The Silver Brush provides Torontonians with quality, competitive and professional interior painting services. We service commercial and residential properties with interior painting and repair, cleaning and maintenance services, and unit turnover.
In May of 2010, Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre and Houselink Community Homes were granted funding through the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the United Way’s Toronto Enterprise Fund. The purpose of the funding was to develop a social enterprise whose purpose is to create real employment opportunities for psychiatric survivors and others who are at risk of homelessness in Toronto. We help to develop new job skills that increase future employment and economic opportunities to those who face barriers to employment. Since then, The Silver Brush has been successfully employing men and women from various backgrounds and economic circumstances.
The Silver Brush is a social purpose enterprise with a mandate to reduce poverty among psychiatric survivor community. We train and employ a dedicated, determined, trustworthy and respectful crew. Many of our team members are taking new positive steps despite setbacks of various sorts earlier in their lives. Working for The Silver Brush provides an opportunity to learn excellence in a valuable trade and the meaningfulness of creating something that matters.
The Silver Brush concept originated from Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre’s (PARC) employment program providing paid work for members. People wanted more hours, and a social enterprise seemed like a good way to meet this demand.
The opportunity came up when the city expropriated a fire damaged former rooming house located next door to PARC, with intent to turn it into affordable housing. With support from the local community, PARC submitted and won the bid for the redevelopment and the operation of a supportive housing program. Through the building redevelopment funding, we saw a chance for our members to work on the project as many had experience in building renovations, general labour, and painting. To connect members to work beyond the project, we decided to use this as a launch pad for a social enterprise.
We started planning around 2007, inviting members and staff to figure out what kind of social enterprise we could create around this opportunity. Painting seemed to be the best fit as it did not require great capital investment, and we expected it would leave room for expansion into additional contracting in the future. Being a labour-based service, painting also offered prospects for casual, part-time, full-time, and self-employment for our people to earn some income.
A number of people were involved in the social enterprise development. An ENP Toronto technical assistance grant allowed us to hire a consultant. The planning group helped direct the market research, and we reached out to a number of housing providers and building owners as potential customers. We engaged with and interviewed a number of commercial painters and general contractors known to the organization. The PARC building committee and building consultant also assisted us in identifying the type of work we could do with PARC renovations.
Through the consultation with affordable housing providers, we identified a potential market niche. The nonprofit housing sector in Toronto spent about $8 million on painting services annually, which meant we could target some of these contracts at or below market rates. Our team looked particularly closely at unit turnovers, which would provide a consistent revenue stream. The exterior painting services did not seem attractive because these contracts were harder to quote, and we wanted something to do year-round.
When PARC applied for a grant from Toronto Enterprise Fund (TEF) in 2009, the funder suggested a partnership with Houselink Community Homes (HCH). It made sense to work together as both agencies served the same populations and had submitted similar proposals for the social enterprise start-up competition. The joint project received seed funding from TEF and later the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Finding a social enterprise manager proved more challenging than expected. The people who applied for the first round had only social work backgrounds, and we wanted someone who had experience with painting and general contracting. After rewriting the job posting, we advertised it in places people in the industry were likely to access. It was also helpful to get the word out about the position through our network. In 2010, we hired a person with experience in construction management, who has been with The Silver Brush since that time.
During the first few months of operations, we spent time working side-by-side with members from both PARC and HCH. Despite a high employee turnover rate at the beginning, we made some key hires and built a solid core group of workers. The first year, The Silver Brush employed 10 people. Within three years, the enterprise grew its annual sales from $50,000 to $120,000.
Painting service contracts are demanding and heavy on supervision. With currently 26 employees, we have reached our capacity regarding the number of people we can hire with only one manager in place.
Since the beginning, our primary concern has always been to help people earn income through meaningful employment. When we discovered that some people who have not worked for a long time struggle with physical demands of painting, we looked at other employment opportunities. Since many individuals came with at least moderate cleaning experience, The Silver Brush started providing janitorial and maintenance services. These contracts have significantly contributed to our revenue and offer a less stressful environment for our employees thanks to the routine nature of the work.
The original revenue model was based on painting services but The Silver Brush has added janitorial and maintenance to our service offering. Our customer base mostly consists of organizations in the social service sector: social housing agencies, community agencies, churches, etc. We provide services to some private homes, but our marketing mainly targets the nonprofit sector.
About 40 percent of enterprise revenue comes from painting services, and 60 percent is from the janitorial stream. At the moment, our growth strategy focuses on the janitorial business.
The first funding was not enough to invest in a manager and equipment. We were lucky to receive more seed funding from another source.
Not knowing of any other social enterprises operating in partnership between two organizations, our joint team had to define the roles of each partner. Before we could use our funding, it took us several months to figure out the balance and discuss details like who would own the business or be the employer of record. There was a lot of back and forth, and we had to inform our funder about the adjustments in our workplan.
In the first year, the employee turnover was 80% because people would often try a job and feel bad about the quality they were able to produce or their ability to meet expectations. We started implementing a partnership; rather than assuming that people will take any job, we listened to them. It was important for us to place people in contracts that matched their talents and skills, e.g. one staff is a bookkeeper so we sent her to do this type of work at a community church. When we started offering the opportunities people were interested in, our turnover rate dropped drastically to 20%.
We are struggling with capacity issues. Our social enterprise needs more funding to bring in another manager to secure more contracts.
Working with people with mental health issues can be challenging because of surrounding stigma and issues in the health system.
Many of your assumptions will turn out wrong. The process will take longer than you predict. It is essential to do research and expect the unexpected.
Listening to what your target population wants to do makes a difference: support them in getting the type of work they are interested in obtaining.
A social enterprise operated by a partnership of organizations is possible but the devil is in the details. It takes time to assess each partner’s ability to contribute, establish clear roles, and determine the responsibilities of each partner. On the other hand, having two parent organizations can be good for the social enterprise, which benefits from greater support and a larger network to draw upon.
When the social enterprise relies on one person driving and managing the organization, it limits the capacity and increases chance of burn out.
When our first manager started, the PARC staff person who developed The Silver Brush concept moved on to other employment. The person who left PARC volunteered his time to connect with the new manager, but there was little guidance provided within the organization. It would have been nice to create a support network to help the incoming manager understand what the organization was trying to achieve. Also, having two individuals responsible for growing and managing the business would have taken the pressure off one person. It would have been easier for two people to share ideas, maintain relationships with funders, and keep the momentum.
The partnership agreement between partner organizations specifies that Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre provides space and is the employer of record. The Houselink Community Homes takes care of administrative support.
Our two parent organizations, Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre and Houselink Community Homes have been working in partnership to support The Silver Brush. We also have a relationship with our funders, Toronto Enterprise Fund and Ontario Trillium Foundation. Also, we have been able to draw from Working for Change’s expertise in social enterprise as they are located in the same building.
Impacts & Outcomes Objectives
Our mission is to reduce poverty among psychiatric consumers and increase access to housing. Working at The Silver Brush helps our employees develop a sense of community and contribute as a member of society.
Vision for the Future
Within the next several years, The Silver Brush intends to continue growing thoughtfully. To offer more services, we need to develop the back end of the business to create a robust internal structure. We are also considering partnering with other social enterprises to provide a complete package of services.