Jane and I founded Cause+Affect 10 years ago and our work has always fallen in two different but overlapping categories.
On one hand, there is the brand, design and communications work we do for private clients. This is how we pay the bills and are lucky enough to work with clients we admire, on projects we believe in.
On the other hand, we create our own initiatives and projects to fulfill our own creative desires. These projects – such as Movers and Shapers, KeytoVan, PechaKucha Night and, most recently, FUEL – have focused on adding to the culture of Vancouver, highlighting the people that are doing good work and, most importantly, physically bringing people together to inspire community.
These projects have always fallen under the Cause+Affect corporate brand as they support our overall vision and values. The big difference between these and our other projects is that they have a very different client – the general public.
Can you do good work as a for-profit entity?
In our early days, we discussed the creation of a not-for-profit arm of Cause+Affect to take on these public-facing projects. It seemed like the right thing to do based on our limited understanding of business models and our belief that these projects were for the greater good, not profit.
We quickly discovered that the not-for-profit structure was actually quite time consuming and didn’t match the entrepreneurial “just do it and see what happens” nature of our agency. Long lead-time grant applications, committees, boards and other bureaucracy challenged the way we liked to do things and we found that we could do more and do it more efficiently under our existing business structure.
But this meant that we were doing “good work” in an entrepreneurial fashion, which brings its own set of challenges – mostly risk.
What if you build it and they don’t come?
See, there is little risk when you have a grant in place. Yes, there is the risk that you won’t get it ever again, but you have certain guarantees in the meantime. With our work, the only way we survive is if people show up to our events. This means that we have challenged ourselves to satisfy two different objectives: satisfy the needs of the client (the audience) AND our own personal goals of making change.
Another challenge is that our corporate structure can distract people from our good intentions with discussions around profit-making. The success of PechaKucha night, for example, has led people to suspect that we are generating vast sums of money from what is intended to be a non-profit event.
The reality is quite different. We actually calculate our production costs based on 1/2 rate fees of our staff, with Jane and I volunteering our time. At these rates, only a sell out event will allow us to break even with those costs or run the event non-profit.
This is only possible if we sell every single ticket. If we fill just half the seats, we absorb the cost.
The success of PechaKucha Night has been a wonderful opportunity for us and we have greatly benefited from it and are grateful. But it is not a profit-making venture.
Could FUEL turn profit into fuel for social innovation?
With the launch of FUEL, we are thinking differently. We want FUEL to be a vehicle for action. That action needs funding and we want FUEL to be able to provide that funding.
Therefore, we have structured FUEL as a social enterprise – an undertaking that can be for-profit, but focuses on addressing social issues and seeks to provide systemic solutions to achieve a sustainable, social objective.
While a business entrepreneur measures performance in profit and return, we will measure FUEL’s success in terms of the impact we have and its ability to use profit and return for the greater good.
As FUEL grows and eventually (hopefully) makes a profit, we want to work with our community to put that profit to use. We envision a FUEL fund to distribute funding across initiatives developed through the event series.
But for now, we are concentrating on trying to build a sustainable business model….walking before we can run.
We hope to see you May 29 at the Vancouver Playhouse for FUEL Day 1 and at the many events to come.