For close to 20 years, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship has run accelerators for social enterprises aimed at improving the lives of people living in poverty. Through its Global Social Benefit Institute, it’s worked with more than 1,000 enterprises in around 100 countries.
But recently, as the folks at Miller, which is based at Santa Clara University, watched income inequality in the U.S. continue to widen, they decided the situation called for a special focus. With that in mind, it just launched a new accelerator to help social mission organizations in the U.S. working with poor, under-served or vulnerable populations to develop more scalable programs, drawing on a version of the methodology it’s used for global entrepreneurs. Called Pathways Out of Poverty US, the six-month accelerator operates in partnership with Catholic Charities USA.
“We recognized the need to grow and nurture social entrepreneurship to address poverty in the U.S.,” says Thane Kreiner, Miller Center’s executive director.
A Social Service Focus
The 18 organizations include a mix of for-profits, nonprofits and hybrids. But they’re all social service-focused, working in such areas as workforce readiness, housing and services for previously incarcerated individuals. Six of them are in the Catholic Charities network. “Part of this experiment is a cross-pollination in which non-Catholic Charity participants can help the Catholic Charity participants, which are all non-profits, to learn more about entrepreneurial principles,” says Kreiner. It’s a big group: Most enterprises have two or three participants each.
Erica Plybeath, founder of MedHaul, is one of those participants. Her company, which she formally launched last year, books non-emergency transportation for people with special needs in low-income communities through an on-demand, Uber-like platform. “I want to make sure we have the proper tools and resources before we go out and raise our next funding round,” says Plybeath, who also hopes to develop her model for measuring impact. So far, she’s operating in about 10 cities in 30 states and is profitable.
Each organization meets weekly online for an hour-and-a half with Silicon Valley-area mentors. There also are monthly seminars for the whole cohort. “Our model is about having a trusted advisor accompany them through the curriculum and help them figure out ways to scale their impact,” says Kreiner.
Tweaking the Model
At the same time, through lessons learned during a three-day workshop held in the Bay area in July and work with other groups, Miller learned the usual model needed to be tweaked. “These organizations are used to getting an allocation of donated funding,” says Kreiner. “If you dive right into the business model, they can get lost.” There also is training for program leads to help them understand the budgeting process, an area they don’t generally engage in, as well as what Kreiner calls “cost per outcome.”
“We’ve found that the entrepreneurial spirit is there,” says Kreiner. “It just needed to be unleashed.”
Miller also is working with other organizations to adopt and adapt the methodology in their own communities. Two years ago, for example, they teamed up with Innovation Works, which helps launch and expand social enterprises in Baltimore, according to Pamela Roussos, Miller’s chief innovation officer. “We wanted to see whether we could adapt our curriculum to a domestic urban market and help with hyper-local programs and people who really understand their neighborhoods,” she says.