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With Impact Investing, Your Shares Help Change the World

01/22/2015 12:59 EST | Updated 03/24/2015 05:59 EDT
Sabine Scheckel via Getty Images

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Paul Cranidge lives in an urban "food desert." For him and his neighbours, finding a grocery store with fresh food is an arduous task at the best of times. In the winter, nigh impossible.

At 59, living on a disability pension, Cranidge can't drag his little shopping cart half an hour through the snow and sludge to the nearest grocery store. His only option is the meagre and overpriced selection of canned goods and junk food at the convenience store across the street. Fresh fruits and veggies are off the menu.

That changed last fall with the arrival of The Community Carrot, a new co-op grocery store that provides accessible and affordable fresh food in Cranidge's community. The struggles The Carrot faced getting off the ground highlight the need to find new ways to fund innovative projects that benefit the community and go beyond traditional charity and government handouts.

The north Halifax neighbourhood where Cranidge lives is home to many like Cranidge; mostly seniors, who rely on social assistance, as well as low-income families from Halifax's African-Canadian community. Most people in this neighbourhood can't afford a car and have limited or no access to affordable transportation.

To tackle this local food problem, community activist Norman Greenberg and a group of volunteers decided to create a local grocery store as a social enterprise--a for-profit business that invests its profits back into helping its community.

But where to get the funding?

"It's very difficult for co-ops and socially-oriented projects to get money for this kind of endeavour," Greenberg told us.

The project got an initial $115,000 boost, winning insurance company Aviva's annual Community Fund competition in 2013. But it wasn't enough. They needed at least $600,000 to buy and renovate a retail space.

More support arrived via Nova Scotia's social enterprise loan guarantee program. The Nova Scotia government backs credit unions to provide loans to social enterprises like The Carrot.

Of course, a grocery store needs more than just space. And with the loan for the storefront hanging over them, The Carrot couldn't secure a line of credit. Instead of leasing new fridges and freezers, they were forced to scrounge money so they could buy inefficient second-hand equipment.

To solve its financial difficulties, The Carrot team is getting involved in another innovative Nova Scotia program--the Community Economic Development Investment Funds (CEDIF). Through CEDIFs, anyone in Nova Scotia can support The Carrot and buy shares in the project. In addition to getting investment returns as they would with ordinary stocks, Nova Scotians who support projects through CEDIFs also get a 35 per cent provincial tax credit for the amount they invest.

Programs like Nova Scotia's loan guarantees and CEDIFs are examples of a growing trend known as "impact investing" that treats an initiative for social good as an investment opportunity. Impact investing opens up new opportunities for projects like The Carrot to access private funding from corporations, venture capitalists, and even ordinary Canadians who get to invest their money where they know it will make a difference.

A recent study by financial services company KPMG found that impact investing in Canada is already at $2.2 billion. And with greater government support, KPMG sees the potential for private investment in public good to reach as high as $30 billion.

To achieve that potential, KPMG says provincial and federal governments need to work together and develop a national strategy for impact investing. KPMG suggests governments offer matching funds for impact investments to encourage more people to lend their support.

In addition to providing an oasis in north Halifax's food desert, The Carrot created 10 new jobs. And if it can find the investors, The Carrot plans to make more of an impact in the community, including offering cooking classes and maybe even a grocery delivery service for home-bound seniors.

Just as The Carrot provides the food that enables Cranidge's community to prosper and grow, impact investing is the food that will fuel the growth of Canadian social enterprises.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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