A smartphone app. A retail furniture store. A mobile grocery store. Senior home care. A coffee shop and wine bar. These products and services may not seem to have much in common, but together they are examples of the power of social enterprise, the next generation of innovative anti-poverty programs and approaches.
I just spent a week on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, attending the second annual Social Venture Boot Camp, part of our broad alliance with the University. I got to see first-hand the interaction between Catholic Charities member agencies, staff at the Mendoza College of Business, and social entrepreneurs who have experience using the power of the marketplace to improve the common good and who served as mentors for the week.
Each of the nine agencies attending showcased remarkable ingenuity and a strong desire to incorporate bold ideas into their work to end poverty in their community. Representing all different types of communities, and ranging from San Bernardino, Calif., to Boston, Mass., these agency leaders and staff demonstrated what the future of market-driven anti-poverty innovation could look like.
Some of these social ventures included:
- Crisp!, a mobile grocery store that provides low-income individuals and families access to produce and healthy food that they wouldn’t otherwise have;
- The Refuge, a coffee shop and wine bar that provides a gathering place for community members and supports the mission of the agency;
- Joseph’s Place, a service where people looking to hire help with short-term projects or odd jobs could turn to and find individuals eager to find work; and many more.
Some of these projects are still in the planning stages, while many of them are already underway, and used the week on campus as a chance to rethink strategy, target a consumer base, and develop a strong business plan. It was inspiring to see the language and tools of the for-profit business world be applied to the work of advancing the mission of Catholic Charities agencies in the 21st century.
One of the guest lecturers, after hearing about the many ideas and projects, told the group that the quality of the initiatives being proposed was stunning – “This isn’t your grandparents’ Catholic Charities,” she told us. While we will never move away from our core mission of providing assistance to those in need and accompanying the poor, homeless, and disenfranchised, our network is proudly seeking innovative and collaborative ideas that have tremendous potential to create even more opportunity for those we serve. The Social Venture Boot Camp and each project developed and strengthened there are prime examples of this commitment of developing cutting-edge models of fulfilling our call to serve in the 21st century.