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CSED Unleashed 2018

The 3rd annual CSED Unleashed conference took place this past week in Ottawa, and despite the more succinct day (1/2 day rather than full) and the focused agenda (no breakout sessions and only one topic – social procurement), it was a fantastic event – and the CSED team should be proud of yet another excellent conference.

The Crosslinx Social Procurement Experience

The day started with Patience Adamu from Crosslinx Transit Solutions, who spoke about the experience of social procurement as part of Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction, and how the community benefits program was introduced to mitigate the disruption caused by the Eglinton Crosstown construction.

Ms. Adamu highlighted two organizations, BuildingUP and A-Way Express in her presentation – highlighting how flexibility and professionalism on behalf of the organizations had been key to success.

BuildingUP had been one of the first organizations to reach out to Crosslinx, but initially it felt like a disconnect, this was a long-project. BuildingUP specialized in toilet installations, and while toilets were going to be installed as part of the project, nobody (other than BuildingUP) was thinking that far ahead.  What Ms. Adamu needed was window washing, they had a $200,000 budget to wash windows of the small businesses along the construction route.  BuildingUP saw an opportunity and was able to build a training program around window washing.

This story was presented as an example of how an organization stayed true to their mission – in this case to train and employ people – by adapting their business model to fit the opportunity that was available to them.

In her second example, Ms. Adamu spoke of the need for social enterprise to adapt to fit the needs of the customer in order to access social procurement contracts.  A-Way Express is first and foremost a courier company, and while Crosslinx had a need for courier services, they had a more pressing need for flyer distribution. A-Way was able to step-in and meet this need.  According to Ms. Adamu, one of the key competitive advantages of A-Way has been the fact that they have always been “reliable, prompt and courteous.” Again, the key message that the audience received was the importance of tailoring the product/service offer to the needs of the purchaser, and that even with a stated desire to engage in social procurement, large purchasers are still going to look at the reputation of the supplier.

The Buyers Perspective – Social Procurement Policies and Pilots

The first panel discussion moderated by David Lepage (Buy Social Canada), brought together Wayne Chu (City of Toronto), Stéphane Giguère (Ottawa Community Housing Corporation) and Andrea Knight (Public Services and Procurement Canada) to talk about social procurement policies and pilots.

The panel all spoke about the journey of getting to a place where Social Procurement is a reality.  Wayne Chu spoke of a 10-year plan for the City of Toronto which was rooted in their strategy for investing in communities.  The move towards social procurement came as they were implementing projects to benefit specific communities, but they weren’t hiring those communities to do the work.  It seemed counter-intuitive, however it took a catalysing event like the Pan-Am Games to truly change the game.    Stéphane Giguère spoke of a similar transition, as an organization, Ottawa Community Housing invests approximately $50 million annually into the community, and were witnessing the professionalization of the social enterprise supply side, and set out to explore how mission alignment could help to build capacity and scale social enterprises that they worked with.

Across the panel there was agreement that social enterprises have to be able to compete – this was perhaps most eloquently expressed by Mr. Giguère, who stated that “there can be no compromise on quality when we are responsible for the homes of 32,000 people.”

Another theme that came out was around the need for both sides, the purchasers and the suppliers, to be clearer about how they operate.  Social enterprise suppliers need to make sure purchasers know what they have to offer, and purchasers need to be better at explaining what they buy and how they buy.  Mr. Chu expressed that many purchasers were very hesitant to talk to suppliers as they feel it may impact transparency, or offer a supplier an unfair advantage.  It was clear that this was an area where the panel felt that more work was needed.

Everyone on the panel had a clear understanding of why social procurement is important and reiterated the potential of social procurement to advance social impact.  However, it was also evident that there is still a long way to go.  Processes need to be changed – as Mr. Chu in particular acknowledged the need to change processes to accommodate the extra burden placed on social enterprises – 5 days to complete a 100-page RFP simply isn’t enough time for a social enterprise.

Andrea Knight from Public Services and Procurement Canada identified a need for culture change among purchasers.  Particularly in government, the focus is almost always on the lowest cost, as purchasers feel an accountability for the best use of tax dollars. The issue of transparency is also strong within the culture of public purchasers, and while Ms. Knight said things are changing, she acknowledged that the pace of change was slow.

While the panel didn’t delve into the issue of accountability for best use of tax dollars, it seems this is an opportunity for social enterprises, particularly if they can demonstrate how their business results in cost savings elsewhere.  Mr. Giguère touched on this briefly when mentioning that a key challenge was how to translate the social benefit into concrete indicators.

As part of the final wrap up, purchasers called on social enterprise to be patient and to keep engaged.  David Lepage made an important final comment, which was to spend time to make sure you are connecting to the right purchaser. On a large infrastructure project, the primary contractor may not be able to engage with a social enterprise, but their sub-contractors may be.  This was echoed by both Mr. Giguère and Mr. Chu, who stressed the importance of finding internal champions and connecting with first level management – and others who influence purchasing decisions.

The Social Enterprise Experience – Tips for Supplier Success

The final panel of the day moderated by Ethel Coté (MécènESS), brought together Mark Marsolaid-Nahwegahbow (Birch Bark Coffee Company), Doug Pawson (Causeway Work Centre), Martin Chénier (Grey Oak Consulting) and Patience Adamu (Crosslinx Transit Solutions) to discuss tips for supplier success.

This panel yielded, at least for me, less overall insights.  But there were a few nuggets:

  • The need for social enterprises to invest in their capacity to deliver was clear – that in order to compete and take part in social procurement activities, scale is needed.
    • Accomplishing this may mean changing definitions of impact – Causeway’s Good Nature Groundskeeping for example found that in order to provide consistency in their service offering, they needed to retain their employees, which meant fewer individuals could be trained through their social enterprise.
  • Martin Chénier pointed out that much like how procurement offices need to explain to suppliers how to engage in their procurement process, sometimes social enterprises may need to create marketing tools that explain to purchasers why and how to purchase their services or products.
  • It is important to celebrate the wins, when a social enterprise wins a big contract they should be effectively promoting that.
  • As social procurement becomes more embedded in how purchases do business there will be increasing opportunities in the future for social enterprise to engage and partner with large suppliers, that don’t have the skills needed to run an employment-based social enterprise, but will find themselves in situations where partnering with a social enterprise on a component of their bid may set them apart creating a “win-win” for both the social enterprise and the larger supplier.


Overall, those new to the field of social procurement and social enterprise may have come away from the conference feeling like there wasn’t much happening.  Although the sector can take comfort from what was pointed out by Doug Pawson in his closing remarks, “5 years ago conversations about social procurement were all hypothetical, today, we are discussing concrete examples.”  Social procurement is increasingly gaining traction with larger purchasers and social enterprises need to be positioned to take advantage of the increasing opportunities that this provides.

A CCEDnet announcement closed off the day – and it was a good one – a $4.5 million fund is being established to support social enterprises in becoming investment and procurement ready. The fund will provide grants of $5000 to $100,000 over a period of 2 years. For more information on the fund, you can read more at https://readinessfund.ca.

For me, the CSED conference provided a source of optimism for the future – and a nice precursor to the Buy Social Summit coming up on February 5thand 6th, 2019 in Gatineau, Quebec. For more information on that, you can visit: www.buysocialcanada.com/summit.