Interview with Catherine Ellingson, Social Enterprise Director at New Avenues for Youth
You may not know that the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops on Yamhill St. and the PSU campus are actually social enterprises. Run by New Avenues for Youth, these “PartnerShops” provide job training and employment for at-risk and formerly homeless youth. We interviewed Catherine Ellingson, Social Enterprise Director at New Avenues for Youth, about the PartnerShops and what’s next for their social enterprise program—but that’s not all.
Impact Entrepreneurs is proud to announce a partnership with New Avenues for Youth to help them develop a new portfolio of microenterprise opportunities for homeless and at-risk youth. To celebrate the launch of this initiative, Jerry Greenfield—yes, the Jerry from Ben & Jerry’s—will give the opening keynote for this year’s International Conference on Business and Sustainability at Portland State University. Click here to register for the conference, or read on to learn more about the PartnerShops, New Avenues for Youth, and the most delicious social enterprise in Portland.
Impact Entrepreneurs: How would you describe your Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops in a single tweet?
Catherine: Doing good tastes delicious in Portland! Job training for at-risk youth + Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops = one euphoric way to give back.
Why did New Avenues for Youth decide to start a subsidiary social enterprise, and would you briefly describe the history of the PartnerShops?
We learned about the opportunity to develop a PartnerShop nine years ago when Ben and Jerry’s made inquiries locally about expanding the concept in the Northwest. We had started a job training program and thought this would be an effective and unique way to provide work experience and job training to our youth, many of whom had major barriers to employment. Ben and Jerry’s asked for letters of inquiry, and we were selected to move forward with a visit to corporate headquarters.
We spent a great deal of time on the business plan, consulted with a local franchisee, recruited an advisory team, and developed a fundraising plan. We wanted to open the shop with no debt (no business loan) so fundraising was critical. We quickly found out that the double bottom line concept (revenue generation to support job training for homeless youth) was very attractive to donors and foundations, and we raised $250,000 in about eight months for build-out and opening inventory. We then selected a location and hired a shop manager who was a retired Nike executive with over 30 years of experience in retail operations.
Our major issues at the beginning were:
- Was it a good fit? Could a nonprofit like New Avenues operate a business?
- Legal and nonprofit regulatory issues regarding unrelated business income tax (UBIT).
- Was it a good investment in job training? Could we achieve the same job training outcomes in some other fashion other than opening the shop?
How do New Avenues for Youth programs support and tie into the training and employment opportunities offered by the Scoop Shops?
It is our belief that in order for youth to learn and develop new skills, they first must have their basic needs met. To this end, New Avenues for Youth operates a continuum of programs designed to engage youth, address health, safety and basic needs and ultimately connect youth to the opportunities and supports they need to be successful. New Avenues programs offer youth food, clothing, time off the streets, clinical case management, counseling, alcohol and drug treatment, music and art, education and career training. As youth engage through the spectrum of basic needs programs they are oriented and if appropriate, connected to our job training program PAVE (Promoting Avenues to Employment). PAVE works most closely with the PartnerShops, providing participation referral, workforce case management, job readiness skills courses, subsidized work experience, computer access, and extensive resource listings, so that youth develop the knowledge and training they need to obtain living-wage employment.
Both Ben & Jerry’s PartnerShops are staffed entirely by PAVE participants or graduates, and the PartnerShops serve as in-house supportive job training facilities. We are unique because we offer real-world work experience, but our in-store Skills Trainer, Operations Manager, and Enterprise Director provide guided training and ongoing job coaching and support. PAVE staff and the Ben & Jerry’s team collaborate to ensure each youth’s Scoop Shop job training is part of a larger employment strategy and action plan, with the goal of helping youth into living-wage employment or enrollment in an educational institution.
What’s the biggest challenge in running a social enterprise like this, and how do you address it?
The biggest challenge in running a social enterprise, especially one in which the mission is to provide job training and employment opportunities, is balancing the financial bottom line with the desire to generate as much social impact as possible. For us at New Avenues and Ben & Jerry’s, delivering on the social mission often entails creating more scooper and shift lead positions, offering multiple levels of job training and longer-term placements, and providing one-on-one support and guidance, all of which can be very costly but also results in the greatest social returns. We address this by carefully analyzing our cost drivers as well as our impact, and monitoring our double bottom line so we can make informed decisions when tough choices have to be made.
What advice would you give to a nonprofit interested in creating a social enterprise subsidiary?
- Be realistic. Social enterprise is sometimes portrayed as a silver bullet for nonprofits that can liberate them from fickle and challenging funding conditions while delivering aggressive social impact outcomes. In practice social enterprise is more complex. It is an incredible tool that does offer greater strategic and financial freedom and pays high-impact social returns. However, successful social enterprise requires discipline and strategic rigor, significant stakeholder engagement, lots of hard work, and ever-careful balance of the social and financial bottom lines.
- Be very clear about the goals you hope to achieve from the beginning, and establish social impact metrics early in the process that directly correspond to the goals so that you will be able to effectively evaluate your success.
- Do your business homework. Don’t rush into something on a whim before making sure there is a real and attractive market opportunity, and that this opportunity is a good match with your organization’s skills, capacities, and available bandwidth.
- While I advocate hard work and strategic discipline, don’t be afraid of some risk! A common occurrence is for a nonprofit to be very excited initially about a given social enterprise opportunity, but after some exploration decide the inherent risk involved is too great to warrant the leap. I encourage nonprofit leaders to seriously reflect on their risk profile and tolerance given their organization’s goals, the potential social return, and today’s political and economic climate.
What’s next for the social enterprise programs at New Avenues for Youth?
At New Avenues our mission is to work in partnership with the community to prevent youth homelessness and to provide homeless and at-risk young people with the resources and skills needed to lead healthy, productive lives. A significant component of a healthy and productive life is a pathway to employment and education, job training, and a skill set that can be leveraged in a range of professional contexts. We believe our social enterprises are a vital tool in building this pathway and creating lasting social impact.
Therefore, this Fall we will be officially launching our social enterprise initiative! New Avenues is creating a portfolio of social enterprises that reduce barriers to employment, create employment opportunities, and provide guidance and training so youth can permanently exit street life. By virtue of having a portfolio with a range of enterprises and employment opportunities, youth are able to create individualized pathways based on their interests and talents, through which they can develop the building blocks for long-term self-sufficiency.
Please visit our website for further news and developments regarding our upcoming launch and new enterprises! www.newavenues.org
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about New Avenues for Youth, the Scoop Shops, or your other programs?
We cater! You may not know it, but we can bring Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to your office party, birthday, conference, softball tournament, or any other event you can think up! We offer ice cream cone and cup parties and create-your-own sundae parties with a smorgasbord of toppings (including hot fudge, caramel, and whipped cream!), and we take care of set-up, clean-up and of course, scooping your favorite flavors with a smile.
What single thing could someone reading this do to help support New Avenues for Youth and the Scoop Shops?
The best thing a reader can do is to tell a friend or colleague. Helping us spread the word about the PartnerShops’ impact on local youth and our unique social mission is a wonderful way to support our efforts. And of course, come by the PSU or Yamhill shop and chat with the staff over Vermont’s finest ice cream! We promise it will brighten your day.