Agency-Owned Social Enterprises: Is It Draining Resources for Employment of People with Disabilities?

Come down to our ice cream shop! Your patronage supports jobs for the people with disabilities who work here!
Hmmm. The idea of social enterprise is a wonderful concept. Having a business that incorporates diversity and funnels its profits into social causes, including supporting people with disabilities, has much potential. But here’s the problem. Agencies that are charged with getting people community employment are using the concept as a systems model to be replicated as a significant part of their solution to unemployment. This has turned into a bit of a sideshow.
Three years ago, I wrote a blog post that took a critical look at the growing trend in social enterprises as a solution by agencies for the unemployment of people with disabilities. I noted a number of major concerns with such approaches, and I used the term “engineered employment” to describe them.
After recently visiting a number of agencies that were in the process of converting their facility-based services to “community employment,” I have found nearly all of them have been struggling to enhance their job services. But what they are also spending a great deal of time, money, and resources doing is developing their agency-owned businesses – selling muffins, snacks, shredding, recycling, art studios, cafes, farms, ice cream shops, and so on. And then they tout these as community employment success stories. From my observations, it’s easy to see why agencies will prefer this path rather than direct job placement. 
For example, “social enterprise” is an impressive cutting-edge term. It can be traced to European worker cooperatives in the early 90s that provided work for people with disabilities. It has a certain allure. Secondly, setting up a business can be an enjoyable and satisfying challenge, especially when you have a grant that will fund it. Third, it’s a nice thing to show off to families and visitors – there is a central location and it is easy to understand. Fourth, often the workers there are thrilled to be out of a workshop. And it can demonstrate the capacity of a worker with a disability in a community work setting.
But analyze this closer. What are the real outcomes and costs? And given the deplorable state of segregation and high unemployment of people with disabilities, is this where our focus should be? 
While I think there is a place for social enterprise, I think there are real risks in human service agencies developing them. And here is why: 
It is a formidable challenge to develop a quality job placement program. You need to do good hiring, quality training, develop career assessment practices, employer engagement strategies, and have effective job support strategies. From experience, I can tell you that this takes a lot of resources, work and a laser focus. But the payoff is huge. You can find well-matched jobs for high numbers of people with whatever job challenges they possess, once you have a flexible and competent system in place. 
But if you are running a business, or worse, several businesses, where are your energies? They are diluted with maintaining and subsidizing one or several business models that are providing work that may or may not be of interest for a very small number of individuals. This is not to say that all micro-enterprises are to be avoided. Self-owned businesses are a reasonable job solution for the generally small numbers of individuals who have a passion for a particular business. But this must evolve from the individual, and not the agency thrusting it on the individual.
Non-profit human services, by necessity, must be lean and highly targeted to their mission. Service designs must add significant value and offer individualization to the people you serve, and not just add value to the reputation of the agency.  Unfortunately, social enterprises rarely add enough direct value for the effort an employment services agency must put in. They also often require ongoing subsidies, using resources that should be going to job placement. And they offer “fixed job types” that are not grown from personal choice. Finally, the expertise of most human services management is not geared to business profitability, which social enterprises still require.
If you are running a business in your agency for the purpose of employing people with disabilities, consider these questions:
  • Ask yourself if your enterprise can be quickly spun off and survive on its own? 
  • Ask if there are workers with a real passion for that work – not just those who were placed there and have come to be comfortable? 
  • Ask what the costs will be per the number of individuals served? 
  • Ask if this business is competing with other employers in the community – the very people you are seeking to act as a resource to? 
  • Are there really insolvable obstacles such that the employees of that business cannot be employed elsewhere in the community
  • And if there are still good reasons to develop or maintain a social enterprise, are you willing to let the workers own the business, rather than the agency?

If one of your goals is to provide community employment, do not dilute your mission with an enterprise that will “engineer jobs” that haven’t grown out of personalized career assessment or discovery. Funders and policymakers need to stop funding these efforts with seed money that should go to job developers and employment consultants. Disability services have access to a relatively fixed pool of resources, folks. And 4 out of 5 people of working age with significant disabilities aren’t in community jobs. When you pull money away from your main mission, you better have some innovation in mind that will eventually produce job outcomes at least as good as customized job placement. 

Right now, and I have looked closely at several, I cannot find any in social enterprise.

Engineered Employment: An Inadequate Solution for Adult Joblessness and Student Transition

Dale, come see our great recycling program! Check out our cleaning crew! We run a bakery that our special ed students all work at!

Over the past 30 plus years of providing consultation and training to agencies and schools on the employment of people with disabilities, I have visited employment programs in 49 states and evaluated many program “models.” Most of these revolved around one idea to solve unemployment in that region. This idea was usually based on a single business model – selling muffins, recycling trash (seen hundreds of these!), manufacturing something, producing crafts, running a cleaning business, and the like.

Generally, the agencies are quite proud of their progressiveness. They point out that people are doing real work for real wages. Some businesses even make money (although rare, and usually only because of subsidies). The even have progressive sounding terms for this – affirmative business, social entrepreneurism, or social enterprise. Labeling things to dress them up is something we are good at in disability services.

And, compared to a sheltered workshop or “day treatment,” these kind of engineered employment solutions look good on the surface. But they are deeply flawed on many levels.

When I was the executive director of an agency in the 1980s, I inherited a program that was a functioning restaurant. It purportedly prepared people to go into the food service field. Folks came from all over to tour the facilities and view our “innovative program.” However, my experience with the program was:
1. Only a few people we served were really interested in restaurant work. Fewer got sustainable jobs after their training.
2. The business demanded an enormous amount of our staff time and resources.
3. The local restaurants we were purporting to provide trained labor to also perceived the restaurant as subsidized competition, and rightly so.

