What helps people do good

Cathy Brothers.St. Paul's GreenHouse

Capacity Canada plays a vital role in the social enterprise and nonprofit community — but it is a supporting role. Rather than being the ones to find a solution to poverty or mental illness or school drop-out rates, Capacity Canada’s role is to support those on the front lines to be able to do the work they do.

As a consequence, Capacity Canada’s CEO Cathy Brothers has thought a lot about what helps people do good.

“We don’t want to live in a world that sees human suffering, inequities, poor political processes, unhappy relationships, and serious mental illnesses, and simply say ‘that’s just how things are,’” says Brothers.

Young people have almost always been passionate about making a difference in the world. “People finish high school and start out at university with a sense of empowerment, a belief that they can make a difference,” says Brothers. Too often, however, “by the time they graduate and get into the workforce, something has happened. For a long time, we graduated people to fit in to what was there. But that isn’t the future. I think we have to nurture and support young people.”

Nurture and support is important because innovation is a risky venture. “To me, social innovation means thinking about new solutions for complex problems, trying to think in braver, more creative ways about longstanding, complex social problems.”

Encouraging such bravery means creating a culture where people feel valued and know that they are supported in their risk-taking. Brothers is cautious about measuring return on investment and even social return on investment. “Investors have to understand that failure is part of the process. We only innovate when we take risks, have some failures along the way — and learn from them.”

For Brothers, it comes down to conversations. “At the bottom of all enterprise, we are accountable to someone about how we use resources, that we have made a plan and have done our research, that we have reasonable expectations that what we’re doing might work.” At the same time, Brothers believes it’s vital for all stakeholders to talk about what they truly want to measure, and why they value that, in order to make sure expectations are reasonable and shared.

Brothers is excited about GreenHouse as a way of creating a supportive culture that encourages conversations about social change. “There should be a thousand GreenHouses in our community!” she enthuses. “To me, GreenHouse is a fabulous model of what the world will look like more and more. So much of success is the networking, the knowing where to go, and GreenHouse provides that through mentorship and opening up networks. Mentorship is a powerful, safe way for students to talk over the issues they are passionate about and to learn from someone with experience.

“Something happens when young people care about the world and its issues, and feel that they have ideas that can make a difference.”


- Susan Fish is a Waterloo-based writer who operates Storywell, an editing company, and who has two published novels (Seeker of Stars and Ithaca).

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