Interview with Pierre Lavoie

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If ideas are to take root and spread, they need champions – obsessive people who have the skill, motivation, energy, and bullheadedness to do whatever is necessary to move them forward: to persuade, inspire, seduce, cajole, enlighten, touch hearts, alleviate fears, shift perceptions, articulate meanings and artfully manoeuver them through systems.

David Bornstein[1]

Pierre Lavoie is a social entrepreneur who is on a mission to establish a preventative approach to healthcare. He intends to do this by instilling healthy lifestyle habits into the population, notably by drawing attention to the importance of physical activity. To achieve this ambitious project, Pierre Lavoie co-founded a foundation with Germain Thibault and set up a non-profit organization. The Fondation du Grand Défi Pierre Lavoie pursues two missions: supporting research about orphan hereditary diseases and financing projects that promote the adoption of a healthy lifestyle among youth. As for the non-profit, Go le Grand défi, its function is to organize events and programs that create opportunities for Quebecers to get active. The two entities complement each other. «The foundation has a very specific mission,» explains Pierre Lavoie, «and the non-profit also has its own precise mission: one feeds the other«.

Starting from nothing in 2008, the events of the Grand Défi Pierre Lavoie are now one of the greatest examples of sports philanthropy in Quebec. The social innovations implemented are continuously gaining ground in both institutions and society in general. Go le Grand défi organizes five key events throughout the year, including the famous Energy Cubes in May, in which 75% of Quebec primary school children participate. In addition, the ninth edition of the 1000 km Event, an impressive sixty-hour cycling marathon from Saguenay to Montreal, will be held shortly.

At the last international PhiLab conference this past April, Sylvain Lefèvre mentioned that Quebec has a cemetery filled with social innovation failures. Obviously, those developed by Pierre Lavoie’s team do not fall into this category. Based on this observation, the interview we conducted with Pierre Lavoie was meant to highlight the factors that explain the remarkable advances made by this particular initiative. I present in this article three of the factors that appeared to be decisive in my opinion.

An Entrepreneurial Approach

From the outset, Pierre Lavoie attributed decisive importance to his adoption of an entrepreneurial approach. From his point of view, an entrepreneurial approach «means that you roll up your sleeves, work without counting your hours and are focused on the results.» The key words are therefore work and efficiency. He makes no compromise on the fact that one cannot advance a social mission without passionate commitment: «How do you succeed? Well, you work. People think that success goes from 8 to 4. […] It’s not like that, it’s a human investment.”

The entrepreneurial spirit shapes several attributes of the organization. First, risk-taking is seen as a driver of progress. As in business, the ability to take risks is at the heart of their growth plan: «We step outside the box. For example, we get youth to run alongside the road; we get people to run at night. At first we were a mess, but we’ve adjusted ourselves. That’s how it is, if you’re afraid of everything, you’ll never do anything. […] At some point, you must dare and try to move forward.» For their audacity and carelessness in the face of danger, youth occupy an exceptional place among the employees of Go le Grand Défi: «They have a different vision, they have a drive, and above all they project themselves fifty years into the future

The entrepreneurial spirit is also demonstrated in the optimization of administrative expenses: «Our management, administration and fundraising fees jointly represent only 9%. When you give me 100 dollars, 91% of your money goes towards the mission and 9% to administrative fees. We have one of the lowest administrative fees in Quebec; the average is 27%. That’s what an entrepreneurial approach brings: very low administrative costs and very high efficiency. »

Finally, independence from the state is seen as a means of ensuring the sustainability of the initiative. «If you launch an organization with the idea that the state is going to help you, you’re done! Keep the following principle in mind: don’t depend on the state because the state follows the trends, trends that change, an economy that changes…» Pierre Lavoie instead suggests surrounding yourself with solid partners that have been loyal to your cause. In his case, 90% of the operating costs of the events are financed by the private sector.

Functional and Normative Control of the Message

For Pierre Lavoie, properly communicating his vision to the public is the key to initiating innovative changes. On the surface, the message he promotes is very simple: be more active and eat better (in rough summary). However, we find that it is the underlying structure of the message that holds the force necessary to move the population. To understand this structure, we can refer to Dominique Wolton, for whom communication is composed of two interdependent dimensions (1997, p.32). There is a functional side, that is, the instrumental aspect of the message and the way it is presented. Then there is a normative dimension that represents the moral content of the message. We argue that if Pierre Lavoie’s message resonates so much in Quebec society, it is because these two dimensions of communication are outstandingly articulated.

As far as the presentation of the message is concerned, we cannot help but mention that Pierre Lavoie is a gifted speaker. Giving as an example his struggle against hereditary disease in Saguenay, he explains all of the communication work he has undertaken to convince people to act before procreation by identifying the genes responsible and making screening accessible: “I traveled around my region 75 times, spoke in parties and golf events, rode my bike, sold blue bracelets, made advertisements on television, explained the hereditary diseases of our region and simplified the scientific explanation of the subject.» In the fight for healthy habits, Pierre Lavoie serves as a charismatic leader. Through his discourse, he overturns an established order and tries to break an old tradition in Quebec: that of relying entirely on the state to manage the health of the population. He has thus become a figure symbolizing a paradigmatic change in healthcare; which gives a revolutionary potential to his message which cannot be ignored.

