Before graduate school I worked as a consultant on projects to design and implement social policy for a number of federal agencies. While it was incredibly rewarding to help shape policy at the federal level, the day-to-day work could be a bit alienating from the tangible on-the-ground support that social programs can provide. REDF appealed to me as a great place to spend a summer because the Farber program enables interns to work directly with its portfolio of social enterprises, gaining valuable experience in their management and operations. It didn’t hurt that REDF had proven results, a key selling point for a policy student trained to carefully consider the evidence in support of effective social programs.
The great thing about the Farber program at REDF is that Farber interns get to work on mission critical projects for the social enterprises REDF funds and supports. This summer, one of the social enterprises I had the privilege to work with was FareStart, a Seattle based social enterprise which operates a restaurant, cafes, catering, and school meals business and trains youth and adults who are overcoming some very tough challenges to work in the culinary industry. Specifically, I worked with FareStart’s leadership team to model and evaluate several growth options for a major expansion of their transitional employment program, with the explicit goal of creating more pathways for clients to achieve higher wages in higher skill jobs as servers, line cooks, and eventually managers. While this will require a substantial upfront investment by FareStart, they are hopeful this program will enable their clients to achieve long-term success in the culinary industry. By increasing their upfront investment in client’s skills, they will potentially create long-term social profits for Seattle, returning benefits to both their clients and society.
One of the biggest lessons I took from working at REDF this summer is how the organization thinks about social return on investment. The social enterprises supported by REDF help people who are overcoming serious barriers to employment—like homelessness, mental health and substance use struggles, incarceration, and limited education—get jobs and stay employed. The employees of these social enterprises earn an income and stabilize their lives. Their skills and confidence multiply. Their reliance on government benefits decreases. They move from economically marginalized positions into the mainstream. These investments in the potential of people who are overcoming barriers to employment results in a net “social profit” for society—creating a virtuous cycle of investment.
One of the biggest challenges in the social sector is how to measure long-term impact. Unlike the private sector, where investment is justified by the expectation of potential long-term profits, the public sector has often been assessed purely on a cost basis, with performance measured by how much organizations can reduce expenditures and comparatively little focus on impact. The end result can be a lack of investment in programs that produce benefits in the long-term at the expense of reducing costs and becoming more efficient in the short-term. As a public policy student who is committed to finding ways to promote social good, the summer spent at REDF has provided a model for leveraging limited resources to invest in long-term social profit. The summer has opened me up to the incredible work social enterprises are doing, and I look forward to continue to apply what I’ve learned this summer to helping develop innovative solutions to society’s toughest challenges, and helping everyone get the “FareStart” they deserve.