Career Skills Incubator’s mission is to empower the unemployed and underemployed to develop skills so they achieve their dream careers. We do it through mentorship programs, professional events and customized volunteer positions. Although a majority of our members are young people with post-secondary education, we strive to create opportunities for everyone to engage in the community, empowering them to be productive throughout all life transitions and stages.
Our social enterprise, CSCI Consulting, provides program support and consulting services for organizations interested in developing their own mentorship programs. We also deliver a wide range of customized workshops for nonprofit organizations in the areas of career and business skills training.
Career Skills Incubator (CSCI) was started in 2012 by young people frustrated to see their qualified friends unable to find fulfilling work. Many had recently graduated with postsecondary degrees and aspired to make the world a better place but could not find a meaningful job in which they could contribute their skills to society. Our organization came to life to provide opportunities for everyone to engage the community, develop skills that increase their competitiveness in the labour market, and empower them to be productive throughout all life transitions and stages.
Within a few years, CSCI grew into a vibrant community with over 150 members across Canada. Our organization is supported by a network of dedicated volunteers of all ages, who donate their time and expertise to run the organization. Currently located at the Centre for Social Innovation in Regent Park (Toronto), CSCI is connected to the local community of entrepreneurs, enterprises, and individuals passionate about social change and sustainability.
Since the beginning, people who came to Career Skills Incubator (CSCI) indicated a strong interest in creating social change through non-traditional solutions. As our organization grew, we received several grants for specific projects. These funding sources were not able to support our on-going operational costs, so we also continued to explore other ways to generate more sustainable revenue for the organization. One of our long-term volunteers, having worked in the social enterprise sector, connected us with a Social Enterprise Toronto network member who helped us develop the idea of providing a service for a fee. Since our CSCI team had experience in developing and managing mentorship programs, this came up as an area of expertise we could capitalize on and market to other organizations.
While other social enterprises often conduct a diligent market research to develop their business model, our case was unique. Before we even did any planning, we got our first client who offered to pay for our consulting services. The connection to Social Enterprise Toronto was critical in securing this opportunity: their member, The Learning Enrichment Foundation, became our first client. They needed help in setting up a mentorship program for their existing training for entrepreneurs and agreed to allow us to use this as our pilot phase in late 2014. Working on this project, we partnered with a private small business, MentorNetwork, which already had experience in providing consulting services for organizations looking to develop mentorship programs.
At the same time when we were working on the contract with The Learning Enrichment Foundation, CSCI Consulting also started our workshop offering. This opportunity came to us through reaching out to the community as some of our CSCI members volunteered to deliver unique workshops to other nonprofit organizations, including The Centre for Education and Training (TCET). As our relationship developed, we found out that TCET had a budget for hiring external workshop facilitators, so we submitted a proposal listing our workshop offering. A key person leading the business development in this area was one of our volunteers who had her own consulting/coaching business. As she had facilitated workshops on behalf of CSCI already, her company became our partner in providing these services to TCET.
Having only made our few first contracts, we are still in the process of figuring out our revenue model. Because we collaborate with private businesses on all projects, the revenue is split between our partner and CSCI (usually 50-50). From the income that CSCI earns from each contract, about one-third is reinvested in our organization, and the rest is spent on wages for the unemployed or underemployed person we hire for the project.
As a young grassroots organization, CSCI does not have permanent paid staff. We occasionally hire people as we get grants for specific projects, but CSCI mostly relies on volunteers who often have jobs or other commitments outside the organization. The limitations in human resources capacity has been an obstacle in developing and growing our social enterprise. We have been able to partially fill in the gaps by bringing in private businesses as partners who have contributed their time and skills in exchange for sharing part of the contract revenue. However, without permanent CSCI staff that is available during business hours and can dedicate full attention to our projects, operating our consulting business remains difficult. We are searching for seed funding to hire a social enterprise manager to address this issue.
Marketing has been a big challenge. We have been lucky to secure the first clients with little effort, but as the contracts end, CSCI needs to proactively market its services. The business development efforts have been sporadic as we lack the human resources to build up our customer base. We are reaching out to potential clients and try to keep eyes on opportunities but would like to do more.
One of the best things we did was to reach out as much as possible. The connections we have built with other nonprofit organizations, as well as small businesses within the Centre for Social Innovation resulted in relationships that led to opportunities for our social enterprise. We also benefited from being introduced to the Social Enterprise Toronto network, which shared the sector’s knowledge with us.
Another piece of advice we would give to young organizations like ours is to grab an opportunity when it comes. Our management team always listens to our volunteer members, who come with creative ideas. We want to provide opportunities for them to contribute their skills to the projects they are enthusiastic about, so when such opportunity arises, we give usually give it a try. The social enterprise idea started this way, as our volunteer connected CSCI with an organization that was willing to hire us for the project.
Like many young organizations, we could use help in securing seed funding to hire staff to run the social enterprise.
Other support we could use is to have an advisory committee specifically consisting of people with industry expertise, social enterprise development experience, and business development skills.
CSCI is an incorporated nonprofit with a board of directors. Our social enterprise is part of the organization’s activities and has not been formally separated.
CSCI has greatly benefited from being located at the Centre for Social Innovation, which connects us to the network of numerous organizations that share our values. Being associated with the Centre also increases our reputation as people recognize the name. We have been blessed to receive wonderful support from many organizations, including The Learning Enrichment Foundation, which helped us secure our first contract and brainstorm ideas for the social enterprise.
In addition, collaborations with two private small businesses have played tremendous role in developing our social enterprise. They have helped us with business development, to increase our human resource capacity, and by providing additional industry expertise in exchange for shared revenue. We have great synergy with these partners: together we expanded our project portfolio and grew our respective reputations.
Impacts & Outcomes
For over 150 members, CSCI is a radically inclusive community in which they find a supportive environment to develop the skills they need to succeed in the labour market. We incubate talents and ideas, giving everyone a chance to contribute to meaningful projects regardless of what life stages they are in. The social enterprise activities, although also designed to earn revenue to sustain our organization, provide opportunities for us to hire unemployed and underemployed individuals on a per-project basis. This way they can earn some income and remain attached to the labour market while continuing with building their career.
CSCI is also dedicated to promoting a mentorship and learning culture that embraces diversity. We believe everyone should have a chance to not only be mentored but also to mentor others as these skills benefit everyone in their personal lives and careers. Through our social enterprise activities, we work with other organizations to promote mentorship culture, bridge gaps to help connect mentors with mentees, and equip less experienced people with skills they need to successfully build meaningful mentorship relationships.
Vision for the Future
The pilot phase of our social enterprise is ending, and at the moment we are searching for seed funding to build a solid structure for our social enterprise. In near future, we would like to conduct proper business planning and hire a social enterprise manager who would take our business to the next level. We are looking into getting more clients for our mentorship program consulting business to grow the enterprise. In the area of our workshop facilitation services, we are currently in the process of forming new partnerships with private businesses that can enrich our offering.
CSCI is also looking into developing a more diverse revenue stream, which would not only expand our existing consulting service offering but also possibly include income generation from membership fees or other creative sources.
We have recently launched our own online mentorship matching platform (menteer.ca) that attracted many new members, which may present many opportunities for us to grow.
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