Before business school, I spent four years working in research and consulting for nonprofit organizations. While I loved the pace of work, the variety of challenges and clients, and working collaboratively with a team, after four years I felt like something was missing. I needed to know more about the on-the-ground, organizational realities of running a nonprofit organization, in order to feel more credible, and also to ensure the recommendations I would make in the future were coming from a place of true understanding. I was determined to fill this knowledge gap during B-School and REDF’s Farber Intern Program provided me the perfect opportunity.
I spent my summer based in San Francisco with Juma Ventures, a member of REDF’s national portfolio. Juma provides a job, training, financial literacy education, and career coaching to young people living 200% or more below the federal poverty line in nine cities across the U.S. The organization has experienced rapid growth in the past 15 years—starting out in San Francisco and now operating in nine cities around the country.
Juma has traditionally served college-bound, high school youth, but this summer I helped the leadership team explore the possibility of shifting focus to serve opportunity youth, defined as 18-24 year olds who are disconnected from school or work. This population has different needs from college-bound youth, and I spent my summer getting up-to -speed on what those needs are so that I could advise Juma on how to effectively transition its program model and organizational capabilities to best serve these young people.
Here is what I learned: While balancing profit and purpose is top-of-mind at social enterprises, there is another important balance to strike between customization and organizational cohesion. Let me explain.
Building cohesion and consistency
Regarding program sites, operating a social enterprise in distinct cities is challenging. The relationships that need to be built with policymakers, business leaders, and NGO partners to effectively launch and serve youth within a social enterprise differ drastically from one city to another. The youth are different—facing different challenges and coming from different backgrounds. And while it is essential that each unique city site have flexibility to build Juma in a way that best serves the community, a common thread must exist to build cohesion across the sites and ensure consistency with the Juma mission.
Regarding program participants, the term “opportunity youth” (OY) primarily describes a specific age group and their level of connection to school or work. However, within that group, every individual is unique. Some OY have experienced homelessness or lived within the foster system, while others have been formerly incarcerated or are parenting youth. Every individual has a different background along with different goals and dreams for their future. In order to deliver an effective program across nine cities, Juma integrates a level of standardization within the program model along with the ability to personalize the approach.
A balancing act
From my previous consulting life, I would have assumed the most important balance to strike within a social enterprise is between profit and purpose. While I still believe that is important and incredibly challenging, my experience at Juma illuminated the importance of also balancing customization with standardization to most effectively serve program participants, scale to different programs sites, and achieve impact. It’s key to remember, while a social enterprise is a competitive, revenue-generating business, the core of its mission is to provide people striving to improve their lives with the support to do so. Whether my next career step lands me at a social enterprise, a nonprofit or back in consulting, I will make it a priority to remember the importance of balancing the needs of the organization with the needs of the individual.
Samantha Dina is a MBA candidate at Duke University Fuqua School of Business. She’s currently serving as co-president of the Net Impact Club and advises two local nonprofit organizations focused on inclusive development and public health. Prior to business school, she lived in Washington, D.C. for several years and served as a senior consultant at McKinley Advisors, leading and supporting several strategy and research-focused projects for nonprofit association clients. Samantha graduated summa cum laude from American University with a degree in Business, Language and Culture studies.
This is part of our Farber Blog Series.