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December 6, 2007

Mission Impossible? A Day In The Life Running A Social Enterprise

Materials Matter's primary social enterprise earned-income stream comes from the Home Improvement Outlet, a discount store open to the public that sells brand new and salvaged building and home improvement supplies at 50%-80% off retail. Most of the product we carry is overstock, discontinued, slightly damaged, or buy-backs donated to us by companies who otherwise would have sent it to a landfill or sold it to a for-profit liquidator. Some of the donations like this that we get are set aside exclusively for use by the nonprofits we work with, and the rest goes to the store where both the nonprofits and the public can purchase it. All the proceeds from store sales are fed back into our programs, sustaining 60-75% of our organization.

So the store’s a pretty big deal.

Materials Matter’s continued success hinges upon the successful building and growing of sustainable income streams like our Home Improvement Outlet. Just like traditional charity golf tournaments, cocktail luncheons, fancy $300-a-plate galas—we spend a lot of time nurturing our store.

When I say nurturing, what I really mean is rolling up our sleeves, cranking up the classic rock station and driving around the forklift through a fog of warehouse dust. I mean busting out the dollies and moving product by hand from the back of the warehouse to the front of the store and trying everything in our power to give our 35,000 square feet of open warehouse a friendly, inviting atmosphere. I mean painting signs and fixing broken credit card machines and arguing with soda-machine vendors. And I mean tirelessly working the phones to get more donations or to negotiate new bulk-purchasing deals on products we can’t seem to get donated. Customers Lining Up Early

One of the big challenges and tensions for nonprofits engaging in social enterprise is the amount of time that must be dedicated to building and growing these earned income streams. The work of running any business can be difficult, and for nonprofit workers who are used to being closer to the meaningful end-result of their labor, it can be downright demoralizing. You have to wear so many hats it’s dizzying. There are many days when it feels like the mission is impossible, and the days when we all have to put our do-gooder hearts aside and crunch numbers and make tough, bottom-line decisions. And then there are days like today.

It’s Saturday, December 1st, the day of our third annual 50% Off Sale at the Home Improvement Outlet. It’s about 7:30 in the morning, and there is a harsh cold bite to the air. It rained something biblical the day before, and we just can’t believe our luck that it stopped in time for our big day. Neither can the 100 customers who have already lined up outside the building. They are already jockeying for position, pushing others aside, claiming rights to carts, grabbing stacks of “sold” tickets, leaving their 10-year-olds to hold their place in line while they stock up on the free coffee and donuts. The store will not open until 9:00 am, and when it does it will be absolute chaos.

Customers swarm the aisles in search of the deal of a lifetime on flooring, hardware, bathtubs, sinks, faucets, doors—the list goes on. Jason, the president of our organization, is working the floor like it’s the New York Stock Exchange. Our Communication Director is trying to sell a couple on a brand new kitchen cabinet set. I’m shouting for the next customer to come up to the register. Volunteers hustle to and from the back, searching for stock and helping customers load their cars. After 8 hours of frenzied shopping and only a few customer “I-got-here-first” fights, our store is a certified disaster-area and everyone is properly exhausted. And we will have earned a big chunk of the operational cash flow we need to survive another few months working the mission.

On Monday, for Jason and me it’s back to business suits and financial reports and strategic planning. And dreaming up new ways to make it easier for nonprofits to build homes for struggling families that we may never meet, but whose lives we are committed to changing.

-Alison Riback