On Saving a Local Social Enterprise: A Design Challenge

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Black Dress

February 6, 2015; Bangor Daily News

Those who are thinking about starting a social enterprise as a source of nonprofit organizational support should consider it very carefully. Businesses are risky; they go under with great regularity. What would make your idea work? Some experts suggest that the purpose of the business must be tied closely to your overall mission, be part and parcel of it, to have an optimal chance of success—and, even then, it is a risk. If we had a nickel for every failed restaurant meant to train and employ a particular population, we might be…well, not rich, but able to buy a good meal. On the other hand, some efforts seem to make just sense. Still, it is a hard road.

According to the Bangor Daily News, Little River Apparel in Belfast, Maine was originally established by the Group Home Foundation to employ people who might otherwise have been excluded from the traditional workforce. Most of its more than 120 employees are people with disabilities, including significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, multiple sclerosis, mental health issues, and bad backs. They are paid more than $10 an hour (the minimum wage is $7.50 in Maine and the living wage for a single person is $8.94), and for benefits, they receive health insurance, dental insurance and paid time off.

But the clothing company has been dependent on contracts to a great extent and the slowdown in U.S. military involvement overseas has cut the orders for chemical biological suits in half. This, in turn, will result in a layoff for half of the workers if something is not done. The group has other contracts besides those related to the Department of Defense, including one with outdoor clothing giant Patagonia that’s been in effect since 2006, so the job now is to locate other contracts for their skilled workforce.

To that end, workers at Little River Apparel have been making samples. The Group Home Foundation, which started the business 18 years ago, is also sponsoring the Opportunity By Design contest, which will involve lead Patagonia designer Cyndi Davis and other fashion professionals selecting the best little black dress or piece of jewelry designed by people in the sewing and clothing manufacturing trades—no fashion industry experience required. The prizes are to be as high as $2500 for that black dress.

Community members are invited to participate, and to date, seven Little River Apparel workers have opted into the dress-designing challenge.—Ruth McCambridge

  • John G. Lynch

    Good article. A quick supplement / pseudo-counterpoint to the claim about the riskiness of social enterprises: one 30-year study compared survival rates of social enterprises versus start-ups without a social mission; it found that, in this particular study, the social enterprises were less risky and had higher survival rates than the start-ups. The Guardian has a good overview of the study: http://gu.com/p/3qxdq/stw

    Both ventures are inherently risky but the article above is a worthwhile read, especially for anyone considering a social enterprise.

  • Bonnie-Jean Brooks

    I very much appreciate your report on this innovative idea. I am on the Board of Directors of this 45 year old nonprofit and am incredibly proud of the work that our Executive Director and his staff are doing to keep this community mainstay on its feet. They are not leaving a stone unturned in their efforts to diversify, fundraise, and innovate!!! This rural community on the shores of Penobscot Bay in Maine needs Little River Apparel just as Little River Apparel needs its community!!