For Good: Social enterprise ventures help local nonprofits prosper, serve more people

For many nonprofits, the struggle for a steady flow of income is all too real.

That’s why the Nonprofit Leadership Center in partnership with the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County sponsors a business plan competition in an effort to help organizations develop and sustain a double bottom line. The goal is to help nonprofits create their own steady revenue stream while also having a positive social impact. 

This year nine organizations competed for the $25,000 first prize. 2017 marks the 12th year for the competition. 

Each year applicants work to bring a business idea to fruition by developing and writing a solid business plan over a six- month period with one-on-one training provided by the NLC of Tampa. 

By all accounts, the training is challenging but rewarding. 

“It’s a very different writing skill than these organizations are used to,“ says Tuesdi Dyer, Director of Strategic Solutions at the Nonprofit Leadership Center. “It’s a very rigorous process, I mean it’s a process of really showing how you’re going to create profit, how you’re going to manage your expenses, whose position is going to be what, where you really need the money. The First prize is $25,000 so the goal is to show how you’re going to use that $25,000 and turn it into a profit over the course of the next year.” 

Dyer says that another big difference for the agencies involved is that they have to think about how their project will be competitive in the marketplace. Most, she says, really wanted to talk about how their social enterprise idea would do good in the community because they’re so used to thinking in those terms.

“We really had to help them shift their focus and say, ‘OK, we get it, your program does do good in the community, but how is it going to be competitive?’,” says Dyer. “Your competitor isn’t another nonprofit. If you’re starting a coffee shop, your competitor is Starbucks.”

And the winners are

After six months of training, the participants present their business plans to a panel of local community leaders, nonprofit executives and previous winners. 

The first place prize this year went to the Tampa based organization GEMS, or Girls Empowered Mentally for Success, whose mission is to help at-risk girls ages 10-17 by instilling “positive core values, responsible behavior, constructive self-identity and the development of philanthropic hearts in young givers,” according to the GEMS website.

Their business idea, Transition Candles, was named for the GEMS theme of helping girls through the transitions of life as they grow into young women.

The group came up with the idea to have a wholesale candle company that would sell votive candles to private country clubs. Besides providing the candles, GEMS will also collect the used candles and take them to their warehouse, where a machine that they would purchase with the prize money cleans, recycles and recreates the candles. Then they deliver the candles back to the country clubs every week. 

“That was actually the cool business venture part of that,” says Dyer. “They’re providing a service nobody else was doing.”

The second place winner, the Emergency Care Help Organization, or ECHO, is an agency that provides emergency food, clothing and other services to residents of eastern Hillsborough County in Brandon. ECHO was awarded $15,000 for its business plan, ECHO Remade, which would re-purpose an abundance of donated but unusable clothing items by turning them into boutique style items, such as their signature vintage tie bags, which ECHO’s Executive Director Eleanor Saunders has been making for her personal small business for 15 years. 

“I knew we had a really good shot,” says Saunders, who participated in the training along with some of ECHO’s volunteers. “Every time I went through the donation room and saw all this clothing, more than we could ever put out, I was like, ‘Oh, this is a golden opportunity.' So that’s why I knew I had to enter the business plan competition for our organization.” 

“It was really hard. I’m not going to lie. It was hard. … But the beautiful thing about the whole process is it kind of really weeded out people who weren’t committed,” says Saunders. “And I think what was most helpful is it really made us think through our financial plan and our marketing plan, because yes we want to train people in valuable skills but we also want to create another stream of revenue for ECHO.”

Continued success

Similar to ECHO’s story, Metropolitan Ministries already had much of what it needed to get its catering business, Inside the Box, up and running when that organization won the business plan competition in 2010. 

What they didn’t have was a delivery vehicle.

Senior Director of Food Service and Social Enterprise at Metropolitan Ministries, Cliff Barsi, says that the need for funding for that vehicle prompted them to enter the contest. 

The experience, he says, was very beneficial.

“The training part that comes with the contest is really the key because a lot of nonprofits and or people who are starting nonprofits don’t have that knowledge of how to write a plan to get funding, so that was helpful to us,” Barsi says.  

Since winning the competition, Inside the Box has expanded from its original inception as a high-end executive lunch catering company to opening two cafés in Tampa. And their wholesale prepackaged “grab & go” lunches and snacks are now being sold at Tampa International Airport in the Airside C terminal. 

As for social enterprise, Barsi says, “What Inside the Box has allowed us to do, through a partnership with JP Morgan Chase, who funded the first three years of our culinary program, is to take those that were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and train them in the trade of culinary arts. So Inside the Box allows them to have a real place to work and get some experience.” 

Barsi says that the proceeds of their business go towards feeding the people they serve, and that last year Metropolitan Ministries served more than 1.1 million meals throughout the Tampa Bay region.

“Inside the Box helps fund that in addition to helping to train 100 students over the last three years,” says Barsi. “And they’re all out working and self-sufficient, and that’s our goal.”

Sharing the spoils

Paula Scott, PR Director at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, the organization that awards the prize money for the contest, says that because of the continued success of the winners, nonprofits around the country are reaching out. They want to copy the model. 

“Other nonprofits get to see what a solid business plan looks like, and that there are other horizons than applying for grants,” says Scott. “We look forward to next year. We’d love to have more entries.” 

Read more articles by Amy Beeman.

Amy Beeman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.