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Funding Your Mission with a Social Enterprise

There are more ways to generate revenue than asking for it, as proven in this roundup of successful business ventures run—and capitalized on—by 13 member nonprofits. 

City of Refuge takes their in-kitchen expertise on the road with an illustrated food truck called People’s, where every meal purchased feeds those in need.

What is social enterprise? At its simplest, it’s any money-making venture operated by a nonprofit for the benefit of their core services and programs. It’s an idea that’s been supporting nonprofits for decades, but which has only been a buzzed-about topic since the mid-2000s. (A 2010 survey conducted by GCN found a huge jump in social enterprises started over the previous decade, and those numbers continue to climb.) One of the oldest and best-known examples of social enterprise is the Goodwill thrift store, generating revenue for the Goodwill mission through sales of donated clothes and home goods.

“It’s important in this age of shifting revenue sources to explore different avenues for supporting a mission,” said GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor. “However, it’s also important to understand that a social enterprise is not a ‘program,’ but a shift in the fundamental business model. When done well and aligned with the mission, social enterprise can be a powerful vehicle for impact and sustainability.”

Chances are, your nonprofit possesses a resource—expertise, skills, a process you’ve developed, or, like Goodwill and some of the organizations listed here, a steady supply of donated goods—that people will pay money for. Some nonprofits have even started or acquired social enterprises to serve, and capitalize on, a hard-working service population in need of employment.

Here, a sampling of GCN members who have turned some great money-making ideas into thriving businesses.

The Center for the Visually Impaired started call center ClearAnswer in 2011 not only to provide an income stream for the nonprofit but great jobs for its beneficiaries.

Nobis Works opened an electronics recycling business called Reworx that generates revenue while providing jobs for their clients.

Senior Connections built on their food prep and delivery experience (finely honed through their Meals on Wheels program they run) to start Connections Catering, available for all kinds of events—and offering a discount to GCN members!

Project Open Hand leveraged their food prep skill set for social enterprise: their Good Measure Meals are ready-to-eat dishes prepared daily with the same attention to quality and nutrition that goes into their meal programs for seniors and children.

The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta runs farming co-op Atlanta Lettuce Works, which sells hydroponically-grown lettuce to local businesses while providing owner- employee positions for 40 residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Camp Twin Lakes offers campground rentals for events, retreats, and other group activities.

Southface Energy Institute offers a range of commercial consulting, research, and certification services for those creating more energy efficient spaces—be they existing homes or offices, or brand new construction.

Lifecycle Building Center supports and fulfills their mission of efficient, sustainable construction with a store selling nearly-new building materials leftover from area construction projects.

Bobby Dodd Institute puts their clients to work and brings in revenue with a range of call center, facilities-management, mailroom management, and warehousing services.

Society of St. Vincent de Paul operates 10 thrift stores throughout the metro Atlanta area, selling donated goods and staffed by volunteers.

City of Refuge takes their in-kitchen expertise on the road with a food truck called People’s, featuring a menu created by Atlanta super-chef Ford Fry.

Nuci’s Space in Athens offers low-cost rehearsal space and equipment rental to supplement their free health care services for musicians.

The Drake House started a boutique called The Drake Closet that sells quality, donated women’s clothing (new and gently used) at discount prices.

GCN’s OpportunityKnocks is a national resource for nonprofit employers and professionals, with a robust offering of job opportunities and HR support resources.

Learn more about social enterprise at gcn.org/socialenterprise.


Marc Schultz is contributing editor of Georgia Nonprofit NOW.

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