Social Enterprise

Putting the Enterprise in Social Enterprise

by Rudy Carrasco

Landscaping. Coffee shops. Handyman services. Training kitchens. Snow removal. Housing for single mothers.

Across the United States, church and business leaders are responding to needs in their communities through social enterprise. Social enterprise addresses a basic unmet need or solve a social problem through a market-driven approach. Many social enterprises mix earned revenue with cash donations to cover their costs—but a growing number of organizations seek to operate profitable business as they pursue shalom.

Shalom—the just conditions in which “nothing is missing, nothing is broken”—is the vision of Grand Rapids, Mich. based Building Bridges Professional Services. Building Bridges started in 2007 to employ young adults facing barriers to employment. They provide landscaping, lawn care, property maintenance, snow removal, and more. Their vision of shalom includes the flourishing of young people who have aged out of the foster care system and have few people or resources to lean on as a safety net.

In 2017, Building Bridges began the process of converting from a nonprofit to an L3C for-profit structure. “To do social enterprise well,” says Nate Beene, CEO of Building Bridges, “you have to closely integrate your social purpose and financial health.”

With support from Partners Worldwide volunteers, Nate and his team began strengthening the business-side of their operations four years ago. “Our budget wasn’t best suited for our industry,” Beene says. “We worked on account codes, breaking down expenses, and allocating costs like vendor repairs and vehicle use.” 

In 2017, Building Bridges’ revenue was $700,000, and they project $1 million in revenue this year. From a modest start— Beene was the first Building Bridges employee ten years ago —the organization employs 25 people today. The employee pool is a mix of entry-level team members as well as operations staff who can support the team members and run the business.

“When we started, we had more homeless youth than we do now,” Beene says, “but we learned that the ideal employee is a young person looking for a second chance. We need the team member to be at a point where they can show up every day and let us pour into them.”

2,000 miles away from Building Bridges, in Long Beach, California, another social enterprise is creating opportunities for young people while getting to break-even profit.

5000 Pies, inspired by the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in the Gospel of Matthew, offers delicious deep-dish pizza, jaguar fries, salads, sandwiches, and more. Launched as an LLC by Fountain of Life Church, the organization currently employs 17 people with 80 percent of its revenue earned through sales at 5000 Pies.

“When we first started our church, we knew we needed some kind of economic element to provide jobs and job training in the area,” said Becky Teter, a 5000 Pies founder, to the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

The social enterprise model of 5000 Pies includes paid time off for employees to participate in life skills training and discipleship programs. On the business side, the managers are looking to increase sales through local marketing and expanding their baked sweets offerings.

Mike Martinez, head chef at 5000 Pies, embodies the shalom that the Fountain of Life Church team envisioned from the start. In his teens and twenties, he was involved in a gang and drug culture, with related prison stints. As he rebuilt his life, he joined Fountain of Life and dreamed with leaders about an enterprise that could help others like him stay out of trouble. Fast forward and Martinez, as the head chef at 5000 pies, encourages both employees and customers while creating demand with the tasty 5000 Pies menu.

Building Bridges Professional Services and 5000 Pies are just two of many social enterprises building financially-sustainable businesses that make a social impact. Across the country, Partners Worldwide encounters and connects with hundreds of organizations and churches that are living out their mission in a sustainable way and seeing lives transformed. Shalom through business is more than an aspiration – Building Bridges, 5000 Pies, and others are showing it can be done in high unemployment communities throughout the United States.

Rudy Carrasco is the U.S. Regional Facilitator for Partners Worldwide. Prior to serving with Partners Worldwide, Rudy worked for 19 years in an urban ministry in Pasadena, CA, where he realized the need to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit in high unemployment communities.