BREC had a problem with its workforce: Low morale and high employee turnover were affecting job performance and customer service throughout the parish parks and recreation system.
So in 2018, the agency brought in HOPE Ministries to help. The local nonprofit organization offers a workforce training program called The Way to Work, which teaches the kind of valuable life skills that employees, many of whom have been raised in intergenerational poverty, need to succeed on the job.
HOPE facilitators held several on-site training classes at BREC headquarters for some 80 field employees. The results were so promising, BREC hired HOPE again in 2019 to conduct more trainings. In addition, HOPE facilitators began providing coaching services to BREC employees, which BREC Training Director Nicole Payne-Jack likens to a sort of informal employee assistance program.
Though BREC doesn’t have any hard data yet to back up its positive assessment of the program, agency officials say anecdotal evidence indicates The Way to Work is making a difference in both turnover and employee attitudes.
“Retention is headed in the right direction,” says Payne-Jack. “Only one employee who went through the program last year is no longer with us, which is a big improvement, and the employees are really getting a lot out of it.”
BREC is just one of several paying clients HOPE has attracted with The Way to Work. Others include Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, AmeriHealth Caritas, and Cristo Rey School. And this summer, HOPE is expanding into the Mississippi Delta, where it will bring its training curriculum to veterans employed at new e-waste facility that disposes of old computers.
It’s an impressive undertaking for a faith-based organization that began with a food pantry for the neighborhood and a couple of mentoring programs for underserved residents in the 70805 ZIP code.
It’s also significant because The Way to Work program is a social enterprise—or what’s alternatively referred to as an earned income venture—that generates revenue for HOPE, helping the nonprofit sustain itself and better serve its core constituency in north Baton Rouge.
As competition locally and nationally intensifies for a shrinking philanthropic dollar, nonprofit organizations that want to survive long term are going to have to figure out how to keep themselves afloat by making social enterprise a part of their model.
“The number one question I hear from funders and foundations is, ‘How are you planning to sustain this program when this money runs out?’” HOPE Executive Director Janet Simmons says. “We can answer that by saying ‘Because we’re growing our earned income ventures.’”
HOPE was founded in 2003 with a mission to prevent homelessness and promote dignity and self-sufficiency to residents in north Baton Rouge. Initially, it did this through its food pantry, which is still, perhaps, what HOPE is best known for doing. The pantry is open three days a week, serving some 4,000 clients a year, and is unique because of its grocery store setting, which creates an atmosphere of dignity by allowing clients to select products that meet the needs of their families.
Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, HOPE expanded to meet the growing needs of the community, creating an adult education component that helped clients with things like life skills training and financial literacy. The programs were promising but the results were spotty and the number of clients they helped was small.
In the late 2000s, that began to change, when HOPE developed a program to help the community better understand the causes of poverty and the behavior of those born into it. HOPE called its program Understanding the Dynamics of Poverty, and began offering it to managers and supervisors, case managers, social workers and anyone who wanted to learn more about the impact of poverty on the community and in the workforce.
As interest in the program grew, Simmons and her team, which by then included a handful of employees and two part-time facilitators, began researching a program in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Welfare to Career, or W2C, that was proving enormously successful in helping people get off welfare and stay employed. Companies that participated in W2C saw retention rates increase from less than 35% to more than 95%, and began saving millions in turnover costs. Michigan taxpayers, meanwhile, saw state welfare costs go down.
Over the past six years, HOPE has developed and refined its own version of W2C into The Way to Work. Currently, it has three courses: Understanding the Dynamics of Poverty, Understanding Your Workforce, and Going Beyond: Employees Achieving More.
Each tackles the challenges posed by intergenerational poverty from a different perspective. Understanding the Dynamics of Poverty is geared toward the general public, business leaders or managers and even social workers, the latter of whom are eligible to receive continuing education credit for attending a six-hour workshop.
