GSEN and Canadian impact industry - an intro to the promised land

Week 5 - 9 August was an amazing week. Global Social Entrepreneurship Network’s Annual meeting 2018 was held in Toronto, Canada on these dates, and provided us with an opportunity to dig deep into the planning of the Network’s upcoming five years and a peek into the Canadian impact ecosystem. As a recent member, it was fulfilling to get a seat the table during the Strategy panel and be able to discuss what ventures like Brodoto, ACT Group and others can get from the Network, and do within the Network, to help build a stronger ecosystem not only in our countries, but also on a larger and more global scale. Our conversations on the Strategy only confirmed the identified need to fill the gap of the “missing middle” (early-stage, affordable patient capital below 250,000 USD, or even down to 50,000 USD in smaller and less developed ecosystems), further the push for better regionalization, and a growing need for capacity building for intermediary organizations, especially those operating in countries with little to no ecosystem developed and hostile environment.

But, even though GSEN has an ambitious agenda, and one we are proud to be part of, that is story which will be told in the upcoming months by the Network itself. In the meantime, I want to share a few details about the Canadian impact system, those which gave a completely different meaning to what the Western Balkan people usually mean when they call Canada the promised land. As a person who has moved from non-profit to hybrid and then for-profit (operating as a social enterprise), I was amazed to see the work done in Canada, especially in the field of non-profit impact investment and community finance.

I don’t want to bother you with numbers, but for the sake of making the picture clearer, here’s a few info just to spark your imagination: Responsible Investment Association’s 2016 Canadian impact investment trends report has shown impact investment assets of 9.2 billions back in 2015, while 2018 data from SVX,’s report, a Toronto-based impact investing platform, Market Momentum: Impact Investing & High Net Worth Canadians found that the vast majority of high net worth Canadians (90%) are interested in impact investing.

Rewinding the tape, I wanted to know what enabled this to first become a trend, and then a way of doing business. In 2007, the Rockefeller Foundation (one of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investment founders) first coined the term impact investing, the first Social Finance Forum was held at MaRS that very same year and The Canadian Task Force on Social Finance conceived in 2010.  But before even this, the credit union movement had planted the seeds at the turn of the 20th century  and its principles inspired the establishment of community futures development corporations and Aboriginal finance institutions. In Nova Scotia, the Community Economic Development Investment Fund – a flexible tax-advantaged government incentive – has invested in local projects for social and ecological return since the 1990s. But the Canadians know they have more road to pave, and so they continue to work on enabling impact investment and social entrepreneurship in the charitable and non-profit sector, in particular by updating the Income Tax Act; establishing an impact investing matching program, paired with appropriate incentives, such as credit enhancements, guarantees and tax advantages, and establishing an outcomes payment fund; and specifying maximum prices that the government will pay for certain outcomes, allowing the market to respond with innovative solutions. Year 2018 is the year where the new finance and social innovation strategy for the country is being unveiled, but meanwhile, the impact economy continues to grow). (e.g Canada’s first social impact bond in healthcare launched in 2016).

So, here’s a look at just a few ventures and players we were lucky enough to meet during our brief visit:

- MaRS Discovery District- a not-for-profit corporation founded in Toronto in 2000, with a goal to commercialize publicly funded medical research and other technologies with the help of local private enterprises and public-private partnerships. As years were flying by, the need to do more than just medical and related research and impact work, and following a series of events related to social finance and social innovation resulted with Centre for Impact investment opening in 2011, with the idea to create new funding models that channel more money and bring more stakeholders together to work on society’s toughest problems. As of 2014, startup companies emerging from MaRS had created more than 4,000 jobs, and in the period of 2011 to 2014 had raised over $750 million in capital investments.

- Centre for Social Innovation started its journey in building the Canadian ecosystem a few years after MaRS, back in 2003, where they decided that creating shared spaces would significantly lower the administrative and financial burden for social enterprises, while allowing them to focus more on their social missions.  With generous support from the landlord, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Harbinger Foundation, the Centre for Social Innow has vation Spadina opened its doors to 14 founding tenants in 5,000 sq. ft. of space in June 2004 – one of the very first coworking spaces in the world! Fast forward, CSI now has over 2,500 members and five locations, including two buildings they bought themselves and renovated thanks to the innovation in social finance called Community Bond. CSI’s work is particularly relevant because of their other parallel focus - the planet. Clean economy and climate change oriented social enterprises are a clear priority, but businesses like Good Foot Delivery are also a part of their community.

With ecosystem and the enabling environment growing and bettering almost daily, it is easy to create impact, and businesses like Lucky Iron Fish (natural source of iron, targeted globally but especially in developing markets) or CoPower (a company releasing Green Bonds and fuelling growth of clean energy impact investment) just need to exploit the opportunities at hand.

In months to come, I hope to be able to dig into more of this inspirational country and its change makers, but feel free to Google away even while waiting for that - no matter how long you read, Canadian impact investing system will surely remain impressive to you.

Written on:

August 20, 2018