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Doing Good Has Its Rewards


Jun 1, 2004
Doing Good Has Its Rewardsby Mary Teresa Bitti

The idea behind RivInt Interpretation and Translation Services was to let the community know new immigrants had a huge asset: language.
Sunder Kaur Singh was a business consultant at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Toronto, Canada, when she was approached to take newcomers, who typically have difficulty finding jobs, provide them with interpretation training and then help them start and run a business.
Sunder immediately agreed.
"I have been an entrepreneur, but this was a social enterprise -- a business where the income generated goes back into the community. We started with 12 interpreters, formed an advisory committee and created Riverdale Community Development Corporation." That was in 2001. Four years later, it became RivInt, the social enterprise arm of Elspeth Heyworth Centre for Women.
RivInt is a non-profit, community-based business with 600 professional interpreters who provide services in 60 languages to hospitals, rehabilitation centres, community health centres and legal clinics. In addition to offering a much needed service to new immigrants, it is also helping them enter the workforce, and it is generating revenues and profits to fund its non-profit parent.
"Elspeth Hayward Centre for Women felt that bringing social enterprise into the centre was a good fit because the centre provides services to newcomers and immigrants and often needs language interpretation for clients," says Sunder Singh, Executive Director of RivInt.
"The interpreters are freelance and predominantly women. We are helping them get work experience, build self esteem, become self reliant. We do that by helping them develop professional skills. At the same time, the income we generate goes to Elspeth to help sustain the organization. RivInt is a profitable business. It is self sustaining. "
Now, RivInt is preparing for its next phase: "The goal now is to grow," Sunder says. "The business can very easily double its income and that means the income for the interpreters will increase."
To do that, RivInt needs to invest in marketing.
A cash infusion from angel investors will enable Sunder to do that.
Recently, the Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise staged a Dragons' Den style event called Social Enterprise Angels: Social Investing in Action. Four social enterprise finalists (defined as businesses that use their profit to fund a social or philanthropic mission) from across Canada competed for $40,000 (half in grant, half in a flexibile loan).
RivInt won.
"The banks are hesitant to lend money to social enterprises because they think we are high risk. We knew a marketing expert was needed, but it's something we could not afford without this money. The money is important but more important is that the stakeholders who made the funds possible are coming in as advisors," Sunder says. They include two female entrepreneurs who each invested $10,000 of their own money.
"The winning company spoke to me for a few reasons," says stakeholder Julie McDowell, who is in the process of launching ClearlySo Canada, a marketplace for social business. "Having been an entrepreneur where I relied on operating capital I got from bank loans, I understand that world. At the same time, there is really only one common way of financing a business in Canada if you are a charity and that is through grants. That's not necessarily what needs to happen when you have an enterprise that is producing positive cash flow. This tells the organization 'you can probably handle a loan so you can hire this person to increase your revenue.' "
A grant is also a signal to the financial community and investors. There is a perception charities are inherently more risky, Ms. McDowell says, adding she has looked at the financial statements of hundreds of charities and some are very stable with regularly increasing revenue and profit like a small business. The only difference is charities' profits are going back into social programs instead of shareholders' pockets, she says. The financial community needs to see this because "I hear over and over from charities that are turned down for loans by banks.
"I look at this and think 'if I devote a small portion of my portfolio to social-purpose investing, what does that do for me?' I might get a small financial return but I feel like I'm going to get a social return, as well. "
"Whether it's a commercial activity or a societal issue, we don't believe in private and public designations because we think that's an old label," says Lesley Southwick-Trask, president and cofounder of Burst!Transformational Solutions in Halifax, which helps companies move from one stage of evolution to the next. "We are more interested in how we look at organizations and sectors in new ways that allow them to challenge the status quo."
She contends it's time to redefine enterprise to incorporate societal needs: " We cannot afford to continue to increase the chasm between the private and public sectors. In [Nova Scotia] alone, within the next 10 years, most of our budget will go to health care, which means there will be nothing left for education, social support, and you just can't run an economy in that fashion.
"When you take a look at RivInt, it's meeting a need we as a multicultural society desperately require and yet it has a real challenge in terms of how it is financially supported," Ms. Southwick-Trask says. "I wanted to be involved in demonstrating that we need to keep evolving the model of an economy that meets the needs of people and does so in a commercial fashion making organizations accountable for what they do."

[Courtesy: The Financial Post]
December 22, 2009


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