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Social enterprises create jobs and provide vital funds for community economic development

Block by Block staff at work

Oct. 31, 2013 – The financial crisis forced many nonprofits to look beyond traditional funding sources like donations and grants, in search of innovative strategies for funding their work. The N.C. Community Development Initiative encourages its network of community economic development partners to view their work through an entrepreneurial lens and seek opportunities for providing mission-based services that generate earned income.

These income-generating ventures, known as social enterprises, are social-impact focused and align with a nonprofit’s mission work. In the case of Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. (EMSDC) in Asheville, a recipient of the Initiative’s 2013 Community Enterprise Fund grant, their social enterprise is a commercial sewing business and workforce development program called Block by Block Industries.

“Our intent with Block by Block Industries was, first and foremost, to look at sustainability for the organization through some earned income source,” said Stephanie Swepson-Twitty, executive director of EMSDC. “We’ve been doing business now for about a year and we have three solid customers – one of which we have taken from producing 15 bags to 250 bags, and a feature in Martha Stewart’s Christmas magazine.”

Block by Block Industries employs two full-time and three part-time workers, and brought in nearly $10,000 in its first year to support EMSDC’s community economic development activities, which include an $11.1 million commercial and residential project in collaboration with Mountain Housing Opportunities and an Individual Development Account program that helps entrepreneurs start small businesses.

The idea for the commercial sewing business came to fruition through partnerships with other nonprofits. Swepson-Twitty’s involvement on the board of directors of another Initiative partner, HandMade in America, connected her with Marketing Association of Rehabilitation Centers (MARC), an organization with a successful model for commercial sewing as a workforce development tool, and with Sandra Duncan, a craft artist who was looking to contract out the production side of her handbag and luggage business.

“We purchased all of her equipment to use for production and for our workforce development program and, through our agreement with her, 100 percent of the sales comes to Block by Block,” said Swepson-Twitty. “[Duncan] is paid by us as a consultant to do the design, development and prototype production, and we have an exclusive rights agreement that will allow us to produce all of her products.”

MARC, an association of nonprofit rehabilitation organizations, was a critical partner for EMSDC because they are experienced in providing commercial sewing job training to disadvantaged populations, specifically people with disabilities. They also have a long history of successful collaboration with both nonprofits and for-profits.

“Our clients and trainees will be individuals who are disadvantaged in another way – economically – but the lessons that we are learning from MARC can be replicated,” said Swepson-Twitty. “You don’t have to be a duplicate of another service. You can take tried and true models and collaborate with the people who built those models to build your own.”

Block by Block’s other sewing contracts include:

  • Lunch bags and totes designed by Leighanne Hilbert of Overlap Studios
  • A wrap for use in the neonatal intensive care unit of a hospital produced for Ibiliti, a broker for local Mission Hospital
  • A protective pillow cover for use when traveling for a company called Omega Studios

Currently, Block by Block Industries is creating jobs and providing an income source for the organization, but EMSDC plans to begin its workforce development component in early 2014.

“The goal is to bring in low- to moderate-income individuals from chronically unemployed communities to train them in commercial heavy-needle sewing,” said Swepson-Twitty. “Hopefully with gainful employment that pays a living wage, individuals will be able to raise themselves out of poverty.”

Many Initiative partners have developed social enterprises to create jobs and support their mission work. Some examples are:

  • EmPOWERment Inc., Chapel Hill – EmPOWERment manages a portfolio of rental homes which generate income for the organization while addressing its mission of providing safe, affordable housing to its community.
  • Green Opportunities, Asheville – The GO Labor Crew and GO Energy Team provide intensive on-the-job training and life skills development to disadvantaged young people while providing paid temporary construction labor and energy efficiency building performance measurement services to area contractors, residential and commercial properties.
  • Kingdom Community Development Corp., Spring Lake – Kingdom CDC’s International House of Pancakes restaurant franchise is the first project completed by the organization in its effort to address the job shortage in the Spring Lake community. Coming soon are a Candlewood Suites Hotel and the Balsawood Daycare Center, which will create additional jobs and services that are needed in the Fort Bragg area, while providing funding for Kingdom’s housing and community assistance programs.
  • Passage Home, Raleigh – The Passage Home Resale and Thrift Shop provides gently used goods at reasonable prices in order to provide job training and employment for members of the community and raise funds for Passage Home’s supportive housing, development and youth programs.

For more information on Block by Block Industries, contact Swepson-Twitty at 828.281.1227.

The N.C. Community Development Initiative leads North Carolina’s collaborative community economic development effort, driving innovation, investment and action to create prosperous, sustainable communities. For more information, visit www.ncinitiative.org.

Photos of Block by Block Industries staff and products: