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The “Do-Tank”

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“In the total employment scheme of things, (it was) hardly even a rounding  error.”

Bill Young is talking about the 500 jobs he created for people with barriers  to employment — street kids, urban First Nations people, battered women and  welfare recipients. He had made a difference in 500 lives. Yet his  self-assessment was harsh, if realistic.

“It made us ask ourselves the question, how do we change the landscape?”

By the late 1990s the Hamilton businessman had become wealthy. He had built a  computer business and then sold it to GE Capital. An early investment in the tech start-up Red Hat had gone through the roof. At 47 he was set for life.

“Rather than thinking, ‘Why don’t I become a philanthropist in any kind of  traditional way?’ I was thinking, ‘I’ve got all this business experience. Why  have we separated this world? Why can’t business and doing good be linked in  some way, shape or form?’ ”

People in the social justice movement and political progressives have long  mistrusted the corporate world. Business practices were part of the problem, the  thinking went. When a business did engage in socially responsible conduct, it  was dismissed as window dressing.

As one of a new breed of social entrepreneurs, Bill Young  saw it differently. If he could find the sweet spot where doing good and  commercial self-interest intersected, there was hope of making a real impact in  solving social problems.

In 2001, he founded a non-profit called Social Capital Partners in  Toronto.Young wasn’t just interested in analyzing social  problems. He wanted to create a real-life research and development lab for  solving them. Not a think-tank, but a “do-tank.”

Five years into the mission, Young had created four self-sustaining  enterprises from scratch. TurnAround Couriers in Toronto, for example, recruits  only at-risk youth for its bike courier and back office positions. It operates  as a competitive business. But doing “only one deal a year and then having to  take so long to get them to be actually profitable was hard,” Young says. He  wondered, “Could we find a more cookie-cutter way to do this?”

He cast his eye on companies with a proven business model — franchises. New  franchisees were usually short on start-up capital. Why not lend at favourable  interest rates? In exchange the franchisee would agree to hire from a pool of  candidates with barriers to employment. Local social service agencies would train them to be job-ready. The more hires, the lower the interest rate.

Active Green + Ross, a car maintenance company, signed on to a pilot project  in Hamilton. Young selected social service agencies that understood “business  was the customer, not just the person they were trying to employ.” The agencies  would supply suitable trainees, not just available ones.

It started small. One franchisee accepted six community hires. Then another  franchisee signed on, and another. Instead of doing one deal a year, SCP was  soon doing four deals a month. Then one day the parent company asked to tap into  the pool of the community hires, without the sweetener loans. That surprised  Young. The owner of AG+R said, “You found us a labour pool we never would have  access to. They’re working out. It’s the right thing to do for the community.   Why wouldn’t we do it?”

Young thought, “Yeah, why wouldn’t you do it? Why wouldn’t everybody do this,  if someone made it this easy.” And that is the challenge Bill Young is tackling now.

As things stand, there are hundreds of social service  agencies in Canada doing essentially the same thing — helping people with  barriers to employment become job-ready, then finding them work placements,  often by subsidizing employers. Some agencies work with the disabled, others  with new immigrants. In Toronto, there are at least two dozen agencies helping  the young and jobless.

The agencies compete for grants, for clients (the jobless), and for employers  who will give them a chance.

Three levels of government also offer employment services. In the federal  government alone there are 31 youth employment programs spread across 13  departments.

It is a chaotic system. And it stymies large employers who want to engage in  community hiring. It is so fragmented, they don’t know whom to turn to and give
up trying. They resort to placement agencies to do their hiring.

Bill Young wants to build the business case so that placement companies will  tap into the pool of people with employment barriers.

“These organizations are seen as the ‘bad guys’ by community service agencies  because there are some bad actors, frankly, in the placement business. But the  large ones, the Manpowers or the Adeccos or the Randstads have these  relationships at very strategic levels of the companies (with jobs). They are  playing a very important function that no community service agency can play.

He is pitching to one of those placement firms to participate in a pilot  project. “We want to show that we can deliver a person who is grateful for this  opportunity as opposed to entitled to it for the entry-level jobs.” If that  works, Young’s thinking goes, community services agencies can concentrate on  getting people job-ready and bowout of the placement function.

It is early days in this latest experiment. Social Capital Partners will test  its assumptions, make mistakes and learn along the way. But Young says the  beauty of being a non-profit “do-tank” is this. When a commercial enterprise  figures out how to do something better, it guards the secret. Bill Young wants  to give it away.


  • jEN

    It’s been tried. I worked in the non profit job readiness/finding industry helping clients with disabilities, in the end all the employer cares about is how to make best profit in the end, they don’t care that client is grateful or that client will likely stay with employer for long time and be loyal etc… it’s a hard field to work in… you really in the end need to be doing a sales pitch not a charity pitch.

  • meagain

    ah but wait, turn around couriers, likely also raging spoon , out of this world? now these are a success however the difference is they are consumer/survivor driver from the top down! they work and clients feel respected in these jobs and not like a charity case – awesomeness!