By Matt Sullivan
Special to Delaware Business Times
A vocational program for at-risk youths plans to launch its own line of branded furniture. A nonprofit coding academy becomes self-funding by not charging tuition — but taking a piece of its graduates’ first apprenticeships.
In the increasingly results-driven nonprofit sector, entrepreneurial thinking might make the difference as to how much funding an organization receives — and whether it survives at all.
That’s the belief of Dr. Dan Freeman, director of the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship and associate professor of marketing at the University of Delaware.
“The charitable model is inherently unsustainable,” Freeman said. “But we’re believers in independence and self-reliance.”
Social entrepreneurs who exhibit those qualities — and have stories to tell — were invited to speak with students and other member of the community during the University of Delaware Horn Program’s fall FastForward program.
FastForward is twice-a-year networking event that focuses its themes on different aspects of entrepreneurship. But beyond the topic of the day, FastForward is meant to strengthen community connections for the ever-increasing number of students on campus involved in the Horn Program through clubs, undergraduate and graduate study programs.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s growing every day,” Freeman said.
The social entrepreneurship iteration of FastForward earlier this month featured five-minute, five-slide presentations from “leaders whose projects are shaping the future,” including Patrick Callihan, executive director of Tech Impact and managing partner of Zip Code Wilmington, the nonprofit coding school that recently started training its first cohort of students.
“We’re talking about creating jobs — really, creating a talent pipeline for jobs that are already available in Delaware,” Callihan said.
Zip Code Wilmington launched with a bang earlier this year, with a crowded-room kickoff at Theatre N at Nemours and a buzzy promotional video created by Wilmington’s The Kitchen, featuring Gov. Jack Markell, Sen. Chris Coons and Sen. Tom Carper in supporting roles.
Also in a supporting role: State funding.
Delaware backed the first year of classes for the 18 students currently enrolled. It costs about $12,000 to $15,000 to educate each student, Callihan said. Students are asked to pay $2,000 up front, but Zip Code Wilmington pays for the rest by taking a cut of what the students earn during a six-month paid apprenticeship the end of their training. After that, students are free and clear to seek high-paying tech jobs in the local financial sector — and the program has seed money to enroll its next round of students.
It’s a sustainable business model for a nonprofit devoted to both its students and the economic development of downtown Wilmington, Callihan told the FastForward crowd.
Sustainability is also the goal of the Challenge Program, the Wilmington nonprofit that provides vocational training for at-risk youth in the form of construction skills, as well as assistance in earning a high school diploma and job placement services. Custom furniture created by the Challenge Program can be found inside Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark, Talula’s Daily café in Philadelphia … and the Venture Development Center inside the Horn Program at UD.
But when funders encouraged Challenge Program Executive Director Andrew McKnight to seek more reliable funding streams, he knew custom furniture would not create the returns they were seeking.
“[Entrepreneurship] is sort of a big thing right now among funders,” McKnight said. “There’s competition for funding, and if you don’t produce outcomes, you’re kidding yourself.”
In other words, funders are more likely to help those who help themselves. At the Challenge Program, that meant training its staff in how to program computerized fabrication machines that can take custom designs and then replicate components that require assembly but can be produced in greater numbers, with the same level of high-quality materials and craftsmanship.
“That’s where we hope to get,” McKnight said. “We’re not there yet, but it’s the promised land of profit.”
Freeman said the next FastForward program in the spring would likely focus on government’s role in fostering entrepreneurship, and he’s currently looking for panelists to speak.