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Building profit, social good and the win-win-win

How one Edmonton social enterprise is taking a non-profit into uncharted territory

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

Jul 15, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

Kyle Dubé estimates that he and YOUCAN Youth Services, an Edmonton non-profit, saved what we colloquially call “the system” – health, education, justice – $2-3 million last year. But Dubé also figures that a company he helped launch to accomplish this made a small profit, too. Welcome to the strange but exciting world of social enterprise. It’s a world YOUCAN is already flipping on its head, and getting results that are downright exciting.

Rather than a for-profit company feeding a small, non-profit that does socially supportive work, as is usually the case with social enterprise, YOUCAN, a national non-profit with a branch office in Edmonton, is the sole shareholder in a for-profit venture called Verto. Modelled off a youth labour organization in Boston, called Roca, Verto is essentially a supervised work-crew company in a province perennially crunched for manual laborers.  “We looked at it as a real business opportunity, especially in Alberta, where everyone is struggling for labour,” Dubé says.

But Verto, which can supply up to 30 labourers to a work site per day, is more than a business. It’s a company that allows YOUCAN to offer its at-risk youth a bridge into the working world with an employer that is, shall we say, more sympathetic to the challenges its employees are facing. “We knew we’d have more patience with them,” Dubé says, noting YOUCAN long struggled not with finding jobs for youth but rather with its youth clients actually showing up to work. “We knew we could be a buffer. We knew if they didn’t show up we could hunt them down and say ‘What’s going on?’ and try to support them.”
The results on both sides of the ledger – pure profit and social profit – are impressive. In 2012, its first year, Verto had 26 youth working, both male and female. Of those 26, 17 had full-time jobs by end of year, away from Verto, Dubé says. And the company brought in $85,000 in revenue (though ultimately lost money). Last year, Verto had 97 youth workers, and by the end of the year, 73 had full-time jobs and eight returned to school, while revenues hit $286,000. Savings for ‘the system’ were a magnitude higher.

This year Dubé expects 150 youth workers and projected revenues of about $600,000.

“We look at this as a win-win-win,” Dubé says. “A win for our clients, by giving good service, for the youth that we work with, and we want to have a win where one day we’ll make enough money to donate back to our charity.”

If anything else, YOUCAN and Verto is an interesting model on the frontier of social enterprise.

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