Geoff Cape, Evergreen
Geoff Cape, Evergreen, Canadian social entrepreneur

According to Geoff Cape, founder of Evergreen, stories trump data – every time!  Well, if that’s true then Geoff’s story puts him at the head of the pack.

The crowd assembled for last week’s Entrepreneurship 101 was treated to Geoff’s “Lived It Lecture” as one of Canada’s premier social entrepreneurs.  As he reflected on his journey over the past 20 or so years, several lessons emerged that are applicable for entrepreneurs in all sectors: tax structure, cultural integrity and scaling.

Geoff started out in 1991 with what seemed like a simple goal:  bringing nature and community together for the benefit of both.  That initially meant greening school playgrounds – for him it was fun and “a way to put off getting a real job” – but it didn’t stay that way for long.

Today, Geoff heads up the multi-million dollar revitalization of the Brick Works site, in the heart of the Don Valley in Toronto.  It is an ambitious initiative and Geoff is proud to predict that it will come in slightly over time but on budget.

But the path to success was not always an easy one.

Geoff believes that “although Evergreen is a registered charity, this tax structure is only a detail” — their vision and entrepreneurial approach is obviously much bigger than their corporate structure.

From his beginnings as a one-person shop with no income, Geoff grew the organization to where it is today: 115 staff and a $55 million revitalization budget. Along the way, Evergreen experienced growth, often related to grants that were available, like a Millennium Fund. But then the organization would shrink back down when the funding ended — welcome to the accordion world of start-ups and many non-profits.

Evergreen Canada's Brick Works

Even though it was challenging to shrink and expand the organization, it did offer Geoff one of his first “sticky moments”.  It gave him the courage to think about big ideas like revitalizing the 120-year-old Brick Works site when it presented itself as an opportunity.  This, despite the fact that Evergreen had no experience with building projects, no funding and no collateral.

But as most entrepreneurs know, “no” is generally a good starting point.

Have you attended the farmer’s market at the Brick Works?  Well if Geoff had listened to the “experts” there wouldn’t be a farmers market at the Brick Works site. Thank goodness Geoff is a big proponent of going with your gut because he knew that they could make a go of this project.  And his gut feeling paid off: the National Post declared the Brick Work’s farmer’s market as number 1 of 86 reasons to stay in Toronto over a long, hot city summer.

There were many other lessons Geoff shared with the audience but I want to focus on two:

  1. The importance of maintaining your cultural integrity
  2. The challenges of scaling

Culture

An organization’s culture is key to its success. And maintaining the cultural integrity through growth, acquisition and organizational changes is especially important, ensuring that all those who work for you buy into it. This is not just a “nice-to-do”, it is an imperative.  One of the many side effects of achieving this organizational clarity is that it aids and accelerates decision-making.  From Geoff’s point of view, experience is not as necessary for success as linkage to values; skills can be taught but values must be ingrained.

Scaling

At our social innovation program at MaRS, we constantly work with groups trying to scale their impact.  There is no one model; no-one-size-fits-all approach.  Because of their success, Evergreen was faced with numerous requests to replicate their model in other places throughout the country.  So the organization decided to open offices in places like Vancouver and Calgary, only to later close them or transition them to partnerships with regional associates. This model is still not perfect, but it seems, at least for now, to be an economical and effective way to spread their model nationally.

One other “sticky moment” came for Geoff when Evergreen got a call to host Prince Philip on his last visit to Canada.  Geoff’s team turned this moment into an opportunity to facilitate a high-powered meeting amongst CEOs in an effort to get them to reflect on issues surrounding sustainability. This endeavour was so successful that it has become an annual event with this year’s meeting attendees coming from even farther afield.

As I reflect on our culture here at MaRS it seems that we are determined to bring you the best in the field, to expose you to thought leaders who are willing not only to act but also to reflect on their journey.  With Geoff Cape, we hit it out of the park.

Downloads and resources

Entrepreneurship 101 2010/11 – Week 9 – Lived it Lecture with Geoff Cape from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Allyson Hewitt

Allyson is the JW McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow, Social Innovation at MaRS, where she has been leading the SiG@MaRS program; advising social entrepreneurs; building the social innovation ecosystem; and incubating successful programs such as the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, the MaRS Solutions Lab and Studio Y. See more…