Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey” will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years.
Diversified Funding Keeps Us in Business
Sales create jobs. During tours and staff meetings, at speaking engagements and dinner parties, I am often heard proclaiming this mantra. Because of our social enterprise model, we are a sales-driven organization. Sales revenue is the primary driver for how many women we can hire and lives we can affect. And yet, because of how we’ve chosen to structure our operations, we are unable to fund 100% of our expenses with sales alone.
More than a Food Manufacturing Business
When we hire women as employees to work in our business, they also become program participants. In their Bean Project job they help us accomplish the most vital functions in our food manufacturing business. And, during the time they are working for the Bean Project, they also work on themselves, improving their soft skills to become better employees, mothers and community members – their You job. Over the course of their 6-9 month employment at the Bean Project, the women will spend about 70% of their paid time working in the business in some way and 30% doing the You job; that is, working on themselves. Each of these jobs is important and each requires a different method of funding to make them possible.
Also a Human Services business
When one considers how the women’s paid time is divided, it’s apparent we are not merely a food manufacturing business but also a Human Services business. Delicious food products are created by the great employees in our business and these same great employees who graduate and move into jobs in the community are the “products” of our program. To make this happen, we have learned throughout our 30 years that we need grants and donations to provide the revenue to our Human Services business. Ultimately, it is this work that allows us to fulfill our mission and address challenges faced by the women we choose to hire.
We’re Inherently Inefficient…On Purpose
This choice, to change women’s lives by providing stepping stone to self-sufficiency through social enterprise, makes our model inherently inefficient. To fulfill our mission, we hire those who need us the most; who are fragile, may relapse, are dealing with trauma, and overall have many barriers to getting and keeping employment. In order to try to have the greatest impact, we also hire many more women than would be required if we were only a food manufacturer and concerned only with shareholder profits. While other employers are trying to do as much as they can with the least amount of payroll cost, we intentionally over-hire to account for the inefficiencies of incorporating the You job into the women’s paid time and to account for the fact that our employees are working on more than just employment when we hire them. Among other things, they are also looking for housing, fulfilling the requirements of the courts, and addressing health issues so those won’t get in their way at their next, mainstream job.
The Shareholders of Our Business
While we work each day to grow our sales presence across the country, we have learned that we must have all kinds of funding to be financially sustainable. And so we also work daily to engage donors and foundations in our work. The support of the community makes it possible to offer the program curriculum, including adult literacy and numeracy classes, computer classes, and resume and cover letter writing classes. When donors and foundations give funds to Women’s Bean Project, they are investing in our organization AND the women. They become the shareholders of the human services business. Community members can then keep an eye on their investments by staying engaged with us; volunteering and staying touch as we share stories and results.
We Take Self-Sufficiency Very Seriously
Of course, supporters of the Bean Project are happy to purchase products and we work hard every day to ensure that we are providing the right products in the right locations to make it easy for people to support us. Raising philanthropic dollars to support the program activities allows us to make decisions that are right for the women even when they would be detrimental to running a profitable business. We realize that no one wants to give us grants and donations to fund a business losing money, so we are always eager to share that the business, when siloed on its own, does generate a small profit. These modest profits are put back into the operations to support program activities.
We take very seriously the notion of self-sufficiency. It applies to us as an organization as much as to any woman going through our program. After 30 years we know that it takes all of us, working together, to ensure Women’s Bean Project’s self-sufficiency just as it requires the entire community to lift up the women who come to the Bean to change their lives. We are all affected by the success or failure of the women we serve and we all have skin in the game because the work we do benefits the community as a whole.
Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO