Friday, October 10, 2014

Agency-Owned Social Enterprises: Is It Draining Resources for Employment of People with Disabilities?

Come down to our ice cream shop! Your patronage supports jobs for the people with disabilities who work here!

Hmmm. The idea of social enterprise is a wonderful concept. Having a business that incorporates diversity and funnels its profits into social causes, including supporting people with disabilities, has much potential. But here’s the problem. Agencies that are charged with getting people community employment are using the concept as a systems model to be replicated as a significant part of their solution to unemployment. This has turned into a bit of a sideshow.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post that took a critical look at the growing trend in social enterprises as a solution by agencies for the unemployment of people with disabilities. I noted a number of major concerns with such approaches, and I used the term “engineered employment” to describe them.

After recently visiting a number of agencies that were in the process of converting their facility-based services to “community employment,” I have found nearly all of them have been struggling to enhance their job services. But what they are also spending a great deal of time, money, and resources doing is developing their agency-owned businesses – selling muffins, snacks, shredding, recycling, art studios, cafes, farms, ice cream shops, and so on. And then they tout these as community employment success stories. From my observations, it’s easy to see why agencies will prefer this path rather than direct job placement. 

For example, "social enterprise" is an impressive cutting-edge term. It can be traced to European worker cooperatives in the early 90s that provided work for people with disabilities. It has a certain allure. Secondly, setting up a business can be an enjoyable and satisfying challenge, especially when you have a grant that will fund it. Third, it’s a nice thing to show off to families and visitors - there is a central location and it is easy to understand. Fourth, often the workers there are thrilled to be out of a workshop. And it can demonstrate the capacity of a worker with a disability in a community work setting.

But analyze this closer. What are the real outcomes and costs? And given the deplorable state of segregation and high unemployment of people with disabilities, is this where our focus should be? 

While I think there is a place for social enterprise, I think there are real risks in human service agencies developing them. And here is why: 

It is a formidable challenge to develop a quality job placement program. You need to do good hiring, quality training, develop career assessment practices, employer engagement strategies, and have effective job support strategies. From experience, I can tell you that this takes a lot of resources, work and a laser focus. But the payoff is huge. You can find well-matched jobs for high numbers of people with whatever job challenges they possess, once you have a flexible and competent system in place. 

But if you are running a business, or worse, several businesses, where are your energies? They are diluted with maintaining and subsidizing one or several business models that are providing work that may or may not be of interest for a very small number of individuals. This is not to say that all micro-enterprises are to be avoided. Self-owned businesses are a reasonable job solution for the generally small numbers of individuals who have a passion for a particular business. But this must evolve from the individual, and not the agency thrusting it on the individual.

Non-profit human services, by necessity, must be lean and highly targeted to their mission. Service designs must add significant value and offer individualization to the people you serve, and not just add value to the reputation of the agency.  Unfortunately, social enterprises rarely add enough direct value for the effort an employment services agency must put in. They also often require ongoing subsidies, using resources that should be going to job placement. And they offer "fixed job types" that are not grown from personal choice. Finally, the expertise of most human services management is not geared to business profitability, which social enterprises still require.

If you are running a business in your agency for the purpose of employing people with disabilities, consider these questions:
  • Ask yourself if your enterprise can be quickly spun off and survive on its own? 
  • Ask if there are workers with a real passion for that work - not just those who were placed there and have come to be comfortable? 
  • Ask what the costs will be per the number of individuals served? 
  • Ask if this business is competing with other employers in the community - the very people you are seeking to act as a resource to? 
  • Are there really insolvable obstacles such that the employees of that business cannot be employed elsewhere in the community
  • And if there are still good reasons to develop or maintain a social enterprise, are you willing to let the workers own the business, rather than the agency?

If one of your goals is to provide community employment, do not dilute your mission with an enterprise that will “engineer jobs” that haven’t grown out of personalized career assessment or discovery. Funders and policymakers need to stop funding these efforts with seed money that should go to job developers and employment consultants. Disability services have access to a relatively fixed pool of resources, folks. And 4 out of 5 people of working age with significant disabilities aren’t in community jobs. When you pull money away from your main mission, you better have some innovation in mind that will eventually produce job outcomes at least as good as customized job placement. 

Right now, and I have looked closely at several, I cannot find any in social enterprise.

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4 Comments:

At October 13, 2014 at 4:44 AM , Blogger Milton Tyree said...

Thanks, Dale. You nailed it. There are huge opportunity costs incurred by human service organizations starting small businesses to hire job seekers with disabilities. Rather than devoting the significant investment of time and resources to know individual job seekers and ways that personal talents intersect with employer needs, available resources are sucked away by their small business. (You offered an important distinction between personalized small businesses developed around the passions and talents of one person with a disability and agency developed small businesses.) As a result the actual and perceived benefits of agency developed "social enterprises" are overtaken by the limitations you name. Even when efforts are made to hire certain percentages of non-disabled people, real social integration is lacking. The businesses unwittingly perpetuate the same damaging beliefs -- constructed with the same business design limitations found in our 1950s sheltered workshop* movement: "Isn't it nice they've developed a place for 'these people' to work (since 'they' couldn't work anywhere else)." "We can put Ralph in the bakery for a while. It's a great way for him to 'get ready' for the 'competitive job' we'll find for him someday." "Despite our subsidy by the ______grant, we're going to have to 'place' 15 more people if the bakery is going to be viable this year." Makes me wonder if what's been developed is actually a 21st century version of what it's designed to replace: "Sheltered Workshop, v 2.0." Again Dale, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis -- something we need more of nowadays throughout our field.
Milt Tyree
*Yes. I worked in one of these -- armed with the same good intentions as the founders, while burdened, along with workers with disabilities, with its immense unintended design flaws.

