Social Procurement Could Liberate Local Potential

Two days of gathering open up powerful possibilities

Illustration by Yvonne Hollandy.

Whether it was by members of city staff, councillors, community members, or social enterprisers, a local exploration of social procurement led by David LePage last week was warmly and well received. Starting as it ought to have, David’s began with visiting a small group of city staff members responsible for the city’s purchasing. By the end of a two-day series of conversations, several city councillors and Mayor Diane Therrien had attended a workshop, a small group of social enterprisers spent some private time with David, and finally, about 55 community members attended an open-invitation gathering co-hosted by Electric City Magazine and Trent University.

Together, each of these small groups represent the necessary elements of what could be a game changer for city’s like Peterborough.

Across Canada, cities large and small are successfully walking the path to social procurement. Much work has already been done to make sense of the journey and provide policy and practical support to those who wish to make it happen.

Social procurement is the process by which anchor institutions, like the City of Peterborough, leverage their current spending for increased social and ecological gains. By developing their purchasing practices to include social and environmental interests, on top of quality and price, purchasers can become powerful agents for community development.

David, managing partner of Buy Social Canada, shared a collection of scenarios including:

• On big contracts involving competitive bids, purchasers can require local impact components, like local hiring, subcontracting, and the creation of opportunities for people who face barriers, to be built into responding proposals.

• Works can be unbundled. It may not be possible for a small social enterprise to handle a five-million-dollar property maintenance project, but it could perhaps handle caring for a single park. This unbundling offers much needed and stable revenue to small start-up social enterprises. The duration of those contracts provides social enterprise time to build expertise and capacity. In time, those social enterprises are better able to deliver on larger contracts.

• The trade agreements that govern purchasing by organizations like the city, exempt non-profits from the competitive bidding process. These means that non-profit social enterprises could possibly enter into bi-lateral negotiations with purchasers like the city to provide services the city is already purchasing. Social enterprises embedded in local non-profits could take on such service provision to create work opportunities for people who face barriers, while also offering them supports.

The development of the local and social enterprise ecology on the supply side is as important as the purchasing side of the relationship. While purchasers can progressively develop the demand side for social and local purchasing, the supply side has its own development to attend to. If there is an increase on the demand side, the capacity to supply services to accommodate that increase must rise to the opportunity.

Social and local enterprises still need to deliver quality services. Good governance and operational capabilities to match the possibilities will be called upon.

One of the things that was a bit surprising to consider, on David’s prompting, is that there may be far more social purchasing possible in Peterborough than there are social enterprises to respond. This suggests that those social enterprises who are ready could fare very well in a heightened social purchasing environment.

With this, David turns our eyes toward local businesses. Partnered with local civil society organizations, local businesses could be presented with surprising business and community development opportunities. Given that many of them are already active in their communities, responding to social procurement requests may provide a pathway to fully realizing the potential of that activity.

While social procurement holds tremendous potential for local community and business development it will take nurturing. It cannot be made real by policy alone. It will take practice.

David suggests that communities take a developmental approach beginning with a few pilots in areas like those outlined earlier to explore possibilities and to learn together. Start small and build on success.

Social procurement can provide a way to mobilize community in powerful and far reaching ways. If that’s the case, working together is a mantra for the moment.

Illustration from the Jan. 22 event by Yvonne Hollandy. Click here to see a larger version.

Policy leadership, public attention to the possibilities and short-term successes, leveraging the professional skills of purchasing agents, and capacity building within local and social enterprises are best developed simultaneously.

Social procurement has the potential to bring local politicians, administrators, purchasers, civil society organizations, non-profits, social enterprises, people who face barriers, and community members together in very practical terms. It is a practice that could liberate our local assets to address our local issues and aspirations with unprecedented local power.

We may come to find, this way, that we do in fact have everything we need, already at hand and within our power, to create the community we wish to create.

It will be important to continue the conversation.

To learn more visit and watch Electric City Magazine channels for stories and opportunities to get involved.

David’s visit was made possible by Buy Social Canada and Electric City Magazine in collaboration with Trent University and Clean Slate Enterprises.

Photos by Yvonne Hollandy. Click here to see a photo album from the event.

Related Stories:

Social Procurement a Game Changer for Cities

A Social Procurement Program can Position Peterborough as a Trend Leader: Kemi Akapo

Recycling Mattresses Locally Would Save Peterborough Money, Create Work for At-risk People, says Clean Slate CEO


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