Wendy MacDermott isn’t your typical sales rep because she doesn’t sell stuff.

Today she’s selling an idea.

As the executive director of southwestern New Brunswick’s branch of the United Way, MacDermott has spent the past year overseeing the evolution of one of the region’s most-high profile charities into a more entrepreneurial organization. “We have done things one way for 50 years,” she says. ”We are now making fundamental investment decisions based on key principals: innovation, collaboration and partnerships.”

For some that might mean creating a social enterprise, which is a company with both a social mandate and a commercial revenue source. For others, it means adopting business principles into their charitable operations. The latter is how MacDermott would describe her United Way branch, which grants around $1 million annually. “The United Way is now behaving more like a Social Enterprise than we did in the past,” she says, “but I don’t think we are going to get in the business of creating a product to sell in order to develop a revenue stream. We can, though, choose to see our gifts as investment rather than donations.”

That evolution is born of a desire by MacDermott and her board to be able to measure the United Way’s impact in the communities it serves from Sussex to St. Stephen, N.B., including the city of Saint John. It is also increasingly what United Way donors wants too.“The monies that we steward on behalf of 5,000 donors are social investments,” she says. “They are not just charitable. We have to make the best investment decisions. Leaders are asking for more transparency.”

It’s called a social return on investment, which places the emphasis on outcomes, rather than the financial returns sought by traditional business investors. For example, if the United Way invests in an early childhood non-profit, MacDermott says the board will expect tangible results, in this case school readiness.  “If [the children] are not arriving at kindergarten ready to learn then we’d move the investment elsewhere.”

The Saint John region, with its growing IT and start-up community, provides MacDermott with a template and, she hopes, volunteers and donors to help drive fundraising, growth and community impact. McDermott wants to see more people direct those skills to help solve significant social problems, including illiteracy, poverty, domestic abuse and seniors care. Here’s her pitch: “In addition to making a modest return, you help the community…There is more to it than just giving to charity, she says. “You are helping to start a social enterprise. That is bold and visionary.”

Consider the story of The Hospice Shoppe, a consignment store run by volunteers, with revenues going directly to Hospice Saint John and its 10-bed palliative care home on the city’s west side. “United Way used to provide a lot of funding,” says MacDermott, “but they don’t need us anymore.”

It’s the same story with Voila: Saint John’s Green Cleaning Team, which arose from the Saint John Learning Exchange,got some initial funding from the United Way and is now self-sustaining. Now it’s the United Way purchasing services from them.

“We want to invest in healthy strong, effective, non-profit organizations,” says MacDermott. “We want to help non-profit leaders to be really innovative and effective.”

Wicked Ideas writer Craig Pinhey is a freelance writer, whose work has appeared in The Coast, the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, Macleans and Wine Access. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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