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Small Businesses Thrive When They Go Beyond The Bottom Line

12/24/2015 10:12 EST | Updated 12/24/2016 05:12 EST
Steve Debenport via Getty Images
Volunteers serving healthy hot meal at soup kitchen

I was just tucking into some background research on social entrepreneurship when an email landed in my inbox that cuts to the very essence of what it means to be a socially progressive small business.

One of our retail members in Toronto had put out a request for clothing donations for Syrian refugees as part of its clothing drive. It's the kind of charitable gesture we see all the time here at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

Gestures that are often unprompted, unsolicited and mostly unheralded. They arise from the goodwill of average entrepreneurs who know that there is a lot more to running a business than just dollars and cents.

Where the desire for entrepreneurial excellence meets the desire to make a positive social impact, you'll find yourself at the nexus of social entrepreneurship and chances are good that you'll find yourself at a small business.

For investors, it's an attractive segment in our economy for its very premise: generating financial returns while also being part of the solution for pressing and complex social problems such as ecological stewardship, literacy, hunger -- any number of solutions that benefit from innovative problem-solving.

Although it may come across as a relatively new concept developing alongside the sharing economy, for many small businesses it's simply part of their everyday operations.

The underlying idea behind the term "social entrepreneurship" is pretty straightforward: an entrepreneurial venture that not only measures a return on investment (ROI) in financial or monetary terms, but also in its social benefits.

Many corporate titans of the new economy are already running with the concept. Jeff Skoll, the founder of eBay, established a foundation and research centre dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Similarly, Jeff Bezos of Amazon has started a financial award for innovative approaches to solving community problems.

The concept really got me thinking about what it means to be a social entrepreneur. Is it really that much different from what many Canadian small businesses already do on a daily basis? It took me right back to the email about the clothing drive for Syrian refugees.

I know from experience that many of Canada's small entrepreneurs have embraced the notion as they continue to strengthen the social fabric in their communities. I actually don't meet too many small business owners who don't see helping their communities and country as big part of their mission.

You've seen these businesses' names on your children's soccer jerseys; you've seen their door prize at the community barbecue or a team of their employees at the neighbourhood park cleanup.

Beyond the obvious, visible gestures, there are socially progressive examples going on behind the scenes in the community every day. Non-profit boards and committees are regular beneficiaries of the expertise and time of countless small business owners.

Many entrepreneurs also encourage their staff to engage in worthy causes. More than one fifth of Canadian small businesses offer their staff paid time off to volunteer for their chosen cause.

As exciting as the future of social entrepreneurship appears to be, it's important to keep in mind that much of the compassion and empathy that inform the idea have long been in place for Canadian small businesses.

In many ways, they are living the theory every day. You can see it in the initiatives that speak to the particular needs of their community: sustainable practices with respect to environmental stewardship; giving free haircuts to the homeless to help them find work; and undertaking charitable causes simply because it is the right thing to do.

It ties into a much larger issue about productivity in the small business sector. I'm regularly lectured by politicians and bureaucrats about the need for Canadian small firms to step up their productivity. But profit maximization is not always the exclusive end game for Canadian small businesses. We are well-familiar with independent firms that transcend mere economics when it comes to the daily operations of their business.

There are slowdowns. There are downturns. There are numerous challenges (financial, regulatory, compliance, to name a few). There are ill-advised policy moves by all levels of government to contend with that affect profitability and crimp what we traditionally refer to as "productivity."

Yet to their credit, these small businesses always find a way to keep the doors open and the factory humming (and most importantly, the employees working).

When I see a small business plugging away all the while continuing their charitable and community-spirited endeavours (often in the face of near-insurmountable odds), it behooves all of us to reconsider what it means to be "productive." This might be as simple of hanging on to a few terrific employees even when sales numbers or economic circumstances suggest otherwise.

The future for big-hearted entrepreneurs is promising. Canada is particularly well-suited to see a proliferation of social entrepreneurship. A 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report found that Canada is a leader in early-stage entrepreneurial activity. The Canadian environment and culture for entrepreneurship is considered quite healthy.

We can all do our part to facilitate this ethos of going beyond the bottom line by supporting independently-owned Canadian business. When you lend your purchasing power to your community and ensure that your purchases are made close to home, you are directly supporting business owners who demonstrate how to make a positive difference in the world. Smart entrepreneurs know that the bottom line always underlines matters of humanity and community.

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