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Nonprofit entrepreneurs ponder joint website to boost business

Brian Paulson of the Greater Twin Cities United Way is floating the idea that nonprofits involved in selling goods and services could band together to create a joint online marketing effort.

Paulson, community impact manager for basic needs, said the idea grew out of conversations he had with the 37 different nonprofit job-training programs that United Way funds. About one-third of them were involved in social enterprise, charging a fee to businesses for their services, whether for temporary help or light assembly work. In talking to those nonprofits, he said they were not asking for more funding.

“Each of them said, ‘How can you help us develop business relationships? We need referrals for work,'” Paulson said.

United Way has tremendous business connections, but it can’t play favorites. It couldn’t recommend to a particular business that it contract with one nonprofit program over another. So Paulson presented the idea of a joint online marketing effort at a recent meeting of the Social Enterprise Network. The idea is in its infancy.

Area nonprofits have developed any number of job-training, job-placement and job-support programs over the years to help a variety of people: those with disabilities, ex-offenders, recovering addicts, people leaving welfare, immigrants and refugees. These organizations include Good Will Easter Seals Minnesota, Lifetrack Resources, Emerge, ReBuild Resources, and PPL Industries.

A common marketing website could elevate their visibility, promote the social value of their work and help them get more business.

Dawn Williams, Emerge’s director of employment services and one of a few dozen who attended the meeting, said she thought the joint website would be an excellent way to expand. She only has two sales people and they could only talk to so many people.

“We are a secret, most of us,” she said.

Following Toronto’s example
Jason Kang, a marketing intern for the United Way, reviewed how other cities had tried to jointly market nonprofit goods and services on the web. The most user-friendly for business-to-business sales seems to be the Social Purchasing Portal Toronto, he said. Its alphabetical listing of goods and services ranges from bakery to woodwork, with florists and giftware in between.

The site’s message to potential businesses says: “The portal provides Toronto-based corporations with an easy opportunity to engage in corporate social responsibility. Without spending any more money than they already do on everyday expenses such as catering, cleaning, and landscaping, corporations can have a positive social impact in their community.”

Paulson said at a time when individuals can’t necessarily increase their donations, creating ways for them to shop nonprofit goods and services would be another way for them to help. Other sites the United Way reviewed were Social Enterprise London and FundRaisers.com, but they did not seem as promising as models.

A number of questions would emerge if some version of a Twin Cities Social Purchasing Portal got traction. For one, the site would need neutral promotion of competing services, Paulson said. (The same organization could not always get top billing in the search engine.) Someone would have to determine which organizations are eligible to participate on the site and which are not. There would need to be some review to ensure service and product integrity.

What next?
The joint marketing project is in an exploratory phase, Paulson said. The United Way had identified a need, but has not determined what role it would play. He plans to meet with some of the larger nonprofits doing job training as a social enterprise and report back to the Social Enterprise Network in the next few months. “How things take shape will be determined by their interest and what they see as a value,” he said.

Paulson said if the joint marketing effort is successful it could be a springboard to other collaborative projects between nonprofits.

Kate Barr, executive director of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, said she thought Minnesota businesses would respond to the idea. She and Judy Alnes, executive director of MAP for Nonprofits, co-founded the Social Enterprise Network earlier this year. Barr said she was thrilled to already have a possible outcome from that work.

Discussions could also expand to the politically touchy issue of purchasing preferences.

Kevin Lynch, executive director of ReBuild Resources, said even with the website, it could be difficult for nonprofit enterprises to break into government and big business contracts. He suggested seeking a government purchasing preference for nonprofit social enterprises, similar to those received by minority-owned and women-owned businesses. Since nonprofits aren’t “owned,” they would need a different approach. They could ask the state to create a “Nonprofit Social Enterprise” designation as a targeted business preference, he said.

In related news …. Opportunity Partners partners
Keeping with the theme of nonprofit job training programs, Opportunity Partners announced it is partnering with Dunwoody College of Technology to expand training and career options for people with disabilities.

According to a media release, they are jointly developing “Certified Learning Platforms,” starting with a Professional Cleaning program. It will allow more than 75 current Opportunity Partners clients, as well as new students, to advance their skills. The Professional Cleaning Platform is expected to launch in late 2009. Opportunity Partners is the first disability provider in the area to partner with Dunwoody to offer this kind of training.

Wilder Foundation’s Kingston retires
Tom Kingston, president and CEO of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation announced he would retire effective June 30, 2010. He leaves the organization after 30 years, the last 20 as president. The Wilder Board has been working with Kingston on a succession plan for the past several years.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Katherine Werner on 08/24/2009 - 03:44 pm.

    MinnPost obviously prefers to write only favorable stories about Greater Twin Cities
    United Way such as this one above, and avoid exposing their mistakes and misjudgments.
    One particularly dumb mistake was GTCUW terminating the productive and inexpensive Hunger Program in December 2008, one year before its completion.

    Begun in January 2007 and intended for 3 years, this was a modestly-funded, but very successful grassroots effort to raise awareness of hunger issues and be proactive by supporting food shelves with food drives. In two years, 400,000 pounds of food were raised for local food shelves towards the project goal of 600,000 pounds.

    Why would United Way end such a tangible form of direct support when local food shelf usage is at an all-time high? United Way claims it’s because of a lack of funding. Maybe, but I doubt it. Why? Because:
    .
    1) the program cost ONLY $80,000/year and hadn’t yet gone beyond that budget,
    2) it was funded internally by their own Community Impact Basic Needs to operate three years, and
    3) GTCUW’s campaigns were yielding $90+ million/year (2008 = $93.1 million according to their own press).
    .
    Something is terribly wrong when the country’s second largest United Way chooses to terminate early such a productive and inexpensive program when it is needed the most. Something is also wrong when MinnPost/Scott Russell will not report on it, despite numerous conversations with me. Maybe that’s because GTCUW is a partner and advertiser with MinnPost.
    .
    Towards full transparency, I was the Project Manager for this food support program and was laid off when the program ended seven months ago. I am still unemployed, have no health insurance and need to use one of the food shelves I helped. In my opinion, that is not LIVING UNITED.

  2. Submitted by Katherine Werner on 08/28/2009 - 04:54 pm.

    Scott – no response?

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