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EMBERS Staffing Solutions Success Story: From Charity to Self-Sustaining Social Enterprise

This article was originally published on October 23rd, 2015 on the Social Finance website. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author , Senior Associate, MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.
logo55 is thrilled to partner with Trico Charitable Foundation to provide a deep dive into the 2013 Social EnterPrize award recipients from the perspective of social entrepreneurs or individuals working in the social entrepreneurship environment. The Social EnterPrize awards seek to celebrate the best and the brightest social entrepreneurs in the Canadian context. This year’s awards will be announced and presented at the 2015 Social Finance Forum. EMBERS is one of the four 2013 SocialEnterprize award recipients. This posts provides a deep dive into the case study. Stay tuned for the rest of the case studies over the coming weeks. Please refer to the introduction blog post for more details.

EMBERS (Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society) is a brilliant example of how perseverance, planning and foresight can turn a grant based charity into a self-sustaining social enterprise. Founder and Executive Director, Marcia Nozick, recognized the opportunity to develop a revenue generating service that aligned perfectly with EMBERS’ core vision, which was then able to fund the other programs supported through the charity.

Based out of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), EMBERS started in 2001 as a micro-enterprise development organization, leveraging grants and philanthropic funding to help support small businesses. Recognizing the challenges and time requirements to find new sources of funding, they launched the revenue generating EMBERS Staffing Solutions (ESS) in 2008. ESS is a temporary employment agency program to help graduates from recent addiction recovery programs reintegrate back into the workforce.


Despite slow traction after the 2010 Winter Olympics, Marcia was able to convince the board of directors to extend the program and with a revised business development strategy successfully grew the business from 8-10 placements per day in 2012 to over 100 daily placements by the end of 2014.

If you aren’t familiar with Marcia’s story, I encourage you to read the entire EMBERS Case Study to fully understand the journey they went through to develop EMBERS into what it is today.


The Trico Charitable Foundation recognized that valuable insights emerged through EMBERS’ journey. Here is a quick overview of the 9 insights identified in the case study:

  1. A long term view is critical in a social enterprise. Any new entrepreneurial initiative runs into problems. Without proper perspective and planning the best ideas can fail.
  2. Passion, drive, patience and perseverance are key. All new ideas face multipEmbersle obstacles. A champion is needed with the drive and willingness to overcome these challenges.
  3. Planning can only take you so far – learn by doing. Social ventures are often testing new models and new approaches. They must be comfortable making pivots as they implement their business model.
  4. When possible, align revenue generation with the social purpose. By fulfilling the mission, organizations can benefit from both grant funding and earned revenue.
  5. The Social Value Proposition isn’t enough, the product must be competitive. The ESS program was priced competitively, had additional employee screening, and provided a social benefit.
  6. Constantly evolve to meet customer’s needs. Understanding customer changing needs allows for a strongly competitive product.
  7. Align all decisions with the business and the impact. Assess all decisions against both criteria to ensure alignment with the overall mission.
  8. Industry knowledge can speed up adoption. Identify and recruit industry insiders to tap into specialized knowledge and experience. This will strengthen product positioning and the value proposition.
  9. Growing a business can be even more challenging than starting one. A different set of skills is required to build systems and operational processes. Ensure the leadership team is prepared, and has the skills needed to transition smoothly.

Marcia was able to maintain her vision of the ESS program despite concerns raised by the board, economic challenges, and a slower adoption rate. Through strategic decisions and partnerships EMBERS has become a prime example of how a social enterprise can align its business model with its social mission.

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