Small Engine, Big Change

Minneapolis-based Engine for Social Innovation brings together teams of young professionals from the business community to tackle projects for nonprofits.
Small Engine, Big Change

Like many nonprofits, the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) is plenty busy tending to its core mission: helping budding entrepreneurs prepare to open businesses. The staff of 25 runs the NDC’s small business resource centers, offers training programs in five languages for low-income Minnesotans, helps clients line up financing, and performs many other tasks—and the organization isn’t exactly flush with cash.

That means lower-priority initiatives often sit on the back burner, waiting for the spare time or the financial resources necessary to get them done. So when Mike LaFave, vice president and chief operating officer, heard about a new entity that could affordably help NDC with a few long-awaited projects, he jumped at the chance.

Not only would NDC have the opportunity to evaluate its training programs for entrepreneurs, the organization also would benefit from the varied opinions of diverse professionals instead of just one consultant.

For six months ending in January, NDC teamed up with Engine for Social Innovation, a low-profit limited liability corporation (L3C). The L3C, which is a relatively new concept, is a for-profit entity with a socially beneficial purpose.

Minneapolis-based Engine pulls together teams of young professionals who tackle short-term projects for nonprofits on their own time. Well-known companies Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP), Cargill, and Target Corporation are on Engine’s ever-growing roster of corporate participants.

When NDC’s project wrapped up this winter, LaFave received an analysis of its training programs and how they compare to other courses across the country. In addition, the Engine group developed an evaluation tool for students and staff to assess each class, suggested ways to add more formal adult education to the programs, and proposed methods for synchronizing coursework for different cultural audiences.

“We were taking a little bit of a leap of faith by trying out this model,” says LaFave. “We were very impressed with the quality and depth in their work. There is material in their report that was very useful to us and that we will take advantage of.”

Another plus: “We’ve gotten exposure to this group of very talented people who came in and learned about our organization, and hopefully that will yield benefits down the road as well,” says LaFave, who would consider hiring Engine again.