Empowerment Is Our Social Enterprises No.1 Contribution


(Originally published August 9, 2013 by Enterprising Non-Profits)

The most energizing aspect of Malkah Joseph’s work with the Furniture Bank’s social enterprise, is the happiness he sees on people’s faces when he can help meet their needs, he says. This sense is heightened when he goes the extra mile for them — for instance, scrounging through the back of the warehouse to find just the right furniture item for them.

“My best thing is to uplift people and make sure that when they come to our facility they have the best treatment, and that when they leave here, they leave on a good note,” Malkah says.

Malkah has been employed with the social enterprise for three years now, a notable achievement given his previous string of unsuccessful attempts at steady employment.

Referred to the social enterprise through a social service agency, he says he’s been captivated by its warm and welcoming atmosphere, the opportunity to continuously expand and develop his skills, and the chance to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

More than anything, he says, his experience with the enterprise has helped build his character.

“Sometimes people don’t notice the character they have within themselves until a position like this comes along and it opens and expands a lot of avenues, where you are taking on positions (and tasks) you wouldn’t normally,” says Malkah.

“I think I’m a better person now because of this.”

Our social enterprise was formed several years ago in a time of difficulty — when its parent company, the non-profit Furniture Bank, saw a need to explore new revenue options. Furniture Bank provides free furniture to new immigrants to Canada, women and children leaving abusive situations and the formerly homeless.

The social enterprise program is the pick-up and delivery of donated furniture. It now does $1 million in sales annually and is able to fund about 70 per cent of Furniture Bank’s operating costs. But, perhaps more notably, the social enterprise employs approximately 40 people who are marginalized, including about 12 youth.

As Malkah’s story shows, empowerment is the social enterprise’s No. 1 offering, says Furniture Bank executive director Susanna Kislenko. People who are referred to both Furniture Bank and the social enterprise have already made what is often a difficult decision to start a new chapter in their lives. The organizations are just there to assist in a variety of ways, from mentoring to offering employment training through a program called Leg Up.

“One of the key factors for a participant to be successful in our employment program is the same key factor that would make anyone successful in any aspect of life or any endeavor that they’re taking on, and that is perseverance,” says Susanna.

“There’s an openness to learn that is really key because they do have access to resources and people that can mentor and all kinds of manuals here, but if you’re not open to learning and evolving, there is only so far that the trainer can go.

“So it’s about having a real openness to new experiences and a willingness to continue to challenge yourself.”

Kam Grewal, program manager with Furniture Bank, says she has felt privileged to witness the genuine care and “relentless effort” demonstrated by those involved with both the non-profit and social enterprise.

“I’m a big believer in that it’s not so much the organization or its mission or values that have led to success as the sum of individuals who give us the strength to be such a leader,” she says.

“It is because of these individuals that we are still here, 15 years later, and the same reason we will continue to thrive together.”

Over the past 18 months the social enterprise is focused on building more awareness of its business offering. This has resulted in additional engagement, boosting the need for capacity to deliver.

It now plans to open a second location in York Region with a regional partner. It plans to use this experience to better understand what about the enterprise is scalable and then possibly move forward on opportunities to expand in other parts of the country. We are is also exploring how to measure the social impact of its Leg Up employment program. It intends to eventually measure the social impact of the entire organization — a difficult but critical exercise for any social enterprise, says Susanna.

Reflecting on the social enterprise scene in Canada right now, Susanna says she is fuelled by hope in seeing the rise of a social enterprise community and the growth of supports, such as those offered through Enterprising Non-profits Canada.

“We now have enough years of work between a collective that we can pull out some conclusions about best practices (for social enterprises),” she adds.

It’s also encouraging to see funders exploring new approaches to providing support. Funders are asking how they can work with social enterprises in a way that is “truly a hand up and not just a handout,” says Susanna.

Writer: Michelle Strutzenberger

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