As a second year nominee for the Social Finance Awards, Rise Asset Development is not only an exciting new financial player, but also a strong collaborator in the Canadian social finance marketplace.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jodi Butts, Executive Director of Rise and Sally Wilkie, Program Manager. As I settled in, I noticed an intriguing diagram on the whiteboard wall of the Rise office. During our time together, I came to learn that the diagram was a map of their scaling model for expansion across Ontario. Collaboration, through agreements with community mental health organizations as well as community business advisory organizations, is at the very core of their expansion plan.

rise_logoRise Asset Development is a public-private partnership that provides microfinancing and mentorship to entrepreneurs living with mental illness and addictions. The Rotman School of Management and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) were the founding partners of this social finance collaboration.

The Rise Model

Rise provides small loans (up to $25,000) and business mentorship support to clients who meet certain conditions:

  1. Self-identify with a history of mental health;
  2. Do not qualify for traditional financing; and
  3. Have a business idea that they want to move forward with.

From the outset, Rise has been all about collaboration. Jodi explains, “Rise started [because of] Sandra Rotman’s vision. She had spent time at CAMH program as an ambulatory patient where she observed [the] creative, dynamic community [of participants]. She had the vision that someone just needs to [provide a little] help [to] this community… [for them to be] productive and [capitalize on their] amazing ideas.”

It is the teaming up of business advisors and mental health professionals that makes Rise special. The roles of the initial partners were critical in developing the program, explains Jodi. “CAMH provide[d] an understanding of the target population, including what kind of supports [they would need]”.  The input of CAMH helped to shape the basic concepts of the fund including that it would provide low interests rate loans targeted to individuals who can’t access traditional financing.

2) Loan Officer and ClientOne of the key benefits to Rise’s clients is access to a mentor. Once an entrepreneur is financed, Rise matches them up with a mentor who has skills that the entrepreneur needs. Jodi explains the value of the mentors, especially to Rise’s unique clients, “there are so many reasons why a business wont be successful. It is not usually about the quality of the idea, you can have a great idea, but there are just so many things that get in your way…You are trying to forge a place for your business in this world, [so] it is nice to know there is a team behind you.”

Facilitating loans is a big and time-intensive process. Rise has to spend roughly the same amount of time on a $200 loan as on a $4000 loan. This time intensive work seems to reward itself in surprisingly low default rates – currently at 5%. Sally notes that even after some defaults are written off, “once a client gets their life back on track, they come back, get their businesses re-established and they try to pay off the loan.”

While they are pleased with their low default rate, Sally believes a measurement of Rise’s success is qualitative and improvement in their client’s life situation, “a mentor was just in today talking about the client he works with about the huge change in the client’s life the business has had, which is a very hard thing to measure.”

Growing impact through collaboration

With their great success in the GTA and surrounding areas, Rise is undergoing an expansion to communities across Ontario.

The program’s growth outside the GTA came on organically. Sally explains, “As word got out [about Rise] we started to get calls from other parts of the province. We have financed clients in places such as Sault Ste Marie, Muskoka, Hamilton, Durham Region and St Catharines.” While they are excited about being able to provide this support, they believe that transplanting their model in other communities will be far better than serving one-off clients from outside Toronto.

Rise Ottawa is the first office outside of Toronto. This office came to be through a partnership with Causeway Work Centre. Even more recently, Rise opened an office in London and are currently in talks with several organizations in Kingston too in hopes of opening an office there as well.

Rise looks for three different kinds of partners when they are entering a new community. First, they look for organizations that deal with small businesses and entrepreneurs. The second group are organizations that work in the field of mental health.. This can include large mental health hospitals or community mental health organizations. The third group are community agencies that help re-integrate individuals into society and work in both spheres. Sally explains, “any three of those groupings create a community entry point and are great to help us find clients.”

The formula to collaboration is flexible, but they are finding similarities in each community.  “In London, the main partner is The Richard Ivey School of Business so we are going back to the business school concept,” explains Sally. “In Kingston, the leads have been Frontenac Community Mental Health and Addiction Services and the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queens University.”

Collaborating with established organizations in the community is a must to Rise. Jodi explains that outreach organizations have crucial connections with potential clients. “Our target population is not easy to reach. They often have a lot of barriers to full social participation; employment and entrepreneurship.”

Jodi adds, “the diversity of partnerships is part of the organization’s core strengths. We are always looking to grow that diversity with client’s needs being at the centre of that growth.”

Funding partners

Citi Foundation came on early as a financing partner and provides the funding for the group lending program. RBC Foundation has also joined as a financing partner to allow Rise to scale its program across Ontario.

Jodi explains that the funding partners benefit from collaborating with Rise. “The funding partners want to have a positive impact on the communities that they serve in a way that they can’t do even with their sizeable, powerful, talented organizations, because they are built to do other things”, she says. “[Funding Rise] is an efficient way for them to demonstrate their respect for the community.”

Looking forward

Rise has made a large impact in the communities it has worked in thus far. Jodi adds, “translating this organization from start-up to a scaling organization that grows deliberately and methodically while measuring its impact is very exciting. It takes a very big tent of partners. We have been very blessed in terms of the people who work with us.”

1) Rise Team Photo

 The Rise Asset Development Team