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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Using Existing Capacities within Nonprofits to Generate Income

by Ann Abbott

In today's "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" class, I focused on using a nonprofit organization's existing capacities to generate income.

We started with some examples:


  • Homegirl Cafe has built a job-training program around working in and running a food service business. So, they run a food service business and make money off the sales of their food and drinks. It's what they do, and do very well, every day. 
  • The Refugee Center is built around the variety of services that their multilingual staff offers. For their clients, they translate and act as interpreters for free or a nominal fee. For lawyers, hospitals, schools and businesses, they can provide the same services but at a higher cost.
Students then analyzed the gifts that Radio Ambulante offered during their Kickstarter Campaign. Their assignment was to decide which gifts were built upon their existing capacities, and which were not. What does Radio Ambulante do every day and do very well? Create and disseminate audio stories in Spanish. So, the results were:
  • No. The lovely books, signed by the authors, that were given away to donors are not products that are built on their existing capacities. 
  • Yes. The CDs of their episodes are drawn from their existing capacities.
  • Yes: on-air recognition of sponsorship for an episode. ie. “This episode of Radio Ambulante brought to you in part by the generous support of YOUR NAME HERE.”
  • Yes: an on-air dedication of an episode to a person of your choice, with the dedication recorded in your own voice. Alternately, a customized audio postcard produced by staff of Radio Ambulante for you and your loved ones to share and enjoy privately. This can be an interview with a loved one or family member, perfect gift for a reunion or birthday.
Then I told them that to successfully sell a product or service you need two ingredients:
  1. Find a pressure-point and relieve it. In other words, find a problem that causes someone or some company a lot of pain and solve it.
  1. Make sure that the person or company whose problem you are solving actually has the money to pay for your solution.
Sounds logical. Easy. Right? Well, it's not actually so easy. Here are some examples I gave students, based on the Refugee Center's existing capacities.

  • If local businesses need to find a source of good workers to fill their vacancies, create a list of the refugees and asylees with immigration status that allows them to work and who want to work; then sell that list to the companies who are looking for workers. (Based on the Idealistas.org example from above.)
  • If the human resources person at local businesses has problems processing the paperwork for employees who are not citizens, sell that as a service. Maybe even package it along with the list of potential employees.
  • Is safety a concern at some of the area businesses that employee speakers of many different languages? Sell your services in this area, using the languages of the employees. And if those employees have low literacy in their first language, create videos or visual cues about safety. 
  • For any of the above, offer monthly classes on these topics instead of or in addition to direct services.
  • Write booklets with the information necessary to carry out those tasks, and sell your booklet.
  • Etc.
Notice that these problems are real problems. They can slow down business. They can create hazardous conditions for the business. Real problems. Real solutions. Clients (businesses) who can pay. The clients of the Refugee Center, I told students, don't make ideal customers for generating income, because many of them have limited incomes.

Then I told them to work in small groups to come up with income-generating activities for the organizations where they do their service learning for this course. They had to write two sentences: the problem, the solution.

Only three out of eight had a good start of an idea that solves a real pressing problem of someone who can pay the price and that is based on something the organization already does.
  • For businesses that need artwork for the event promotions, the children of the after-school program could provide art projects.
  • For the Boy Scouts, sell tickets to their soccer matches.
  • To motivate students in the after-school program to study, sell a board game that teaches in a fun way.
Obviously, those ideas are very rough, and students only had a few minutes to work on this. But I think it shows that it takes practice to come up with these ideas. You have to put together the pieces in ways that my students aren't used to yet. It's another example of a concept that seems obvious, but whose practice is difficult.

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