Evidently, Pierre Lavoie does not bear the weight of the whole of communications on his shoulders alone. His organization plays a central role in promoting their activities: «Our model is focused on the visual experience, with beautiful videos: we rent helicopters, we take Cineflex cameras to make great videos. It costs money, but it brings in money.» Trending in the philanthropic sector, this communicative approach, inspired by advertising strategies, is a phenomenon that Eric Pineault calls the «marketization of the donation» (1997: 81). In order to solicit the masses, the objective is to “sell” the cause and to encourage as many donors as possible to participate in the sports events. Moreover, thanks to the scope and media visibility offered by the Grand Défi sports events, companies see it as an interesting opportunity: «To have sponsors,» explains Pierre Lavoie, «you have to create something. They are not asked to give money so that we can try to do something with it. No! We are already there and the sponsor can see his potential exposure […], we offer them an exposure through our events «.

As for the second aspect of communication, the normative dimension of the message, its persuasive force stems from the fact that societal change is presented as being pleasant. Physical activity is seen as enjoyable and the sporting events take place in an atmosphere of collective effervescence. According to Pierre Lavoie, this is what makes gathering such a large number of volunteers and participants possible: «Because we connect with people through our programs, the hyper festive side – we run at night for example – speaks to them. And the message is not boring, it’s positive, it’s fun! We create change while having fun. That’s what we want, there’s nothing worse than the negative side.» If the message put forward is restrictive, with the idea of ​​individual and collective responsibility in relation to health behaviors, this normative content is prescribed in a playful packaging. There is an axiom of morality very well understood by Émile Durkheim: the desirability of an obligation is a guarantee of its transmission (2010, p.64). We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where the restrictions proposed in different lifestyles are efficient because they do not appear to be restrictions.

Systemic Pressure Through Collective Movement

The transformation of systems is fashionable among philanthropic actors who wish to act on the root causes of social problems. Pierre Lavoie also believes that a successful social innovation must lead to a systemic impact. However, he has a very particular vision of how he intends to change the healthcare and education systems in Quebec.

His starting point is surprising: «The problem is not the system, it’s the Quebeckers«. The starting phase of his action plan is to implant a different mindset; the transformation of the system will follow: «You have to work on behaviors. It takes a consciousness that instills a desire to take charge. This is called the ‘C on the C’. Consciousness always leads to taking charge «. The idea is to change the healthcare system from within, acting on the mentalities of the system’s users who will push for change. For example, family physicians have joined the movement and can now prescribe energy cubes (in the form of group walks) to their patients if they so desire. Pierre Lavoie hopes that more and more patients will choose to walk instead of resorting to medication, which will increase pressure on pharmacies to expand their options with regards to prevention.

Consequently, the establishment of a preventative healthcare philosophy takes the form of a collective movement. His goal is to achieve what he calls the tipping point. The idea being: «The day you get 25% of the critical mass of the population to make the change, there is a tipping point. Things start to turn and everyone starts to do it. It does not happen until we reach the 25% mark. Then, the mass is quite strong, and the message is strong enough so that others listen and things start to turn«. The 25% mark is therefore the magic number to achieve in order for the movement to become a social norm, a point when the majority of the population considers it normal to do daily physical activity to maintain their body. It is therefore essential that those who join the movement do so not only on a personal basis. To reach the tipping point, Pierre Lavoie encourages those already committed to encourage people around them: «Stop doing it just for yourself, get someone to join you. We will never change the world if we remain a group of athletes who are active amongst each other. […] What interests me is not the athletes already on the street, it is my neighbor across the street who isn’t active. […] The model is not the athlete; the model is the person who has changed and the other one who wants to change.» For example, in the 1000Km Event challenge, each participating team must recruit in its ranks someone who is «sedentary», that is to say a person not involved in much physical activity.

In sum, by embodying a collective movement oriented at bringing about a norm, Pierre Lavoie’s social innovation initiatives completely break the traditional philanthropic relationship between donors and beneficiaries. The philanthropic act does not target a sociologically identifiable group of people who claim the same need. In this case, the beneficiary is society itself and social innovations no longer have any limits. In this way, as the movement grows, pressure increases on the systems that will then be forced to adapt: «Once the movement is strong enough, you get to the next levels that are the municipalities, governments and businesses. These are the last three players at the top of the pyramid. […] The more we advance, the more pressure will be applied to the upper levels, and then the decision-makers will start to reflect and put measures in place.»

In conclusion, we draw attention to the fact that the social entrepreneur may appear to be a person who can shape society as he pleases. The interpretation of «social entrepreneurship» encourages this narrative, based on the classic entrepreneurial model, focusing on the individual’s actions, vision and ability to overcome challenges. However, it should be stressed that several conditions must be met in order to increase the chances of success: the social entrepreneur always acts within a relatively constrained cultural, institutional and organizational context. The success of such social innovations cannot, therefore, be attributed to their intrinsic qualities alone, but also to the favorable or unfavorable environment in which they unfold. In the case of Pierre Lavoie, he did not intervene as a social actor on virgin territory. The promotion of a healthy lifestyle, through collective activities that aim more at individual responsibility over one’s health, is advanced by many actors in most Western countries. In recent times, campaigns like Let’s Move, launched by Michelle Obama as first lady of the United States, or Quebec’s Quebec en forme come to mind. The anthropologist Raymond Massé (1999) explains that initiatives resulting from the trend in public healthcare benefit from a good social acceptability because they are in harmony with the individualism and neo-liberal rationality that prevail today. Pierre Lavoie’s public health campaign for physical activity fits right into a period of time and configuration that favors the proposed normative content.