The Avodah Blog

The Grassroots of Social Enterprise

By: Danielle Unger

I recently changed my work placement, and noticed that both organizations have something in common. My former placement at Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and my current placement at Liberty’s Kitchen share a connection to the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. At Voice of the Ex-Offender, the courthouse was one of our outreach locations, a place I stood in front of with a clipboard, perfecting the most concise way to talk to someone on their way out of court about our organization. At Liberty’s Kitchen, my current placement for all of three weeks, the courthouse complex and the jail that sprawls around it sit in the immediate geographical vicinity of our cafe and training center locations. Thus, the courthouse employees, those who drink coffee and require lunch breaks, are some of our most consistent customers. In addition to that, the courthouse stands in the metaphorical “background” of many of the students in our training program.

My reason for describing the connections between the courthouse and both of my placements (besides the fact courthouses make for some great symbolism) is to point out their different styles of operation. Voice of the Ex-Offender is a grassroots advocacy organization. My work there was based in communications, with a side of organizing. Our funding came from mostly grants, donations, and some grassroots fund-raising.  In contrast, Liberty’s Kitchen is a social enterprise, which is something that I understood conceptually but had never heard the word for until a couple of weeks ago. The way Wikipedia puts it, a social enterprise is “an organization that applies business strategies to achieving philanthropic goals.” Liberty’s Kitchen calls itself: “an innovative, non-profit organization dedicated to transforming the lives of at-risk youth by building self-sufficiency and independent living in a supportive community where they learn life, social and employability skills in a culinary setting.” While it seems like a no-brainer to add “selling stuff” to the mission of a non-profit, a true social enterprise that integrates a social justice focus with a business approach is always striving to strike a balance between the two.

For things to work out effectively, all of the staff members must have the interests of both our students and our outside customers in mind. The programs staff (of which I am a part) is responsible for orienting students to the program, and continually supplementing their culinary training with life skills classes and career mentoring. The students come to the program staff if they are dealing with anything (at home or at the cafe) that is impacting their participation in the program. While programming has a student-centered focus, we also have to keep the enterprise in mind, communicating with the chef trainers and being flexible about the student’s responsibilities in the kitchen. From my experience, integrating a business and a non-profit involves a host of different traits and skill sets including communication, flexibility, and an open mind. It’s more than just adding a stable source of funding. However, an organization that is able to continually balance their social and business goals is privileged to serve multiple demographics, both clients and customers. A social enterprise can impact a community on various levels, from helping youth develop new culinary skills to serving a courthouse employee a hot cup of coffee.

Danielle Unger is from Charlottesville, VA and attended Vassar College. As an AVODAH New Orleans Corps member, she works at Liberty’s Kitchen, a social enterprise dedicated to transforming the lives of New Orleans’ youth by providing a path to self-sufficiency through food service-based training, leadership and employment programs.

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