Ultimately, I concluded it was mostly a major distraction from our mission of making good matches between all of our workers and businesses or market needs. I decided that if we were going to be involved in business start-ups, it would be those business models that come from the interests of people we served, who would own them themselves with our help. For the few people who wanted restaurant training, we would work with the community college to obtain culinary education or create training opportunities in the existing restaurants in our area.

Ultimately, I found that you have to solve unemployment using a method that was driven by job seeker skills and interests first, then building networks out to the local community to serve it. Engineered businesses wrongly use the reverse approach. They start with a business, presume most everyone they serve will be good at and enjoy the work, and then often compete with the very companies they then try to place people in, when outside placement is even a goal. In many, lifelong employment by people with disabilities is expected there. And so much energy is taken with making the business viable, there is little time left for considering what else people might be better off doing!

Imposing group employment on people to solve their lack of jobs is a generally poor strategy. Running agency-owned businesses distracts your focus on serving the needs of the labor market and focusing on individuals. It restricts employment to only those jobs you have managed to engineer – and too often these are stereotypical jobs like cleaning and recycling garbage. People with disabilities deserve better and broader options. We should not get caught up in our own ideas and models.

A recent example of this came to light in British Columbia, where students with disabilities were seen rummaging through garbage cans at school, in front of their non-disabled peers, to recycle as part of their “transition training.” It illustrates my point. See the article.

The only recent analysis on social enterprise I found was a 2007 field review by the Seedco Policy Center. They concluded: “…we found that non-profits driven to meet a ‘double bottom’ line for customers and clients have far more typically led to frustration and failure, drawing attention and resources away from the organization’s core work — and that even the oft-cited success stories are less cut-and-dried than they appear.” They found a large ultimate failure rate, and noted that non-profits, unlike real businesses, had much more difficulty “letting go.”

I know not all engineered models look like this Vancouver example. And in some low employment regions, engineered employment will look enticing. Many agencies work hard to develop these engineered jobs, and I think these programs are well-meaning. But that doesn’t mean they are a cost-effective use of our government resources. They still involve congregation of people with disabilities, limited choice, and a movement of time and funding away from your prime mission.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to post your comments! The link is below – 

On Simulated Communities for People with Disabilities: From Agency Businesses to Gated Disability Neighborhoods

Ah, vacation. I am sitting on a porch in a house in the Great Smoky Mountains, altitude about 4,000 feet, in just about near-perfect weather. My family and friends have enjoyed great food, good company, music, hiking and other pleasures. It makes me consider the nature and value of community. In the disability field, we talk about the community as if it were a single place where one lives, including its various surrounding people, businesses and social groups. But actually, there are multiple communities we all participate in and which sometimes move with us. 
Also, we are constantly evolving, building and deconstructing communities, depending on interests, needs, and locations. When I travel to a new place, like now, a few of my social communities actually come with me, such as friends, family, and my virtual networks. And I also might enter into new communities I discover here, as I bike, hike or play music. I view most of these communities as a significant part of my life. They enable me to interact with people I care about, work colleagues, advocacy groups whose causes I am involved in, or interest groups I enjoy.
One of the characteristics of our disability service system has been to congregate people based on their disability label or perceived need for services, in effect “creating community” for them. This is thought to be advantageous for cost efficiency, as well as in the interests of people with disabilities who are assumed to prefer to be with “their own kind.” But congregation has had several disastrous unintended consequences on the quality of their lives, particularly in terms of impoverishment of their participation in diverse communities. Most importantly, it has resulted in a segregated life experience for people with disabilities, as most still attend special classrooms or schools, live in separate housing – ranging from institutions/nursing homes to groups homes and work, or are “kept active” in separate facilities such workshops or therapy centers. Segregation in turn has had other effects that reduce the quality of life.
In this post, rather than detailing the horrific impact of segregation has meant for people, I want to focus on the misguided efforts some are now making to “correct” segregation. In my travels as a disability consultant, I have observed various initiatives that, in effect, try to simulate integrated communities for people with disabilities. This has included:
  • spending millions of dollars to clean up and rehabilitate segregated facilities such as institutions, nursing homes, or large group homes to be more safe and “home-like.”
  • attempting to create agency-run businesses within non-profit disability agencies, to primarily employ people with disabilities, but also including non-disabled workers as well.
  • “reverse-integrating” sheltered workshops by hiring some individuals without disabilities to work alongside the workers with disabilities, to make them more “business-like.”
  • building new enclosed neighborhoods, sometimes as gated developments, that would be “community housing” for individuals with disabilities.
All of these attempts, and many more, are well-intentioned efforts to either to reduce segregation or help correct existing bad conditions in segregated settings. But they are artificial solutions that are deeply flawed and only deflect from the real needs people have. The argument often is that these steps are closer to real community. Or that they are “better than” what exists now. But this misses the point. It’s like trying to frantically repair a ship doomed to sink. Why not get everyone off the ship and back to where they should be? We should just admit that the very idea of this particular ship was the actual problem.
Creating community is of course possible, but only when people come together for a real reason of interest, location, or shared value. Engineered communities (especially when membership revolves around on a life characteristic such as a disability condition or label) are not nearly as powerful or real as those that arise from natural sources (unless we are talking about advocacy). Artificially simulating community for people with disabilities, especially without their input and informed choice, produces outcomes that fall far short. After a while, conditions, failures, and faults become publicly exposed. We then try to fix the simulated community by making it nicer or better. That just tragically postpones the real and desperately needed solution. 
People with disabilities belong, first of all, in their real and already existing communities – all of them that apply – the “common unity” of location, work, passions, skills, families, religion, and so on. Where we need to focus our resources is to advocate, adjust, and/or support each community when it falls short in welcoming anyone, or preventing full participation, because of their differences.