For generations, immigrants and refugees have arrived on America’s shores–or more recently airports–bringing their talents and seeking opportunities to build better lives through education and hard work. From their entry points, they migrated to settle communities all over the country. (You can see immigration patterns in the U.S. since 1880 on this interactive map.)
Catholic Charities agencies provide assistance to these populations, including one of the most critical services needed–translation. Immigrants and refugees need help to navigate the legal system, describe symptoms to doctors, understand school newsletters and report cards, and more.
As you might expect, operating translation programs can be costly. One of our agencies, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, Texas (CCFW), took a fresh look at its program after public funding ran out…and saw an opportunity to turn it into a social enterprise.
For more than a decade, Forth Worth has been the fastest growing large city in America, welcoming many new families from Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, among others.
In 1999, CCFW received funding from the Texas Department of Health to improve language access–and thus access to social and health services–for refugees and immigrants. CCFW established the Translation & Interpretation Network (TIN) to provide professional interpretation services to institutions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, like schools and hospitals, that served non-English-speaking populations. The program was supported initially by government funding and nominal fees paid by the organizations using the program. When the government program ended in 2005, CCFW covered the remaining expenses.
In 2007, CCFW decided that since TIN’s clients were institutions, and not directly those in need, it would be possible and appropriate to convert the program into a for-profit venture, freeing the organization’s funds to address the needs of individuals. In 2008, TIN transformed into a social business, generating income through fees that average $55 to $80/hour for interpreters, translators, and related services.
From its first day as a business, TIN has been self-supporting and profitable; 100% of its profits are turned back to CCFW, effectively transforming the program from a cost center to a revenue generator. The enterprise has grown 25% to 30% each year, expanded its market beyond the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and developed new product offerings like web-based delivery systems, consulting, professional development, and training.
Today, more than 200 trained and certified translators and interpreters offer high quality language services in more than 50 languages. They include Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese, as well as many rare languages from smaller nations, like Khmer, Lingala, and Pashto.
Although now a for-profit business, TIN has not lost sight of its social mission and remains a program of CCFW.
Through TIN, bilingual refugees can secure highly paid part-time employment to supplement their incomes. It allows women with children, those with full-time jobs, and students to achieve greater self-sufficiency. In addition, TIN provides education and development opportunities for its interpreters that can enable them to run their own small businesses. And it provides a small income stream to CCFW.
The poor may always be with us (cf. Mt 26:11), but that doesn’t mean they must remain poor. While programs like TIN do not replace charity and almsgiving, they create sustainable ways for us to ensure that every person has “all that is necessary for living a genuinely human life,” including food, clothing, housing, and productive work. The Translation & Interpretation Network is an excellent example of what I mean when I say we need to “think and act anew” about how we serve the poor in America.
Are there services or programs in your community that could be converted into social businesses? Post your ideas here, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.