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Seeing Is Believing: Top 5 Reflections from REDF’s National Portfolio Launch

On February 8, 2016 REDF announced its new national portfolio of 22 social enterprises in 8 states. These social enterprises are businesses that leverage the power of goods and services to employ men and women facing the greatest barriers to work. In the three months since that announcement we have conducted launch events in seven of our key markets: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Chicago, and Boston. At these events, we gathered representatives of the local social enterprise ecosystem including the workforce system, private foundations, impact investors, policy makers, businesses, and in Portland, the Mayor. Our intent was not just to celebrate the grantees joining REDF’s national portfolio, but also to raise awareness about the critically important role a healthy ecosystem plays in ensuring that the social enterprise sector reaches its full potential.

Fully inspired by our time in the field, we are now back in the office and deep into providing the specialized consulting services that will help these social enterprises thrive. As we engage in that work, we’d like to share with you our top 5 reflections of this whirlwind tour.

# 1. Exceptionally Strong Leadership
As we met with the CEO’s of this new portfolio, I was struck by the exceptionality of this group of people. Since strong leadership is something we looked for in the selection process, this is not a coincidence, but seeing them interact with each other and other stakeholders in their community really drove home how much leadership talent there is in this portfolio. It’s a ‘Who’s Who’ of the social enterprise landscape in U.S.— Tamra Ryan, Maria Kim, Molly Baldwin, Mark Loranger, Sam Schaeffer, Marc Spencer, Megan Karch…just to name a few. We truly believe that the collective power of this portfolio will help us create a national movement in social enterprise and that would not be possible without the help of these great thought leaders who are taking this journey with us.

# 2. Succession Planning is not a Luxury
Any grantmaker or investor who thanks heaven for the strong leadership teams of their investees, also knows that no leader stays forever. So as I was struck by the strength of the leadership in our portfolio, I also began to wonder how many of these organizations are investing in succession planning. For a busy social enterprise that is stretched thin, such planning might seem like a luxury, but it’s an important factor for long-term health. And it’s an issue that goes beyond REDF’s portfolio. Running these double-bottom-line businesses successfully is tough work. We, as a U.S. social enterprise sector, need to make sure we are developing the next generation of leaders. You can be sure that we will be working with our new portfolio to develop and/or strengthen effective leadership development programs, and I predict you’ll see more on this subject from REDF in the near future.

# 3. All Boats are not Rising With the Tide
Despite a strong economy and low overall unemployment in every region we visited, the people our social enterprises serve are not included in this rising tide. Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco have declared an official homelessness crisis. The murder rate in Chicago is at a record-setting level. The highest per capita youth homelessness is in Denver, where “Ban the Box” just failed. Tens of thousands of people are being left behind by an improving economy all over the country. And when we stigmatize and penalize people for mistakes in their past, we are not just leaving them behind, we are permanently shutting them out.

# 4. A Career that Makes a Difference
One of the topics we’ve thought a lot about at REDF over the last year is the importance of front line supervisors and employment specialists at our social enterprises. As anyone who has had a terrible boss can attest, a good boss can catalyze success, and a bad boss can fuel failure. The same is not only true in our social enterprises, it’s something which is exacerbated by the nature of the work. One commonality across our portfolio that was on display during our tours is the unwavering dedication and passion of the staff including case workers, supervisors, crew leaders, the folks out on the streets and on the frontlines, and others. They are all completely committed to making a transformative change in the lives of the people they serve and they work tirelessly toward that goal. In the Boston area, both UTEC and Roca are great examples of the difference that relentless street outreach can make. At Roca, we met Jason Owens, about 6 ft. 4 inches and well over 200 pounds of solid muscle, who is an Assistant Director. He also spent some time in prison, and readily admits that his background helps him know “all the tricks” and gives him a huge edge in his work. Yet, he’s also got great “streetworkers” who came to Roca straight from Ivy League schools. He says, anyone can be great at this work, it doesn’t matter whether you come from “Yale or jail.” I’d love to get this message out to more entry level talent in the country looking to make a difference and begin their career in the nonprofit sector: consider a direct service career in social enterprise. You’ll never go home wondering if what you do matters.

# 5. Seeing is Believing
The old adage is true. As part of our launch events we got to visit the local grantees in person for a tour of their facilities, get an overview of their programs, and a chance to meet the people they serve. Getting to witness my REDF colleagues experience these phenomenal social enterprises for the first time was really special. In order to fully appreciate the power of this model you need to visit the people implementing it on the ground. Speak to the leaders and the staff. Hear the stories of the people they are helping. The RFP we put out for the national portfolio resulted in 209 applications from 36 states. If you’re in any major city, I guarantee there are social enterprises in your backyard with a mission to employ and support men and women who need a second (or first) chance just like the ones in our portfolio. Most of these social enterprises offer tours, and many need volunteers. Check out the links on our website, and reach out locally and get involved.

One final thought. Our last portfolio showed the effectiveness of this model from both an outcomes and a return on investment perspective as detailed in the Mathematica Jobs Study. Now, the potential is even greater. The social enterprise employment model is unique in that it has the power to address many of society’s most intractable challenges while also being far more sustainable than traditional programming because of the earned revenue generated by the businesses. Here at REDF, we deeply believe in the social enterprise movement, and after visiting these social enterprises around the country, we are even more convinced – social enterprise is an investment that works!

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