Sisters Place

  • Collaboration Type: Alliances & Networks
  • Region: Forbes
  • Social Issue: Workforce Development
  • Size of Organizations: $5 - 10 mil
  • BIPOC Leaders: Yes
  • Successful: Not Yet

Sister’s Place and several collaborative partners received a management grant from the Forbes Fund to learn how to develop a social enterprise. However, two years after the business plan was created, the social enterprise remains a dream. This case demonstrates the types of investments needed for project-based sustained collaboration to become sustainable.

Best Practices for Social Impact Organizations:

  1. Ensure board commitment.
  2. Include development planning into grant proposals for new project-based collaboration.

Outcomes:

  1. Relationships strengthened.
  2. Business Plan for Sip and Shop

Outcomes unrealized:

  1. Launch of social enterprise

Best Practices for Funders:

  1. Encourage board and staff training on collaborative forms in advance of funding collaboration.
  2. Either continue to fund or fund the development plan to launch when funding a project-development alliance.

“We can accomplish more together than going it alone” is a common mantra in the social impact space. Foundations and technical assistance organizations tout the value of collaboration as a superpower. However, not all collaborations yield the desired results, especially when they do not have the resources to sustain the collaborative’s theory of change. A nascent collaboration around social enterprise development in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, illustrates a key lesson: launching project-based sustainable collaborations requires significant capital investment.

The social enterprise collaboration began organically. Sister’s Place, a social service agency that provides supportive housing, began to consider developing a social enterprise — a Sip & Shop. It would be part coffee shop, part thrift boutique. And the store would sell goods and incorporate a workforce development program for the clients of Sisters Place and other individuals in need.

Melissa Ferraro, Executive Director of Sister’s Place, began to develop the concept by assembling an advisory team. TJ Fairchild, founder of Commonplace Coffee and one of their baristas, volunteered. Tammy Thompson, the executive director of Catapult of Greater Pittsburgh, a nonprofit focused on financial independence, also joined.  Sally Power from Treasure House Fashions, a successful thrift store, lent her expertise. Tiffany Huff-Strothers, Founder and CEO of When She Thrives, which focused on empowering single moms and had launched a nascent workforce development program, rounded out the team.

Formalizing the Collaboration

While the project was progressing, Ferraro recognized that the group could benefit from more structure. They applied for a management grant from the Forbes Fund, a member of the Sustained Collaboration Network. Ferraro explained that the envisioned benefit was for “these folks, who were already donating their time and talent, could come together with us and learn about creating a business plan. So, at the end of this investment of time, we would all have developed a skill that would surpass and go beyond the Sip and Shop.” Olivia Benson, Chief Operating Officer at the Forbes Fund, recalled being “impressed with the idea to work collaboratively across organizations and then to have a collaboration that could potentially be self-sufficient in the sense that there would be kind of income coming in outside of grant.”

After receiving the grant, the group hired the Hill Group to work with them. Ferraro said, “We could have met without the Hill Group and their expertise, and it wouldn’t have been as fruitful.” The Hill Group developed a curriculum that covered several dimensions of social enterprise development. But although the learning was great, and the Sister’s Place did walk away with a complete business plan, the social enterprise was still a dream.

Outcomes

The partners, especially Treasure House and Sister’s Place, continue to search for opportunities to work together. Sally Power of the Treasure House described their nascent collaboration as a “strategic alliance, but we’re still trying to figure out what that actually means.” But the collaboration is no longer focused on the Sip and Shop.

Ultimately, the collaboration didn’t live up to its goals. Several key challenges arose. The first was the match between the collaboration design and the grant’s structure. Some organizations benefitted from the curriculum on developing the business plan, but partners like Treasure House and Commonplace Coffee were contributors to and not beneficiaries of the program. Many collaborators were located on the North Side of Pittsburgh, while Sister’s Place was on the South Side. Sister Althea Anne Spencer, Board President of Sister’s Place at the time and now serves on the Emeritus Board, wondered whether a collaboration among organizations in the South Hills would have yielded more tangible outcomes; “Working with other groups in the South Hills area, I thought would be a wonderful experience. It would make people more aware of the homelessness and the struggles that people have, and to help our residents, too.”

The business plan was completed in November 2021, and the world changed. Certainly, COVID made launching a new coffee shop/thrift store more challenging than other times. But regardless of COVID, there were significant challenges ahead, according to the business plan.

The Sip and Shop Business plan suggested they needed between $33,500 and $55,000 in upfront capital. The only way the program would be financially sustainable was to have ongoing subsidies for trainees outside the business.  There was never any capital for the Sip and Shop, or subsidies identified for the workforce training program.

Benson, reflecting on the grant outcomes, recognized this difficulty. “Because they were all venturing into this social enterprise from a place of being nonprofit, there wasn’t necessarily guaranteed funding moving forward. Fertilizing money might have helped it turn out differently.” Ferraro concurred, “if we had some startup funds that went along with getting the business plan, that would have been tremendously helpful. It could have been matching us up with a different funding source. It didn’t have to be all the Forbes Funds.”

Both Benson and Ferraro tapped into a critical principle in sustained collaboration. Funding must be commensurate with the scale of the collaboration. Collaborative projects often require significant capital to begin. In the case of the Sip and Shop, the social enterprise was poised to become self-sustaining. But without significant upfront investment and ongoing workforce development funding, it would never be self-sustaining.

Categories

  • Alliances and Networks