Community Enterprise Clinic Co-sponsors Conference on Social Enterprise

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Duke Law School’s Community Enterprise Clinic (CEC) and the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business teamed up June 1 to help nonprofit organizations understand how they can use business strategies to help support their charitable endeavors, co-sponsoring a one-day “Conference on Social Enterprise.” The conference attracted nonprofit managers, philanthropic leaders, and institutional money-managers from across the Carolinas, interest largely generated by the fact that more and more nonprofits are trying to find new ways to finance their operations.

“The reality is that a lot of government and foundation funding is being cut back,” said Andrew Foster, Director of CEC, which provides pro-bono legal services to nonprofit organizations and low-wealth entrepreneurs. “Many nonprofits have to decide on appropriate business plans for sustaining their charitable work, and these choices involve significant legal issues as well as business questions. The conference was intended to begin a conversation about how social enterprise can be used effectively as a tool, both to support organizational sustainability, but also social change.”

Because business development is so hard–the numbers of business failures far outweigh successes–alignment between an organization’s charitable mission and any business is key, noted CASE Faculty Director Gregory Dees in his keynote address. CASE is one of the leading academic research centers on social entrepreneurship.

“The businesses that are going to have a greater chance of success are those that build on your strengths, your assets, your resources, and your capabilities. And in the end, [a social enterprise] makes sense only if it helps you make greater mission impact. At least for a time, it’s going to detract and pull some resources away from other things you could be doing. It’s got to help you serve your mission, either by generating money that can be used for mission purposes, or by serving the mission directly.” As an example of the latter situation, Dees pointed to a Durham-based residential substance abuse treatment program that runs a number of businesses staffed and managed by its residents; the businesses provide an income stream for the nonprofit, and also directly serve its rehabilitation mission by providing residents with job training and work experience.

Dees highlighted the importance of a business plan for any social enterprise, but pointed out that few ventures unfold exactly as anticipated.

“You have to adapt as you go, and perseverance is crucial. Think of it as a process of discovery. Set milestones to test this concept. ‘We’ll test it with a certain amount of investment, but we won’t make the huge investment until we see that the concept works.’ In most cases you can move into the venture in a way that manages risks and test the assumptions that you’re making.”

A series of break-out sessions focused on such issues as strategic planning, marketing strategies, and the legal implications of a nonprofit’s involvement in a business venture. Participants also got to hear from a panel of nonprofit managers about their experiences with entrepreneurial endeavors.

Participant Donald Stewart, director of the Neuse River Development Authority, said he came away from the conference with a lot of good ideas as his organization expands its operations from 15 to 41 North Carolina counties, establishing both nonprofit and for-profit subsidiary companies.

“A lot of the ideas, not just marketing, but in terms of operations and sourcing, have been great.”

Financial support for the conference was provided by The North Carolina Community Development Initiative, The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Wachovia Bank, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. The North Carolina Center for Non-Profits, North Carolina State University Institute for Nonprofits, and the Duke Certificate Program in Non-Profit Management also served as sponsors.