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Chapter 8: Investment Opportunities

Although there are many well-established charities connecting economic strugglers with productive work, there remains much untilled ground in this area. Donors have many opportunities to expand on what has already been built, to transfer working models to new locations, to create specialized programs that serve particular population niches.

Whatever your interests and finances as a donor, there are excellent options for investing in expansion of America’s working population. Indeed, donors who support work will often find it is the very best way to cement and extend their other charitable achievements in low-income communities. If you fund addiction recovery, why not parlay that into help with career advancement for those with a history of substance abuse? If homeless ministry is an interest, there are few more permanent solutions than helping this troubled population go to work. If reducing crime is one of your priorities, workforce development should be one of your tools.

Whether you are considering extending an existing organization or supporting a homegrown effort, it is always helpful to recruit business partners and philanthropic allies early on. The Weinberg Foundation’s Marci Hunn says a healthy mix of partners can vastly increase success rates. The John William Pope Foundation of Raleigh, North Carolina, used its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration to rally other local advocates around StepUp Ministry. Around 500 attendees at their 2011 banquet raised nearly $300,000 and kickstarted the ministry to a new level.

Supporting research in this area is another worthwhile option. The ­Texas-based Miles Foundation recently approved a multiyear grant that links Catholic Charities of Fort Worth with the University of Notre Dame Lab for Economic Opportunities in a partnership that seeks “to reduce poverty in America through rigorous academic research and evaluation of anti-poverty programs” with a special “focus on methods to increase entrepreneurship in implementation of poverty relief services.” The Miles Foundation committed $250,000 to the project through 2017.

If your philanthropic interests fall within the education arena, explore ways to create strong pathways to work within schools that serve lots of lower-income children. Some charter schools emphasize occupational skills and have the administrative nimbleness to work with donors to customize programs. Following is an assortment of avenues that philanthropists might follow, sifted by budget level. These are merely meant to be suggestive, and to encourage you to find your own course of assistance.

Annual support of $1,000–$100,000

  • Serve on the board of a promising work-building charity.
  • Fund a single struggling individual with whom you have a church, business, or other connection that provides social support, so he or she can attend job training and turn his or her life around in the process.
  • Fund a single struggling individual with whom you have a church, business, or other connection that provides social support, so he or she can attend a drug or alcohol recovery program that emphasizes work training.
  • Work with one of the many business- or church-based programs that link newly released prisoners with mentors who can help them adjust to working life.
  • Sign up your business, and the businesses of colleagues, with some of the many nonprofits that match newly trained strugglers with firms needing entry-level employees.
  • Seek out ways to publicize the value of private action in support of workforce development. This could be through fraternal and business groups, public forums, local publications, social media, conventions, and other avenues.
  • Educate fellow philanthropists on why workforce development is a worthy investment area for donors. A good way to spark interest might be a tour of a local nonprofit doing excellent work.
  • Fund advocacy organizations that promote work as a means of escaping poverty.
  • Support the general operations of a job-training group in your geographic region.
  • If social enterprises interest you, there are many opportunities for helping nonprofits organize ventures that can provide locally useful labor and services while also giving strugglers a first successful experience in the working world.
  • Bring a Jobs for Life chapter to your church. If one already exists, consider ways that you as a donor can make it even more effective by contributing either knowledge or money.
  • Consider a grant to help Jobs for Life expand to more cities.
  • Make a five-year commitment to fund a specific, valuable position within the organization of your choice. For instance, the Cara Program’s socio-emotional skills trainer is among the organization’s most critical and difficult-to-fill posts. Cincinnati Works’ legal coordinator helps
  • people resolve court issues hindering job acquisition and retention.
  • Earmark a grant to specifically help a workforce-development organization meet tricky labor-law requirements imposed by the federal government.
  • Give with the aim of helping a workforce-development outfit purchase more up-to-date equipment, software, or curricula, or help them create a better website or job-matching database.
  • Fund nonprofits such as Vehicles for Change, Ways to Work, or the Lift Garage that help workers obtain and maintain cars or other reliable means of transportation to and from their jobs.
  • Pull together data in your community to uncover growing and worker-constrained economic sectors, then consider building or supporting organizations that can train non-employed locals to meet these business needs.
  • Earmark a grant to help an existing work-related nonprofit better evaluate its own results: number of individuals employed, length of employment, and quality of jobs, so that these outcomes can be monitored and improved over time.
  • Fund apprenticeships and vocational training for low-income individuals. Focus on the trades, where there has been an erosion of pathways into employment.
  • Offer a matching grant to help your local workforce-development nonprofit motivate other givers.
  • Inspire lapsed major donors, colleagues, and friends by offering to personally match their new gifts to work-building charities.
  • Pick a work-building charity you trust and then fund the hiring of a communications consultant who can help them get their story out to potential supporters.
  • Commission a feasibility study for turning a top-tier local or regional workforce-development organization into a national organization.
  • Fund organizations that expose at-risk students to workforce successes early on.
  • Support summer jobs and paid internships for at-risk students.
  • Work to keep excellent vocational education on the docket for young people. At a time when many helping organizations are defining success exclusively in terms of college education, there remain many students for whom a more hands-on work-first approach will be most effective.
  • Organize mentoring networks and fund mentorship organizations in your local area to interest at-risk young people in work and careers.
  • Invest in a school that has a focus on developing practical work skills in young people from troubled backgrounds. Charter schools are generally much easier to work with than conventional school bureaucracies.
  • Ignite the entrepreneurial instincts of young people with a gift to a school that has an entrepreneurial training track (such as ­Pro-Vision) or start one at a local school you already support.
  • Offer entrepreneurial inspiration and training for the young through one of the many independent nonprofits that do this, from Junior Achievement on down.
  • Recognizing the special barriers that single parents face, consider funding nonprofits that link work with assistance in housing and child care.
  • Support groups that encourage marriage and strengthen or rebuild lower-income families; this can help reduce the flow into household forms that make work very difficult.
  • On an individual level, find a single-parent family with whom you have a church, business, or other connection that provides social support and help them find pathways to work.
  • If you are a business owner, explore ways that you could integrate job training and hiring for struggling populations into your own commercial needs.
  • Help publicize the benefits of work-focused programs for ­ex-offenders, including much lower rates of repeat crime and reincarceration.
  • Support programs that tap the entrepreneurial instincts of former gang leaders, drug dealers, and other convicts to interest them in legitimate business and work.
  • Invest in research on job pathways for the mentally ill, an area that gets scant attention.
  • Publicize the pernicious effects of today’s explosion of disability support at the expense of meaningful work.
  • Fund pilot programs that experiment ways of pulling the disabled from dependence to work and self-reliance.
  • Work within the business world to create more willingness among hiring managers to treat as a potential resource persons who have recently received nonprofit remedial training after a previous spotty work history.
  • Fund a high-quality annual report for an excellent workforce nonprofit to help them communicate better with prospective supporters.
  • In all of this, take advantage of your existing local community ­structures—don’t reinvent the wheel, but establish partnerships with existing nonprofits, churches, business leagues, and civic organizations.

