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The promise of social innovation, enterprises as a source of social good. Interview with the author:

“François you wrote about social innovation, what brought about your interest in this topic?”

Francois Couillard

In business I worked for high performing organisations but found that sometimes the motives behind the behaviours challenged me. Simply chasing shareholder value is not something that I found most rewarding.

So I left the for-profit sector to have a look at the non-profit side of the fence and here I found a very different world. A world where for the most part I found high motives and very strong values, but the processes and the way the organisations were run were more rudimentary compared with the profit sector. Financial sustainability is a huge issue for them, with their organisational effectiveness often lacking full efficiency.

Two years ago when I left my last  executive position I decided to set up my own consultancy and found this “area in between”. A space between for-profits and non-profits that combined the efficiency of business with the lofty goals of non-profits. A space where social innovation occured. I met with the Grameen Creative Lab and found a new way of creating an enterprise, a social business: a company with a deep social raison d’être but which operated with the efficiency of a business. A place where sound, lofty drivers, motivated people and good business sense allowed for financial sustainability.

I attended a number of social enterprise events and conferences where Muhammad Yunus and other leaders and pioneers in that area convened to see social innovation, social enterprise, social finance arise and spread.

I became involved with several social innovation initiatives likefor example The HUBs,  a constellation of creative co-working spaces dedicated to the active development of social innovators, now present in the five continents.

“why do you think social innovation important today?”


This requires companies to seek other motivations.

A watershed moment for business occured with the 2011 Porter and Kramer article that appeared in the HBR. Here they openly stated the need to deliver more than profit and contribute to “creating shared value” for society.. There is tremendous pressure to bring about innovation, and to do so in a way that delivers true value to society and not only to the shareholders.

“and you also mentioned the inefficiencies of the non-profit” Non-profits are under huge pressure to operate more efficiently and create financial sustainability. They must find source of funding beyond grants and donations. This is where there is a lot if impetus for them to embark into social innovation, through new business models such as social enterprises.

“there’s a lot of publications about social innovation and social enterprise in what way is this different?”

The distinguishing point of this publication is that it looks at social innovation mainly from a business perspective, most other similar titles come from a not-for-profit or governmental point of view. So what I am trying to do in this publication is to help business actors make sense of this relatively new concept of social innovation. Most of them are still struggling to find the best way to move in the areas of CSR and sustainability and are now faced with the urgency of learning the best ways to adapt to this whole new world of social innovation that is quickly developing.

“what kind of social innovation do you expect companies to embrace?” In the book I talk about three pillars of social innovation, three areas where companies can make a difference. The first one is through new products and markets, products that create social value or positive environmental impact or new markets that have previously been served and where you can serve a new social need e.g. Adidas who launched a new shoe in Bangladesh and in India that would sell for only 1$ – Their main goal was not pure profit, the main goal was a social goal: make people look after their feet by having an affordable shoe that would keep them clean and healthy.

The second pillar of social innovation for companies is to do things to reduce your footprint.

This can be achieved in a number of ways from reducing carbon footprint, to reducing waste, to increasing the use or development of clean energy or sustainable transport.

The third pillar is that of social wellbeing. Improving the social wellbeing of employees but also of the people in the communities that surround your company.

It could be, for example, the creation of gyms, of stress management programs, of childcare centres.

In the publication I also give specific examples that include funding work of non-profits in your community, help libraries and educations projects etc.

“what is our role, as change makers, to make social innovation happen?”

francois couillard

I’ll give you an example, if you are doing a scientific or medical innovation, you work in a lab and create a molecule. You then develop it from there into a commercial product. But the process of social innovation consist in first identifying the social innovation wherever it emerges- which can be in a village, in a non-profit or in your own company. Then the challenge is to find ways to scale up that initial spark of innovation.

It really boils down to a mindset: becoming aware of the needs of society and then better match the activities at work with the needs of the community that surrounds you and that you can affect.

“do you have personal experiences of making this social innovation happen or helping it to happen?” I mention many in the book.

For example, in Canada I worked with  a large business development bank whose role was to foster and finance small and medium sized businesses. I was asked to develop a business case to help social enterprise. Their regular clients were mainstream businesses but they saw this growing group of social enterprises as an emerging phenomena. They were looking to change their lending patterns to adapt to these new entrepreneurial models.

I also witnessed how the mainstream financial world is interested and keen to learn how to adapt to social innovation. For example the Royal Bank of Canada, Canada’s largest financial institutions created recently a social impact fund to support social innovation.

Another example is work I did for a University in Toronto where I was asked by professors to develop a business plan to scale up a healthcare technology platform they had created. The platform provides algorithms so that physicians can put their hands on real time data that predicts clinical outcomes.- They hope to be able to predict the onset of infections 24 hours earlier in neo-natal babies.

This data could allow physicians to put in place advance treatments, thus reducing adverse health effects on neo-natal babies and at the same time reducing the costs hospitals would have had to incur if they had to treat the budding infection.

The business model developed for them included a social enterprise platform to encourage the spread of this new technology around the world to other hospitals and researchers while creating a sustainable commercial funding model.

“On a final note” I hope this book brings useful concepts and ideas  to people who want to make meaningful work happen!

You can purchase, read, gift this ebbf publication clicking here to ebbf’s Amazon webpage

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