Motivated by Cara – Lekha Davé, Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

It’s Monday morning at 8:25 AM, and people are gathered in three concentric circles in the Cara office Great Room; someone enters the center of the circle and suddenly the room lights up with life-affirming renditions of “Celebration” and “Lean on Me”. Monday morning blues don’t exist at Cara. Quickly, the room’s vibrant energy becomes contagious. One by one, individuals enter the “Motivations Circle” and share their stories – hopes, obstacles, fears, and triumphs. Around 9 AM, the leader of the day shouts “What time is it?” and the crowd responds “Transformation time!” The leader next says, “We’re going to make it a ‘what’?” and we all respond eagerly: “A Great Day!” I leave the Great Room with purpose and inspiration, and very much ready to make this day a great day.

Participants and staff at Cara start each day like this, so it’s no surprise that the 27-year-old nonprofit has been able to deliver on its ambitious mission, which is to help people affected by poverty (and all the challenges that are often tied to it) get and keep quality jobs and, more importantly, rebuild hope, self-esteem, and opportunity for themselves and their families in the process. In fact, Cara has helped over 6,053 people find employment since its founding. But what does that really mean? It means that Cara staff has dedicated its resources to helping individuals overcome barriers, both personal and systemic, to dramatically transform not just their lives, but the lives of their families for years to come.

Cara does this through its four-week intensive “Transformations” training program which focuses on both personal and professional development, providing dedicated development and career specialists and expert job placement teams that work with local companies. Some individuals that come through Cara face high barriers to employment—which could include incarceration or substance abuse —making it so much harder to find a job. To address that challenge, Cara offers transitional, non-permanent work opportunities to its participants at its two for-profit social enterprises: Cleanslate and Cara Connects.

Cleanslate is a professional maintenance company that provides litter abatement, graffiti removal, cleaning, and landscaping services. Cara Connects is a staffing agency that meets the market need for temporary talent while helping candidates boost their resumes and skills in the process.

Cara’s enterprise model allows individuals to take advantage of multiple pathways, resources, and transitional job opportunities based on their needs and interests. Notably, the model is so successful that one dollar spent at Cara has a social return of $5.97.

The Farber Internship gave me the opportunity to have a hand in critical decision-making for an organization that is tasked with the extraordinary mandate to transform lives while also making enough money to cover its costs and invest in further expansion of its impact. My focus this summer was to help Cleanslate develop a financing strategy to fund its geographic expansion beyond Chicago. I had the chance to interview social enterprises across REDF’s portfolio and investors all over the country to determine which financing channel would be the best fit for Cleanslate. In mapping out capital options, I researched public financing options like Pay-for-Success initiatives, debt financing through program-related investments, community development financial institutions, and impact funds, and new flexible equity products that are being employed. I worked with the CEO, CFO, and Board to land on an appropriate capital option and developed a pitch deck and financial model to pursue investments through this channel. It was a fascinating and empowering summer experience. Here are just a few of my summer takeaways:

The term ‘non-profit’ is a tax designation, not a management style. Cara was founded by Tom Owens, a successful entrepreneur, and it continues to operate with a private-sector approach to ‘doing good’. It is just as critical for Cara to have robust data infrastructure, transparent governance, ambitious strategic plans, and operational efficacy as any other business would require. In fact, at Cara, positive outcomes – people’s livelihoods – are dependent on those organizational factors.

Seeking first-time employment requires deep, personal transformation that is not for the light-hearted. After hearing multiple participant stories, I am blown away by the courage and commitment required to undertake a program like Cara’s for individuals whose aspirations have often been stymied throughout their lives. I believe it is this admiration that motivates my coworkers at Cara to dedicate themselves to their participants day in and day out and to celebrate each new interview and each new job placement with as much excitement as they would for a close friend. While Cara provides support and resources, it comes down to the individual’s own tenacity and hard work to secure that first job.

The world of impact investing is constantly evolving, and the social impact sector is in for an exciting ride. In my conversations with investors, it quickly became clear to me we may be just at the tip of the iceberg in realizing the full potential of impact investing. New models are tested every day across the world, while organizations learn what works and what does not to advance social outcomes. There is much more for us to learn and I am optimistic about all the new creative tools that the sector will continue to uncover in that pursuit.

This summer I had the opportunity to witness Cara literally transform people’s lives by helping them secure jobs. Beyond that, I was able to both learn from and contribute to the business strategies and operations that enable these daily transformations, while receiving the support and expertise of the broader REDF and Farber communities. I’m coming away heartened – and motivated – by the efficacy of venture philanthropy to deliver inspiring outcomes, and significantly better equipped to be a leader in the sector’s continued evolution.