JustChange: Venture Philanthropy with Shallow Pockets, Big Dreams for Social Change

Social Finance - Thu, 06/20/2013 - 10:36

By Davis Carr

Never doubt that a small group of like minded people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

In both name and form, JustChange is a double entendre. 

This organization is similar to a giving circle, consisting of a small group of like-minded people who put their own pocket money together into an early-stage grant for social entrepreneurs or ventures in Ottawa (just a little change accumulates into a $1,000 grant every two-month cycle). And yet, JustChange also supports the genuine big-dreamed pursuit of a better world (just social change in Ottawa). Technically speaking, JustChange is a quadruple entendre, but I think you get the idea. 

Since December 2012, we have given out three of these shallow-pocket/big-dream grants. With each one we have learned countless lessons, but in the spirit of blogging, I will speak of three. I will describe our three grant recipients, along with one lesson learned for each. Some of these lessons may not be new to blog readers of theCommunity Forward Fund, considered a pioneer in community economic development and social finance. But for most of us near the beginning of our careers, the ability to learn these lessons hands-on, has been a powerful personal development piece.

1. The people and relationships are key

Our very first grant went to Bailey Reid and her team at Sisters Achieving Excellence (SAE). SAE is providing literacy, employability, and leadership programming to women at risk of becoming in trouble with the law in Ottawa. The JustChange grant will feed into this work and support her volunteers as they continue to grow this impressive initiative. 

The first grant was the hardest to give out, because it defined JustChange in so many ways—our priorities, our values, and how we could come together on a decision.   

What I learned was the importance of the relationship after the grant is given out, not for accountability, but because Bailey Reid is a like-minded person like us. She has a dedicated compassion for Ottawa that is easily apparent when she speaks of her work, either through her grant application, or when hanging out with us (during events like Hub Ottawa’s Wine-down, or our JustDrinks). From the ensuing discussions came ideas for further networking, partnerships, marketing, and business development. Each of the 11 JustChange members brings their own networks and expertise to the table, and we found this could be a valuable piece of our work. I like to call it weaving the social fabric of the Ottawa community. 

What we discovered was that the JustChange grant was more than a small cheque and vote of confidence. It formed the bridge for greater relationships across community leaders and entrepreneurs in the city. This is equally, if not more, important than the cheque. As social financiers know, a critical component of success is helping social finance loan recipients learn and develop the necessary skills for their venture, and to be as lenient and flexible as possible. There’s a reason for the word social in social economy.

2. Combining social good with marketable products – social enterprise

Our second grant went to Mahalia Majdoub, a recent graduate of Ecoequitable’s “Sowing for Jobs” program. Her idea is to recover the fabric material from used and broken umbrellas and convert them into bicycle seat covers that can be slipped on and off to keep your bum dry from the rain. Aptly titled Bumbrella. All proceeds go back into Ecoequitable to continue to provide apparel production and sewing employment skills for immigrant, refugee, and marginalized women.

To me, this is a poster social enterprise concept. Mahalia will sell a product using an employment program designed to provide immigrant women with the skills to work in apparel companies in Ottawa, or to create their own. The social benefit to Ottawa is evident, but Bunbrella is also a fantastic business idea with major market potential. The only bicycle seat covers I see in Ottawa are plastic bags, and with the popularity of bicycling in this city, it’s amazing that this idea hasn’t been seen elsewhere. Mahalia is the first mover into this market, and she has done so under a noble banner. 

Sustainable earned income is a consideration for JustChange (although certainly not critical). The logic is that being self-sustainable, a social entrepreneur like Mahalia is able to turn herself away from grant writing and focus on her enterprise, which in itself is to train women with skills to better their position.

3. The importance of seed-grants for great ideas

Our third grant has been recently handed to David Rust-Smith and Nick Breen for their Bibz Youth Employment Initiative. Their idea is awesome: teach youth valuable IT and programming skills using a birthday party entertainment service. Their social cause lies within the mandate that at least half of those taught must be young women and the reason for this is to address a growing social problem that very few women are entering the booming IT field. 

I feel like I’m fairly competent with technology these days. I could fix VCRs before I could ride a bike, and no new technology, from Google glasses to 3D printers, really throws me for a loop. But Bibz blew me away. The mentors, along with their mentee partners will show up at the birthday armed with laptops, paper, and crayons. All the children are asked to draw characters and landscape pictures on the paper. They can draw anything, from buildings, to lunarscapes, to Sonic riding a T-Rex. These drawings will then be implanted into a platform video game that the kids can play throughout the party. 

The kids can create and play their own videogame…man oh man, to be eight again!

But the challenge for Bibz is bittersweet: they only require a small amount of money to get rolling. They need much less than what is offered in the traditional granting stream, but enough that it poses a serious challenge to the similarly shallow-pocketed/big-dreaming (and unquestionably capable) group. So it appears we have found our funding niche.   

4. Now on to our fourth...

Our fourth call for great ideas is up and running until the end of June (visit our website for the one-page application!). We are all incredibly excited to continue this work and level of engagement with Ottawa. For me, being a ‘JustChangemaker’ and tapping into the local creativity and passion of the minds in this city for $50 a month has been one of the best deals I have ever signed up for.  

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This blog was origionally published on the blog of the Community Forward Fund on June 18, 2013. It has been re-published here with the author's permission.