Investments of $100,000–$500,000

  • Strive to double the number of participants in some good workforce-development program.
  • In cities with many clients in need of work training but high nonprofit costs due to expensive rents and other factors, help effective organizations reach a critical mass where it is easier to support themselves.
  • Support venture philanthropies that invest in social enterprises where strugglers can build good work histories—like REDF, the Tipping Point Community, or the Robin Hood Foundation.
  • Target a gift to some less appealing area of an effective nonprofit’s work. For example, unglamorous but important building repairs.
  • Find an organization where you trust the mission, model, and management enough to offer a large general-operating grant. General-operating funds are the essential base that keeps nonprofits operating and healthy.
  • Make a three-year commitment to help a successful nonprofit add some new, previously unserved population of strugglers into their work training.
  • Divide among several different social ventures a grant that allows them to share information and tactics, so they can become better at what they do.
  • Help an existing workforce-bolstering group launch an initiative specifically aimed at single parents that includes an effective, albeit expensive, residential component.
  • Help some training nonprofit conduct a randomized, controlled study to analyze its approach and results.
  • Provide funds so job-training nonprofits can build partnerships with local community colleges or vocational organizations.
  • Offer a multiyear gift to help your local gospel rescue mission expand its pathways to employment for the homeless, addicted, and mentally ill.

Investments of $500,000 or more

  • If no effective charity linking strugglers to work exists in your region, launch one.
  • Fund the expansion of an exemplary existing organization into new geographic territory.
  • Invest in the creation of new social enterprises run by nonprofits that can offer positions to previously failed workers, along with revenues that can be plowed back into more job training.
  • With a larger gift, create a network linking social enterprises across the country—a clearinghouse that can help these ventures learn from each other and publicize their successes at serving both struggling workers and local businesses with employee gaps.
  • Invest in the infrastructure of an impressive workforce charity—like the new building that has opened many avenues for the Life Learning Center in northern Kentucky.
  • Fund a documentary or deep academic research effort that can illustrate the successes and anti-poverty potential of tough-love work training by charitable organizations.

And so forth.

We’ve surveyed in this book a range of approaches to reinforcing work: direct-training models, efforts that put a heavy emphasis on ­classroom instruction, social ventures that plunk people into actual positions, mentoring approaches, and many others. The opportunities in this area for imaginative philanthropists are boundless.

Despite the impressive work of many workforce-development charities already in existence, the impact of these organizations is a drop in the bucket when viewed from a national perspective. As much as one fifth of the U.S. working-age population is either unemployed or ­underemployed. There are many more economic strugglers who could benefit from tough-minded yet supportive job assistance.

Success in this area can dramatically change the physical conditions and psychological health of legions of families. It can also help local economies. And a kind of upward virtuous spiral can ensue when serious emphasis is put on work. Buckling down on a job can beget success which begets more initiative, which begets more success, which then influences children in the family, and so on.

“This is an exciting area” for funders, says Donn Weinberg of the Weinberg Foundation, “an area you can measure easily and get a lot of personal satisfaction from.” Work doesn’t just banish poverty; it can “bring satisfaction and significance” to unhappy lives, notes Hugh Whelchel of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. “Nothing,” summarizes philanthropist David Weekley, “creates more self-respect and sets a family on its way better than having good work to do.”

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