 
At October 20, 2014 at 11:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, agree you hit the nail on the head, Dale. I am currently working with high school students in a Lifeskills program (although, I provide support in general ed. classes on a small scale basis). The program also has their own "business" of printing and packaging preordered notepads and they have purchased a PAES lab system, as seen here:

http://www.talentassessment.com/pages/PAES

I suspect that it is another time and resource wasting venture since so much money and time is spent making these ideas "successful" as opposed to generating real life vocational training on real life jobs.

 
At January 12, 2015 at 11:15 AM , Blogger Jenifar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At January 29, 2015 at 10:12 PM , Blogger Nila Benito said...

Like you taught me years ago...it's about real work in the real world! Such a shame that policymakers don't really get it. Employment First policies are a start, yet so many of these
jobs" are contrived. My hope it that policymakers will listen to those like you and make sure that funds go toward changing the system and getting people real individualized jobs in the real world.

 

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Agency-Owned Social Enterprises: Is It Draining Resources for Employment of People with Disabilities?

Come down to our ice cream shop! Your patronage supports jobs for the people with disabilities who work here!

Hmmm. The idea of social enterprise is a wonderful concept. Having a business that incorporates diversity and funnels its profits into social causes, including supporting people with disabilities, has much potential. But here’s the problem. Agencies that are charged with getting people community employment are using the concept as a systems model to be replicated as a significant part of their solution to unemployment. This has turned into a bit of a sideshow.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post that took a critical look at the growing trend in social enterprises as a solution by agencies for the unemployment of people with disabilities. I noted a number of major concerns with such approaches, and I used the term “engineered employment” to describe them.

After recently visiting a number of agencies that were in the process of converting their facility-based services to “community employment,” I have found nearly all of them have been struggling to enhance their job services. But what they are also spending a great deal of time, money, and resources doing is developing their agency-owned businesses – selling muffins, snacks, shredding, recycling, art studios, cafes, farms, ice cream shops, and so on. And then they tout these as community employment success stories. From my observations, it’s easy to see why agencies will prefer this path rather than direct job placement. 

For example, "social enterprise" is an impressive cutting-edge term. It can be traced to European worker cooperatives in the early 90s that provided work for people with disabilities. It has a certain allure. Secondly, setting up a business can be an enjoyable and satisfying challenge, especially when you have a grant that will fund it. Third, it’s a nice thing to show off to families and visitors - there is a central location and it is easy to understand. Fourth, often the workers there are thrilled to be out of a workshop. And it can demonstrate the capacity of a worker with a disability in a community work setting.

But analyze this closer. What are the real outcomes and costs? And given the deplorable state of segregation and high unemployment of people with disabilities, is this where our focus should be? 

While I think there is a place for social enterprise, I think there are real risks in human service agencies developing them. And here is why: 

It is a formidable challenge to develop a quality job placement program. You need to do good hiring, quality training, develop career assessment practices, employer engagement strategies, and have effective job support strategies. From experience, I can tell you that this takes a lot of resources, work and a laser focus. But the payoff is huge. You can find well-matched jobs for high numbers of people with whatever job challenges they possess, once you have a flexible and competent system in place. 

But if you are running a business, or worse, several businesses, where are your energies? They are diluted with maintaining and subsidizing one or several business models that are providing work that may or may not be of interest for a very small number of individuals. This is not to say that all micro-enterprises are to be avoided. Self-owned businesses are a reasonable job solution for the generally small numbers of individuals who have a passion for a particular business. But this must evolve from the individual, and not the agency thrusting it on the individual.

Non-profit human services, by necessity, must be lean and highly targeted to their mission. Service designs must add significant value and offer individualization to the people you serve, and not just add value to the reputation of the agency.  Unfortunately, social enterprises rarely add enough direct value for the effort an employment services agency must put in. They also often require ongoing subsidies, using resources that should be going to job placement. And they offer "fixed job types" that are not grown from personal choice. Finally, the expertise of most human services management is not geared to business profitability, which social enterprises still require.

If you are running a business in your agency for the purpose of employing people with disabilities, consider these questions:

If one of your goals is to provide community employment, do not dilute your mission with an enterprise that will “engineer jobs” that haven’t grown out of personalized career assessment or discovery. Funders and policymakers need to stop funding these efforts with seed money that should go to job developers and employment consultants. Disability services have access to a relatively fixed pool of resources, folks. And 4 out of 5 people of working age with significant disabilities aren’t in community jobs. When you pull money away from your main mission, you better have some innovation in mind that will eventually produce job outcomes at least as good as customized job placement. 

Right now, and I have looked closely at several, I cannot find any in social enterprise.

Labels: ,