What it Means to Be a Social Enterprise

By: Jack Xu

By: Latha Sukumar – Executive Director

Here is how small talk happens at any given party:  After the initial pleasantries, people cautiously delve into the area of “work”.  “So what do you?”  “Well”, I say “I am a lawyer by profession and manage a non-profit as its Executive Director?”  The next questions “What does it do?  Is it a charity?” To which I say, “No it’s not a charity.  Actually, it’s a non-profit social enterprise”.  Now they are completely confused.  Then I go to great lengths to explain that there are non- profits that are not charities.  “The key difference”, I persist, “is we are unable to issue tax receipts for donations, but like charities we are exempt from paying taxes”.  “So what’s a social enterprise then?” is the next question.  If their eyes have not glazed over by now, I explain that “social enterprise” doesn’t have a legal definition.  In fact, it can either be a for-profit or a not for profit organization.  All it means is that the primary purpose of the enterprise is “social” aka to do good, rather than to make money, and the enterprise part goes to how we earn our revenue.  I also add that non-profit social enterprises do not wholly depend on government grants, but earn revenue by selling their services with paid professional staff.   I point out that most non-profits have difficulty monetizing their services, hence their dependence on government grants.  “How then did you manage that?’  “Well”, I say, “luck has something to do with this.  In the language services industry there is a market for our services.  Our problem actually is that as a non- profit we are an anomaly, in an industry that is among the fastest growing and valued at over 50 billion USD, worldwide”.

It was in 2006 that MCIS’ Board wisely made the decision to earn revenue from selling interpretation and translation services, B to B.  Our customers are in the broader public sector, at all levels of government and in the community.  They engage MCIS when providing public services to people who do not speak or read English or French.

A Social Enterprise represents the best of all worlds.  It invokes our entrepreneurial spirit to grow an organization with sound fiscal planning and policies.  On the other hand, since the money is used for a social purpose, it gives us the satisfaction of investing surplus back into the community in creative ways.  Of course, the challenges are numerous.  Given it is not formally recognized as a legal entity, and the enterprise part can overpower, with global competition for language services, there is the risk of mission drift.  We are, therefore, constantly grappling with ways in which we can stay true to our purpose.  This we have done with intentional investments in free services for those who cannot afford them, fees on a sliding scale for worthy causes and free training programs for newcomers in interpretation and translation, vocations that can help them earn money while getting a foot-hold in the labour market.  We also have a number of initiatives to advocate for and advance multilingual access to essential public services, for all.  However, unlike your plain vanilla social enterprise that runs a bakery which earns money to train and hire people from a disadvantaged groups, ours is complex.  We have many facets to what we do.  We deliver over 50 different kinds of language services, we are pan Canadian, we have clients in the private and public sector and we hire and train newcomers and language experts as staff and contractors to offer expert consulting and professional services while also advocating for and advancing language rights and working conditions for language professionals.   We therefore strive to create a work culture that embodies our vision, of connecting people globally through languages, and our mission, of improving access to critical information and services through professional language solutions.  We also have key performance indicators (KPIs) to track, document and measure our outputs and the outcomes of all that we do.

MCIS has come a long way from the small Scarborough-based non- profit it was in 1996, wholly dependent on government funding, providing interpretation services in 25 languages, to becoming a pan-Canadian language solutions company which generates 90% of its annual revenue through a commercial business enterprise and invests in initiatives that advance the cause of improving linguistic access for all. We are now a one-stop shop that offers over 50 language services including interpretation,  translation, transcription, subtitling, dubbing, voice-overs, CART and Braille.  We offer services in over 300 languages including ASL to over 800 organizations in the Canadian broader public sector and are rapidly deploying video and telephonic technology to participate in the global market to serve all industries.

What’s in store for MCIS as a fast growing model social enterprise?  We would like to take a balanced approach to growing sustainably while fulfilling our vision and mission. This means we will keep step with technological innovations and become our customer’s strategic business partner, rather than just another service provider. This we hope will help us to stay ahead of the curve with the imminent disruption from AI.  It also means we will build strategic partnerships with Translators without Borders and similar organizations to improve language access globally for disenfranchised populations facing natural and human-made disasters.  True to the spirit of all non-profit social enterprises, MCIS’ fiscal and social objectives will equally permeate the entire organization, defining its culture, the  role of individual staff members and its growth trajectory.