This story is in partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC).
From a young age, Victor Beausoleil saw the power of community economic development first-hand: his mother was a sou-sou banker, part of an independent group contributing money to a common fund. “I watched these women organize economic relationships (with one another) to buy their first car, their first house,” Beausoleil says.
Today, Beausoleil is the founder and executive director of Social Economy Through Social Inclusion (SETSI), creating a social impact ecosystem in Canada that provides meaningful opportunities for traditionally underrepresented communities to access funding.
One way that SETSI does this is through its program, ‘New Narratives: Enhancing Equity and Diversity in the Social Economy Ecosystem in Canada’. Through a series of online engagements, New Narratives creates a safe, inclusive space for Black leaders, including social entrepreneurs from African-Canadian, Caribbean-Canadian and African Nova Scotian communities, to access financial resources and information.
The $755 million Social Finance Fund is one of these resources. Announced in 2018 and expected to be deployed this year, it aims to give non-profits, charities and social purpose organizations access to social finance loans. To help organizations prepare to take on these loans, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) launched the $50 million Investment Readiness Program (IRP) in 2019.
SETSI partnered with ESDC, and through New Narratives, engaged with other partners in the IRP network — such as the Centre for Social Innovation — to provide resources, knowledge and materials about the lived experiences of leaders from equity-seeking groups, helping IRP partners to become more inclusive, and better serve these communities.
There’s no lasting change without diversity, inclusion, access and equity
Beausoleil says that, through SETSI’s work, it was clear that there was an underrepresentation of leaders from equity-seeking groups in the social impact sector — but that these groups “were already economic actors within these ecosystems — we just didn’t have a full understanding” of the terms governments use to describe social finance.
Through New Narratives, SETSI created a program with easily-accessible content, shared through webinars, town halls, virtual labs, to not just to raise awareness around social finance, “but give brothers and sisters within our community access to an ecosystem that clearly is struggling with solving some social problems.”
Beausoleil believes that this struggle is due to the lack of inclusion within the social impact sector where small, homogenous groups work on large social problems. At the same time, social finance relies on private capital, meaning that “capitalism plays a big role. A lot of large organizations and institutions have found very sophisticated ways to build relationships and maintain power within ecosystems, because they believe that if you add emerging organizations, communities or groups, that their slice of the pie (i.e. the funding that they receive) will get smaller. But it’s not a pie — this is humanity.”
This competitive mindset, Beausoleil says, creates a knowledge and funding gap, with roots in structural racism, for leaders from traditionally excluded groups. This is why SETSI gives leaders direct access to opportunities within the social economy ecosystem. “That’s why I’m really proud of sisters like Jillisa (Brown, Director of Community Engagement), the SETSI Women Social Finance Webinar series,” Beausoleil says. “We’ve had webinars where…you have over 100 sisters from Vancouver, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, logging in on our Zoom webinars to talk about the economy in Canada. That’s remarkable, but that’s happening because organizations and leaders are recognizing that if they don’t engage folks in the margin of the economy, the social ills are just going to be exacerbated,” he says.
What it really takes to run a program like New Narratives
For Beausoleil, the top learnings for SETSI from the New Narratives program were mentorship and guidance. “I connected with a few elders and folks that were running similar models,” Beausoleil says. “Even though we had our own experience, we were doing it as volunteers. We had to add layers of administration and process (to manage the influx of ESDC’s funding). I think it was incredible to be able to leverage skill-sets (of elders in SETSI’s network), because intergenerational collaboration is how we build almost everything at SETSI.’
In SETSI’s case, this intergenerational collaboration means inviting leaders like Kwasi Kafele, former director of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, to share his experience and knowledge with young leaders new to the social impact space.
When it came to increasing awareness around social finance and social innovation, “We did not estimate the amount of time we would need in terms of coaching” for social entrepreneurs, Beausoleil says, explaining that many of the organizations coming to SETSI were earning less than $100,000 annually. “If that’s the case, then they have some HR issues, they have governance issues. There’s a lot of work some of these leaders need, and then bam — COVID hit.”
He adds that, while there were “a lot of variables that stretched our bandwidth, I think it made us so much stronger as a team” — not in the least because SETSI was able to onboard more people into its movement, as well as self-funding a new staff position. “We almost mastered the art of doing more with less, and I think that level of resilience is predicated on how we were founded.”
While training IRP partners through New Narratives, SETSI built a “deep, rich relationship” with partners like the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Through its Solidarity Working Group, SETSI brought together several IRP partners to acknowledge the deep roots of colonialism in Canada, and the ‘recent and disproportionately fatal incidents within Indigenous and Black communities’. In the group, partners worked towards advancing inclusion, diversity, equity, and access within the social economy.
This work has at times been stressful for Beausoleil. “As a 37-year old African-Canadian husband (and father) of four, I’m trying to engage people sometimes twice my age, no one that looks like me, no one that comes from where I come from — it comes with challenges,” he says.
Despite this, SETSI received very positive feedback from the IRP partners. They were “definitely excited to have a partner that can help them with diversity,” Beausoleil says. “There’s been many instances where SETSI has been leveraged because if we’re not in the room, it’s a stratified group. Ecosystems have not kept up with the demographic shifts in Canada.”
What happens next?
Despite his disappointment with the model and slow roll-out of the Social Finance Fund, Beausoleil says that he is “proud of a lot of the leaders in the ecosystem. Despite the fact that there is a clear lack of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, I’ve seen how hard some of these leaders have pressed to try to ensure the renewal of the IRP.”
SETSI is also calling for the IRP’s renewal, as well as the Social Finance Fund to be fully deployed. “That’s something that we’re going to consistently work on with the federal government, to really ensure that our (government) colleagues understand the importance of this type of work, because it’s needed, and the impact is clear,” Beausoleil says.
Even without the IRP, New Narratives’ work will continue. “The beautiful thing is we were doing it without resources before,” Beausoleil says. To strengthen its impact even more, SETSI is diversifying its revenue streams, exploring a fee-for-service model “to ensure that we can sustain the work that we are doing.”
Looking to the future, Beausoleil says that while issues still exist around basic necessities like food, housing and health, “we can’t be inspired. I think we have so many pervasive problems that we miss the beauty of Canada. We miss the beauty in each other.”
New Narratives play an important role in solving these kinds of social issues. “There’s a lot of work, and I’m sure it’s not going to happen in my lifetime — but I’m just trying to do my part,” Beausoleil says.