Room to Mess-Up: Nonprofits and Innovation

There are many people in this world who want to do good at a large scale. While their passion may inspire them to start a new nonprofit, sometimes this may not be the best option. Inmates to Entrepreneurs is an example of an alternative structure to do good without contributing to an over-saturation of the nonprofit sector. While an established organization isn’t likely to find a home as a program of a for-profit corporation, there is still an interesting lesson to be learned from Inmates to Entrepreneurs’ work.

Inmates to Entrepreneurs seeks to help individuals with a criminal background start small, low capital ventures. Inmates to Entrepreneurs works inside correctional institutions through its single session entrepreneurship courses. In addition, they offer a free, eight-week course to individuals who are interested in starting or have already started a small business. This course allows participants to get started right away on their business idea by working with program mentors who all have personal experience starting or running their own businesses.

As a program of Sageworks, a financial information company located in Raleigh, North Carolina, Inmates to Entrepreneurs is not classified as a nonprofit. Jackie Parker, the Director of the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program, calls it “a corporate social responsibility arm” of Sageworks but also feels this description does not quite fit the work they do. The program functions much like its own organization, with its own board made up of program mentors. The organization is also fully funded through Sageworks which allows the board and staff to focus on programming and their current expansion efforts rather than a constant push for fundraising.

Reliance on a single funding source is something nonprofits generally hope to avoid; however, as a program of a for-profit company Inmates to Entrepreneurs does not accept donations or other outside funding because there is no need to do so. Their funding structure allows the organization to be more flexible and innovative because they are not tied to grants or donations that often dictate the use funds. Because of this stability, “mission drift is not an issue,” says Jackie. They can have a tight focus on their mission without making concessions to meet grant requirements or donor expectations. According to Jackie, it gives them room to “mess up” when growing program offerings and changing the structure.

Take the program’s current growth as an example. They realized their current program is only accessible to those in Raleigh due to transportation limitations of many potential participants.With the flexibility to try new things, they are expanding the program and establishing chapters beyond city limits. They are testing out a chapter structure, loosely based on Alcoholics Anonymous’s structure. Currently focused on expansion to Charlotte, North Carolina, they hope to continue to add one to two chapters per year with the goals of expanding into other states. “We have a model that is scalable” says Jackie, and they expect that new chapters will be able to work from the original model and tailor it to the needs of their community and participants. While there will still be oversight from the office in Raleigh, each chapter will have the ability to adjust to their unique communities.

Innovation is something most people and organizations seek to do. However, in the nonprofit sector it can be hard to justify spending donor or grant dollars on a project that “might work.” Inmates to Entrepreneurs continues to grow and make an impact because they have room to try new things. Perhaps, the success of this program is something to take note of in the nonprofit sector. The ability to have laser focus on the mission and willingness to innovate and adapt has made them successful as they grow to touch the lives of more people. Participants consistently cite their experience with Inmates to Entrepreneurs as one that has given them a huge boost in confidence, even if they don’t start their own business. One participant even says she “got more out of this class than in the last three years of going to school for business.” The participant testimonials speak volumes about the impact of this program and its capacity to make a difference in people’s lives.

As in any situation there are pros and cons to working as a program of a for-profit company. However, it seems this relationship between Sageworks and the Inmates to Entrepreneurs program is mutually beneficial. While this sort of relationship may not be feasible in many cases, it serves as an opportunity to see what might be possible in the nonprofit sector if organizations have space to innovate. So how can the nonprofit sector find ways to give people a little room to try something new for the benefit of the people and communities they serve? The answer to this question is likely complicated, but the impact of Inmates to Entrepreneurs is an example of what might be possible when a program or organization is given room to mess up.