackers, employees are seizing their opportunity to break the cycle of homelessness, gain new skills, and make lifelong friends. 

It’s hard to put a price on profits like that — any economic surplus is simply icing on the cake.