Building a Social Enterprise as a Side Project

How a Canadian teacher, Marc Mailhot, turned a side-project into a meaningful social enterprise serving seniors and students. 

April 30, 2018

“We’re not doing school in the usual way,” says Marc Mailhot, a teacher at Montgomery Village Public School in Ontario, Canada, “We’re creating change in our community.”

About 10 years ago, Marc realized that despite advances in technology that were seemingly making communication easier, many students in their class had never talked to the senior citizens who lived next door.

“The age of the front porch, neighborhood barbecue or block party were becoming relics of the past. We thought that was sad.”

“So that first year, we just took students to a nearby senior center and got them playing games. Then, we started realizing that we could start connecting some of these engagements to the curriculum,” Marc explains.

His work—an initiative called Grandpals—took off, becoming a program that connects students and seniors for an entire year. Now he’s trying to turn it into a sustainable social enterprise that can scale in classrooms across the country and maybe around the world.

“When we think about intergenerational programming, most people think about taking a group of kids to a nursing home and having them play cards and feel good,” Marc says, “Or maybe they’ll meet regularly to bake cookies. GrandPals is at a different level—we’re academically rigorous.”

The students who go through the project-based curriculum learn about their community, media literacy, technology, interpersonal skills, reading, writing and social studies through the work they do with seniors. The initiative culminates in an intensive research project where students chronicle the life stories of the seniors they work with and end up with published books that are housed at the local museum.

Most recently, he’s had many family members of older adults contacting him asking how they can involve their parents or grandparents in the programming. They know that social isolation can be literally deadly for senior citizens and they see Grandpals as a great way to keep their relatives engaged in something meaningful.

Social Enterprise Grandpals Showing Seniors and Students

To help meet these demands, Marc has successfully attracted funding from the Ministry of Education, the Ontario Seniors Secretariat, Rotary Clubs, and The Clorox Company and will soon be receiving a national education award from Canada’s Governor General. The constraints are that he’s only one teacher and is realizing that the tasks of scaling an initiative and constantly applying for funding are burning him out.

He found the +Acumen Business Models for Social Enterprise course at just the right moment—when he was figuring out how to take earned revenue streams to hire a program manager and become more self-sustaining.

“What I liked about the Business Models course is that it got me to think about creative ways I would not have to be continually asking for money,” Marc says.

Through the course, he started to explore plans for how he could take his curriculum and turn it into a series of eLearning resources that could not only be sold to other schools, but also to seniors themselves, who have a huge appetite to learn how to use new technologies and, in some cases, discretionary money to spend and time that could be used learning new skills.

“Seniors also want to be customers.“

“And we want to encourage lifelong learning,” Marc said. “They’re asking for us to teach them things like how to give feedback to students through Google docs.”

Marc used the +Acumen course to gain an introduction to the basics of how other organizations have moved beyond grant funding and started to build earned income streams. “I really love the project-based nature of +Acumen courses because it’s all about learning by doing,” he says, “This mirrors the same format I use with my students. I even contacted NovoEd to figure out how I could use this project-based platform for my own work—that’s how much I loved it.”

Social Entrepreneur Marc Mailhot Accepting Award for Grandpals

Marc is now taking the Lean Data course to figure out new methods to learn about his potential customers. He still has a great deal of market testing to do to see if he could viably recover his costs, but he’s secured a government grant that will help him do some of the pilot testing for an eLearning course and he’s very optimistic.

“This program stands as a bridge between social workers and educators. We have good data that it improves socio-emotional learning for all involved. Empathy levels go up. Students’ and seniors’ perception of their ability to make positive change goes up. Now we just need to find a way to scale it and make it sustainable. The +Acumen course helped point us in the direction of business models that could work.”

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