Tap Private Sector For Social Programs, Philanthropist Says

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The federal government is on the right track when it comes to tapping private companies and non-profits to help run social programs, says a leading Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist.

W. Brett Wilson, former co-star of the CBC’s Dragons’ Den, says he was consulted by government officials on the plan about 18 months ago — and he believes that unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of charities is a winning proposition.

The self-claimed “serial philanthropist” told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics that outcome-based partnerships have proven successful in other countries such as the U.K., where programs were put in place to help reduce recidivism among offenders.

The concept of a social bond — where the private or non-profit sector puts money up front then reaps rewards for strong results — could work for programs such as social housing to build homes and create employment, he said.

Since the Canadian plan is in its early “call for action” stage, he said it’s far too early for critics to claim the government is shirking its responsibilities.

“Until the ideas are put on the table and we start to talk about them, I think it’s premature for any of the parties to start bellyaching about whether this is good for the country or not,” he told host Evan Solomon. “There’s no offloading intended — in fact as I saw it, there’s actually an opportunity for the government to save money if these programs are effective. What they are saying is we believe the entrepreneurial spirit of our country might be part of the solution. Bring us your money, bring us your ideas, we’ll reward you.”

Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley launched the “call for concepts” last week, soliciting ideas from business, not-for-profits and the volunteer sector for ways to jointly finance programs, services and projects that deal with social issues.

The idea is for private-sector investors to put money up front, then collect a return on projects that are typically financed by government, such programs to address homelessness or hunger.

Wilson’s new book Redefining Success makes the case for corporate philanthropy, and he says he used charitable giving as a successful branding and marketing tool at investment bank First Energy.

“There’s no shame, there’s nothing wrong with raising money from a marketing perspective and doing it right,” he said.

Too often, the word "profit" carries a negative association when it should instead be viewed as a positive way to reinvest and cover overhead costs, he said.

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