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Mar 6, 2018

Using Social Enterprise to Amplify Nonprofit Mission

Alvis Inc., a nonprofit recognized in 2017 by The Columbus Foundation as a “nonprofit to watch,” provides programs and services to help those who have become involved in the justice system, care for those in need of substance abuse treatment, and enhance the independence of those with challenging developmental disabilities.  Knowing that job training means nothing if there is no job at the end, Alvis charged Ramona Swayne with building a social enterprise to provide those jobs.  As Managing Director of Social Enterprise, she has launched two social enterprises since 2014: Nature’s Touch Landscaping and Lawn Care and Transitions Commercial Cleaning. Both businesses are now offering special discounts through the SocialVentures marketplace.

These enterprises provide entry level jobs so that clients in the Alvis programs can acquire the job experience, soft skills, and professional certificates to enable them to move beyond their past and acquire the courage and confidence to see themselves as able to do something that is legitimate, has value, and pays decent wages.  Employees of Nature’s Touch participate in Columbus State Community College’s Green Infrastructure program, acquiring an OSHA certificate and a certificate of completion recognized by the City of Columbus as equivalent to a year’s job experience.  Employees of Transitions have utilized Increase CDC’s programs and services to launch their own businesses. 

Allen Proctor, President & CEO, SocialVentures, sat down with Ramona Swayne to learn the special challenges of introducing social enterprise into a nonprofit that has been traditionally supported through narrowly-focused grants and government contracts. A version of this post originally appeared in a recent issue of Columbus Business First.

What inspired Alvis to tap social enterprise as a way to enhance its mission?

We had a program to team ex-offenders as mentors to clients with disabilities to perform cleaning in our offices.  We soon found we had more clients than we could use for cleaning our own buildings, so in 2014 we evolved the program into an internal team consisting of our disabled clients and a commercial team consisting of our ex-offenders.  One year later, we started a second business to create more jobs by performing landscaping and lawn care.  These businesses advance Alvis’ mission in two ways.  They are a natural extension of our job training efforts and we expect both businesses to produce profits that can be used to support other Alvis programs. 

Starting a new business is hard for anyone. Did being housed in a nonprofit add other challenges?

The departments in a large nonprofit must focus on their social impact.  This is a pretty full plate already and social enterprise asks them to become internal business partners with something that is a start-up, does not bring additional grant money, and has an additional goal of profitability.  That takes a while to digest.  It would be easier if there were large sources of capital for social enterprise launches that are separate from the grants which we dedicate entirely to our nonprofit mission activities. 

Describe the social impact your social enterprises create.

Our indirect impact is that we demonstrate through our high-quality services that a person’s past does not have to define a person’s future and shouldn’t be a barrier for long-term employment consideration. 

Our direct impact is that we walk the talk of job training.  We provide the jobs for on-the-job training that leads to sustainable wages.  We start our Transitions employees at higher wages than the usual janitorial rate.  We teach them higher level skills like floor polishing that offer higher wages.  We collaborate with Increase CDC to offer training and seed funding for them to start their own businesses if they want.  In Nature’s Touch we are providing certifications that should make them appealing to outside employers.  In 2018 our goal is to identify landscaping partners to whom we can refer our employees. 

Describe the ideal company to hire the employees of Transitions and Nature’s Touch.

It is a company that is open to focus on the skills of the job candidates and not on their past, so that it will consider hiring ex-offenders.  It is a company that recognizes the training and experience which our employees have gained so that the jobs the company offers provide pay increases and career advancement opportunities.

What inspires you to grow these two social enterprises?

I see lives change every day.  The person I hire is not the same person when they leave our program to start their own business or to work for another employer.  They come to see that they don’t have to stay at the bottom because of the mistakes they have made.  I see them getting beyond their past and developing the courage to discover and pursue their passions.  I see them recognize themselves as people with professional skills which society values. 

Visit the Alvis website to learn more about Alvis and its Transitions Commerical Cleaning social enterprise, and visit Nature’s Touch Landscaping and Lawn Care to learn more about the services provided.