Understanding Your Workforce is designed for employers and mid-level managers. It’s a six-hour professional development training program that covers topics like learned behaviors of economic class and causes of poverty, and helps employers better relate to the challenges their employees face.
The Going Beyond program is targeted towards those who have grown up in intergenerational poverty and are seeking to get—and keep—a job. It teaches life skills and workplace behavior that might seem like common sense to some but may never have been taught to those growing up in impoverished families.
Courses are taught on site at workplaces and also in HOPE’s newly renovated Way to Work Learning Center on Winbourne Avenue, which has a classroom, large conference room and computer lab. HOPE also has 15 employees, including full-time and part-time coaches and facilitators who assist the organization’s various clients and paying corporate clients in a variety of ways.
Beginning this summer, HOPE is taking its social enterprise model on the road, opening a satellite office in Greenville, Mississippi, where it has been hired to work with a nonprofit organization that serves military veterans and, itself, has a growing social enterprise model.
The group was founded by a retired Army colonel who recognized that many veterans from the rural Delta—and nearby northeast Louisiana and southwest Arkansas—joined the military to escape intergenerational poverty and returned home with few job skills and, potentially, a host of problems like PTSD.
The group’s first venture is called National Secured Assurance and is a certified e-waste facility that will disassemble computers and other electronics that contain classified data.
Veterans will break down and sort the precious metals in the computers and send them off to a smelting plant in Texas. HOPE’s The Way to Work, meanwhile, will teach them the kind of life skills they need to succeed in their new jobs.
“Many people probably don’t realize that veterans absolutely need essential skills training,” Simmons says. “Many of them still have the learned behavior of intergenerational poverty and they need to unlearn certain behaviors from their years in the military—like conflict resolution. We have to help them understand, for instance, that you can’t fight to resolve conflict if you’re on the job.”
Clients like National Secured Assurance and the others in Baton Rouge will bring in around $130,000 for HOPE this year. That’s about 10% or the organization’s total budget. But Simmons is optimistic that number will continue to grow and the goal is to eventually bring in 50% to 75% of the organization’s revenues through earned income ventures. It’s ambitious but it’s also the key for nonprofits to survive.
The philanthropic dollar is shrinking both locally and nationally. In 2018, charitable giving by individuals nationwide had its largest drop since the Great Recession in 2008, declining from $295 million to $292 million, a 1.1% decrease.
Organized and corporate giving is also in a slump. The Capital Area United Way’s 2018 annual workplace giving campaign, the success of which determines how much CAUW is able to spread throughout the community, raised just $6.2 million—falling short of its $6.6 million goal. By comparison, its 2013 campaign brought in more than $9 million.
At the same time, more organizations are seeking funding because needs continue to grow, and fundraisers for schools and arts organizations are becoming more sophisticated in their institutional advancement, increasing competition for dwindling resources.
Jan Ross, executive vice president of the Huey and Angelina Wilson Foundation, says it’s increasingly important for nonprofit organizations to do more than just ask for help. They have to demonstrate they’re able to help themselves.
“Funders look for diversified funding sources to evaluate the depth of an organization’s support,” Ross says. “When an organization has a wide array of funding streams it can be less dependent on any one funding source and adapt to fluctuations in the market.”
Wilson has generously supported The Way to Work in recent years, not only because it’s a good program but because it’s a good model for sustainability.
“HOPE has a product that the private sector needs and wants that simultaneously supports the clients HOPE serves through its other programs,” Ross says. “Private sector contracts provide an additional funding stream, show resiliency and value, and signal a strong organization worthy of an investment. It’s a win-win.”
As Simmons looks to the future, she hopes to grow HOPE’s social enterprises by expanding The Way to Work to other cities in the state, though not New Orleans, which already has such programs. She also plans to market the curriculum to large employers, once HOPE can afford to hire the training staff, and to companies and other nonprofits out of state.
“Where we’re providing training, coaching and retention services we’re changing the footprint of poverty,” she says. “Our goal is to shrink that footprint throughout Louisiana and beyond.”