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Our Community University Research Alliance is comprised of leading scholars and practitioners from 13 universities and 21 community partner organizations, primarily from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The focus is on the Greater Toronto Area because it is a major population centre with a high proportion of first generation immigrants and visible minorities, and growing levels of poverty, as documented by a series of reports by United WayToronto (2002, 2004, 2005).

Social business, the central concept of this project, is an unusual category of organizations (some might say an oxymoron) that functions in the market but is created to fulfill a social need. There are at least three distinct traditions that relate to social business.  

First, there are co-operatives, organizations that began to flourish in the mid-19th century to meet social needs (consumer loans, fair price for farm products) that conventional businesses were not addressing appropriately.

Second, is the emergence in the past 30 years of the micro credit movement, starting with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and spreading internationally even to wealthy countries such as Canada, a movement based upon the premise that business credit is a right, and with credit, poor people will improve their standard of living and become economically self-sufficient.

Third, is the social enterprise movement, premised on the belief that the market can be used to address the needs of marginalized youth, groups with disabilities such as persons with chronic psychiatric and intellectual problems, and those suffering from racism (recent immigrants) and historical oppression (Aboriginal peoples). Social enterprises include stand-alone organizations, mostly nonprofit but also businesses embedded within nonprofit organizations.

These traditions are distinct, but share the common denominator of attempting to combine an approach that earns revenues from the market while fulfilling a social mission, primarily addressing the needs of marginalized persons. Social businesses are predicated upon the assumption that it is possible to balance marketplace activity with social commitments, a matter that is very contentious, and even more so in view of the recent turmoil in financial markets. Social businesses differ in that, from their inception, their social mission is as important as or even more important than their economic goals.

The objectives of this CURA are:


  • to understand the impact of social businesses in addressing the needs, both social and economic, of marginalized persons in the GTA; 

  • to work with social businesses through a community-based participatory research strategy applied to 14 case studies to help the organizations develop strategies in building capacity around such needs as leadership, management, governance, marketing, and external supports such as access to capital and appropriate government policies, and to put in place a process for researching the effectiveness of these strategies;

  • to synthesize knowledge from these case studies plus a broader scan to assist the development of social businesses more generally;

  • to add to existing knowledge on leadership, management, governance, marketing and finance of social business. This step will include the development of education and policies that relate to the capacity issues addressed in the research.