Denver groups say social enterprise provides much-needed funds to nonprofits
Denver Business Journal, May 18, 2012
When Jossy Eyre volunteered at a Denver homeless shelter in the 1980s, she saw that women there kept coming back because they couldn’t hold a job.
The women didn’t have the basic skills — budgeting, goal setting, even the awareness that they needed to show up at work every day — necessary to sustain employment.
Eyre created the Women’s Bean Project in 1989, employing women to make bean soup mix, to help break that pattern. “These women may have had lots and lots of jobs, but they didn’t have the life skills to keep a job,” said Tamra Ryan, CEO of the Women’s Bean Project. “At the first barrier, they just quit.”
The Women’s Bean Project is now a national model for social enterprise, which is using market solutions to solve social problems. The nonprofit’s annual operation budget has shot up from roughly $6,000 its first year to its current $1.5 million.
While most nonprofits get 25 percent of such funds from social enterprise, the Women’s Bean Project earns 75 percent from selling the soup and cornbread mixes, jewelry and other products its makes.
The project is one of many metro Denver nonprofits benefiting from greater cross-pollination of businesses and charitable groups.
The nonprofits are using best business practices to generate more funding and otherwise be more effective.
For their part, businesses that see themselves more holistically—as part of a greater community that extends beyond work—are giving back to those communities as a higher level, with money and in-kind goods and services, as well as volunteers.
“A lot of people who find us are operating in the business sector and want to give back, but they don’t want to stuff envelopes,” said Pat Landrum, executive director of Social Venture Partners Denver, which is a fund of The Denver Foundation that invests in and collaborates with nonprofits that mainly serve at-risk kids.
Through the years, SVP Denver has funded groups such as Colorado Youth at Risk, the Children’s Outreach Project and Project SAVE, a campaign against social violence.
The group tackled a different type of efforts when it decided to fund Revision International, a community gardening nonprofit, which as grown from one to 38 gardens with SVP’s help.
Landrum calls her group a connector that helps businesses identify where they can give back and helps them do it.
“What we’re seeing is the community needs everybody to participate in helping it to function,” Landrum said. “We used to look to the government and education sectors more to handle those with higher risks and challenges, but now everybody’s got to play to make a difference.”
Some nonprofits even have taken a cue from business when it comes to marketing. The Colorado Meth Project employs a hard-hitting, businesslike marketing campaign aimed at “unselling” methamphetamine. Its graphic TV ads and billboards, for example, show the harsh reality of meth use—from hallucinations and starvation to overdosing—in a way that attracts the attention of the kids and young adults most likely to use the drug.
The health and social consequences of meth use cost Colorado an estimated $1.4 billion a year.
“We make the decision about whether to try methamphetamine in the same way we decide to have a piece of chocolate cake,” said Kent MacLennan, executive director of the Colorado Meth Project and a former high school teacher. “Is it good for me or bad for me” What’s the long-term effect? ... Our ad campaign is trying to unsell this drug.”
MacLennan’s group, which is part of a national effort, gets corporate help disseminating its anti-meth message from businesses such as the Brownstein Hyatt Faber Schreck LLP law firm, EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., FirstBank of Colorado, Bank of the West and Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association Inc.
Metro-area nonprofits also know better the impact they’re making, and its significance, because of their more businesslike operations. Everything the Colorado Meth Project does is based on research measurements, according to MacLennan.
“How do we know we’re making a difference?” Ryan said. “We know because employment changes everything. If a homeless woman keeps a job, she stays out of prison, is a role model for her children and has the potential to break the cycle of homelessness.”