Social Enterprise, Southern Style – Bettie Kirkland, Executive Director – Project Return TN

Bettie Kirkland, Executive Director of Project Return based in Nashville, is tackling mass incarceration, one of our country’s most pressing problems. Project Return is dedicated to finding employment for individuals coming out of prison who, in Kirkland’s words, “want to get it right this time.”

At Project Return, Kirkland says, “Our obsession is employment. It’s the number one predictor of a crime-free future. Individuals get out of prison and they have nothing. They have no money, they have no job, they have no ID, they have no housing. They have no transportation, they have no access, they have no phone.” To ensure people re-entering society have a chance to succeed, Project Return provides a “full wrap around of services. Our transitional jobs program called Project Return Opportunities for Employment (PROe) first connects individuals with job readiness skills, such as eye contact, handshakes, and meaningful interaction, then provides jobs in manufacturing, construction, grounds keeping, and customer service call centers.”

“Being part of the REDF movement is huge,” Bettie explains. “Working as a social enterprise in the South feels a little bit like pushing something up a hill that’s very heavy. We’re constantly having to define ourselves to the people who we want to be interested in us and who still may be getting their heads around the concept of a social enterprise.” For Kirkland being seen as part of a national movement makes that part of her job just a bit easier.

With PROe up and running now for three-and-a-half years, Kirkland sees inclusion in REDF’s Accelerator as an enormous opportunity to share ideas, forge a community, and learn best practices about what’s working in the field. “Frankly we’re just trying to derive all the benefit that we can out of it,” Kirkland says. “I love what I’m learning from REDF.”

“Some of the information that’s come out of the Accelerator is about paying close attention to the things that make up the whole,” Kirkland says. “Attention to detail in terms of finances, financial analysis, as well as the actual model for the social enterprise” is a crucial component of success Kirkland believes. With regard to financial analysis, Kirkland and her team at Project Return have been able to “create a monthly dashboard analysis that lets us see to the penny the costs of our operation: how we’re spending our money, how we’re getting paid. That’s an ongoing practice that has really made all the difference.”

Kirkland is quick to point out that there’s more to running a social enterprise besides a spreadsheet and a dashboard. In her view, REDF is coming alongside social enterprise leaders and encouraging them to “be well…and recognize the strengths across our teams.” That is, to tap into and foster the greatness of staff members and effectively channel their unique talents toward the end goal. Beyond that, “REDF is focusing all this attention on being solid as a corporation, being smart as a growing business. But there’s also something about what REDF is teaching us, which is never take our eyes off the importance of the lives that we exist to improve. So it’s really a great thing to take back following the Accelerator. I’m so excited.”

About Bettie Kirkland
Bettie Kirkland practiced business and environmental litigation in Kansas City Missouri, served on the island of Guadalcanal as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and worked as a Research Associate at the historic Race Relations Institute of Fisk University, before moving into nonprofit leadership. Her first such role was with an agency/clinic addressing HIV/AIDS and substance abuse, and she subsequently joined Project Return with its similar mission of connecting marginalized people with opportunities and possibilities. In her second year at Project Return, Bettie secured the seed funding to launch its first social enterprise, PROe.

About PROe
Based in Tennessee, Project Return is solely dedicated to the successful new beginnings of people returning to the community from incarceration. Project Return launched PROe, its social enterprise, as a way to bridge the otherwise hazardous and prolonged gap between prison and regular employment. PROe is a transitional jobs business that’s meeting the workforce needs of companies by contracting to provide staffing with crews of motivated, hard-working employees. On their way to long-term employment, PROe workers earn wages, develop new skills, and benefit from job coaching and extensive wraparound support as part of their successful new beginnings.