Benefiting the Community and Workers with Disabilities: The Dual Successes of Social Enterprises

Benefiting the Community and Workers with Disabilities: The Dual Successes of Social Enterprises

By Elaine Katz, MS, CCC-SLP, Senior Vice President of Grants and Communications at Kessler Foundation

Over the last ten years, there has been tremendous growth in social enterprise businesses, which are nonprofit or for-profit business ventures that strive to achieve a quantifiable double bottom line of financial and social returns. In many cases, these are revenue-generating businesses run by nonprofit organizations for both mission-driven and profit-driven motives. Often, these are organizations that understand and already provide services to the individuals they plan to employ through these businesses.  Because the goal of social enterprise businesses is to be self-sustaining, they often adapt commercial strategies to increase their effectiveness.  This approach has been particularly promising in creating new opportunities for individuals with disabilities. 

While social enterprise businesses can create successful outcomes and improve the lives of those employed, experience has shown that social enterprises require significant planning and resources. Successful social enterprise businesses do not become self-sustaining overnight.  The “parent” nonprofit organization must be committed for the long haul – the same as for the for-profit business model – three to five years. Start-ups can show a great deal of promise, but there is still considerable risk. Once these ventures break even and become mature businesses, excess revenue provides a source of funding for the parent organization. Often these funds are used to subsidized long-term job coaching or other vocationally related activities that may not be eligible for reimbursement through traditional sources.

The social enterprise model presents an opportunity for private funders, such as Kessler Foundation, that are prioritizing innovative ideas for expanding competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. Kessler Foundation’s grants program has invested more than $30 million over the past nine years towards the goal of creating jobs for people with disabilities. Almost $2 million in seed funding launched three social enterprise ventures over the past few years. Arthur and Friends and Hudson Community Enterprises in New Jersey and Destination Desserts in St. Louis, Missouri, employ people with disabilities in very different businesses. 

Arthur and Friends is a hydroponic farming business that trains and employs workers to grow, harvest, and market fresh produce to the community and local organizations.  Hudson Community Enterprises started a document management business that creates searchable digital archives from stored paper records of schools, municipalities, and government agencies. Destination Desserts, a popular food truck, supplies cupcakes and coffee to corporate parks and community events, while providing training and jobs for individuals with brain injury.  These successful social enterprises are providing important services in the community while creating more than 200 meaningful jobs for people with disabilities.

Easter Seals serving DC|MD|VA, one of our newer grantees, utilized Foundation funding to expand its existing social enterprise business, the Veterans Staffing Network, which eases the transition of veterans with disabilities to the workplace. This temporary-to-permanent staffing enterprise is placing wounded warriors in hundreds of competitive positions in a variety of lucrative industries in the Washington, DC, area.

The social enterprise trend is one approach that is contributing to a major shift in placement strategies from individual placements toward placing larger numbers of people in integrated work settings. For community-based providers seeking to help people with disabilities transition to gainful employment and achieve greater independence, establishing social enterprise businesses offers an important alternative to traditional job placement.