IntegralOrg recently spoke with Laura Istead, Executive Director of Two-Wheel View, a nonprofit youth development organization based in Calgary to find out more about the social enterprise they have been successfully running since 2016. Here is their social enterprise journey in Laura’s words.
At Two Wheel View, we use the bicycle as our vehicle for change in the lives of young people in our community. Through our programs, we help young people transition to adulthood, find a place where they belong, build skills, and find meaningful activities to be involved in.
We do this through a number of programs. One of our main programs is Earn a Bike, where kids come for 2 hours a week after school for 10 weeks to work on bikes and do activities. The program provides a safe place for kids to go after school with positive adult mentorship and a chance to learn social and emotional skills. At the end of the program they earn a bike, a lock, and a helmet. We also have our Bike Trip program offering 5- to 14-day experiential bike trips, and our GAP Program providing life skills, financial literacy skills, employment skills, and job search skills to young adults.
“If I were to go out and create a nonprofit organization today,
I would make sure that social enterprise was baked in – it’s a
missed opportunity if you don’t. We might be considered
as “nonprofits”, but we are really “for impact”. You can make
money and do good. It is possible.”
This year is our 20th anniversary. Ten years ago, when I started working with the organization, we were serving 12 to 20 kids - I had no idea that we would end up where we are now with several different programs and a social enterprise. Now we serve 600 kids a year and its growing.
The Bike Shop
Two Wheel View’s social enterprise is our Bike Shop – we sell used bikes to support our programs. People donate bikes and when they are deemed not the right fit for our programs we sell them in our shop.
We started the social enterprise in 2016. One of the first steps was the legal structure. We were lucky in a sense because we were incorporated under Part 9 of the Alberta Companies Act in 2005 – this allowed us to start a social enterprise quite easily because that legislation does not restrict nonprofit organizations from carrying on a business. We obtained charitable status in Canada in 2006. Since we sell donated goods, we faced no issues with CRA in operating the business inside the charity. It started out as just a few thousand dollars in the first year – now it contributes to a significant part of our revenue.
We plan to expand the footprint of the social enterprise in the future - we want to make it a place where young people can be employed and dream of providing bicycle servicing – so someone could get their bike tuned at a bike mechanic school similar to getting a haircut at an aesthetics school.
It is important to find ways of diversifying your funding so that you are not necessarily reliant on unpredictable donor streams or corporate support. Social enterprise has allowed Two Wheel View to “catch our own fish” and better ride out the changing funding and donor waves. I think that any smart nonprofit organization that is starting out today needs to look at social enterprise as an important tool in the sustainability toolkit.
Focus on Mission
I think nonprofits with social enterprises need to be “mission forward.” You want to make sure that your eyes are on your compass and that the social enterprise doesn’t become the thing that you focus most of your energy on. It can get a bit tricky because social enterprise can be really consuming (and fun – it’s fun selling bikes!) and can sometimes be an easier way to raise funds than traditional fundraising.
The mission should always be central, so the programs (or however you enact your mission) should always be your focus – and the social enterprise should feed that. We make sure that we are mission focused and communicating the right message – that we are a nonprofit youth development organization and we happen to have a store that supports that work.
Always be learning
When you are thinking about social enterprise, it is important to see who is out there doing similar things and reach out. You will find that 99% of the time, other organizations are really interested in helping, are invested in your success, and are happy to offer advice about things that went well and didn’t go that well. So before we started our social enterprise, we did a lot of research.
In order to stay sustainable, especially when running a social enterprise, it is vital to be collaborative, open, and always be learning. Recently, our team went to visit a local social enterprise where they work with people with developmental disabilities to see what we could learn. What I’ve found is that people are eager to share, not only the nonprofit community in general but the social enterprise space. We are happy to share the story of our social enterprise journey. By supporting other organizations, it actually raises our boat too.
Social Enterprise and the Pandemic
Two Wheel View’s social enterprise really gave us something to focus on as a team, as well as sustain us as an organization through the pandemic.
Running a social enterprise during a pandemic is not unlike a bike trip – you have to be flexible and figure it out as you go. Weather comes along and you have to make decisions about how to navigate through all of that, ride those waves, and see what happens.
We went from full programs, with kids and volunteers hanging out in our space, to having our programs cancelled and our space closed. But on the social enterprise side of things, we have been busier than ever because of the huge interest in bikes and biking during the pandemic. Because of the Bike Shop’s success, we were able to keep on most of our part-time facilitators by deploying them to other areas. We spent a lot of time looking at our programs and what we could do better and we invested in training. We flexed some of our programming to virtual offerings, which wasn’t something we had considered doing before but has been a new way of serving our community, particularly in this time.
We’ve made some changes to how we operate that have been really positive. We’ve gone to an appointment model for the Bike Shop which allows for greater accessibility for people who might feel less comfortable walking into a bike shop. Post-pandemic we will probably move to a hybrid model with both appointments and walk-ins. Most of us are now working from home and will continue to do so after the pandemic.
It’s been incredible to have the social enterprise during the pandemic because it has continued generating revenue for the organization and helped stabilize a changing fundraising landscape. When we get back to full in-person programming we anticipate that we will be in good shape.
This spring, IntegralOrg will launch a number of supports for nonprofits and charities who are considering social enterprise, including innovative workshops, small-group seminars and an interactive online toolkit to help organizations structure their ventures appropriately. Follow us on social media, subscribe to our newsletter, and stay tuned for more information on upcoming training and tools.