Business In Vancouver: Seeing Is Believing

December 10th, 2007
During a visit last month to Strathcona Community Garden, urban agriculture co-ordinator Samantha Charlton shared her vision with (I-r) Jason Farris of Cltizens' Bank, Robert Fung of Salient Group and BC Hydro's Bob Elton. Visitors drank tea made from mint grown in the garden.

During a visit last month to Strathcona Community Garden, urban agriculture co-ordinator Samantha Charlton shared her vision with (I-r) Jason Farris of Citizens' Bank, Robert Fung of Salient Group and BC Hydro's Bob Elton. Visitors drank tea made from mint grown in the garden.

Seeing Is Believing
A philanthropic program garnering support from CEOs adheres to a simple principle: You can’t solve a problem without seeing it

December 2007
By Krisendra Bisetty 

Philanthropic objectives, run the gamut of our desire to improve the material and social welfare of others, but in the busy corporate world they’re often measured by how willing the powerbrokers are to loosen the purse strings.

For the growing alumni of an eye-opening program, however, executives are finding corporate philanthropy means more that simply reaching for a cheque book. It’s engagement hands-on community revitalization that makes ideal use of their skills as business leaders.

The program, now in its second year in Canada, adheres to a simple principle: You can solve a problem without seeing it.

“One way that the program fits with corporate philanthropy is looking at what a business has to offer other than donations of money,” said Annastasia Palubiski, leader of the Seeing is Believing program. “Or, if they are providing donations of money,” how do they leverage that to create a greater impact?”

The program was born from the realization that sustainable solutions to seemingly chronic issues, such as poverty, homelessness and hunger, have to involve business, which has a stake in the health of communities in which they operate.

It was started by Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, in 1990. Recognizing the need for business leaders to get involved in community economic development, Charles saw that the way to get them engaged was to take them out to see some of the issues on site.

In 2005, the business-led, non-profit corporate responsibility consultancy Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR), in conjunction with Clarence House and with Business in the Community, a movement of more than 800 of the United Kingdom’s top companies, committed to improving their positive impact on society, brought the program to Canada.

Although still in it infancy here – there’s a network of about 80 alumni who’ve participated in social enterprise-focused tours in Vancouver, Surrey and Toronto – the impact has been quite significant says Palubiski.

“A lot of the groups that have participated have looked at their procurement policies, and these are things that they do day-to-day – ordering, catering services, dealing with waste management and recycling, and what they’ve done is start to look at groups in the community that can supply some of those services,” she said.

After a recent tour, software company Business Objects started a contract with Potluck Café Society, a social enterprise in the Downtown Eastside that provides a catering service that brings in revenue, 100% of which goes directly to funding employment, training and meal programs for local residents.

Meantime, an executive with Electronic Arts toured a drop-in centre for homeless youth in downtown Vancouver and then invited them to their site to test its products, something which EA pays people to do in any event.

The experience is equally rewarding for executives. Bob Elton, president and CEO of BC Hydro and chairman of CBSR, recently led a half-day tour of 13 executives after he was invited by then host, Capt. Gordon Houston, president and CEO of the Vancouver Port Authority, to tour United We Can, a bottle depot that serves thousands of inner city residents every year.

“You’re obviously aware of the fact that the people are in tough circumstances,” said Elton, “but just as a business person to see the enterprise of somebody that can turn that into a business and can manage people who may be in really tough shape and make sense of it, it’s a remarkable thing.”

And the fact that CEOs were debating the issues among themselves was a bonus, he added.

To solve big problems, a hands-on approach is vital, said Elton. “I think as a CEO you have to be able to deal at a 35,000-foot level, but you also have to be able to quickly go to the ground and find out what’s happening, as long as you can [extract] principles from it.”