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Social Enterprise @ Nobis Works

For 30+ years, GCN member Tommy Nobis Center has been involved in social enterprise: "we just didn't call it that until a year ago," says President/CEO Connie Kirk. For the Center, it's just been how they meet their mission of helping over 22,000 people with disabilities find and keep meaningful jobs, while at the same time, create a sustainable revenue model to fuel that mission. Their Recycletronics electronics recycling business, launched in 2009, has raised $12 million and saved a million pounds from landfills.

Over the past few years, social enterprise has increasingly become a buzzword among those in development, business, government and the academe. But is it a new phenomenon?

You only have to look to organizations like Nobis Works (formerly the Tommy Nobis Center), a Marietta-based nonprofit and active GCN member for 15 years, to see that what we now deem social enterprise has, in fact, been in existence far longer than its moniker.

“We’ve been in social enterprise since the 1980s,” says President and CEO Connie Kirk. “But we didn’t call it that until a year ago.” Social enterprise is defined by the Social Enterprise Alliance as “an organization or venture that achieves its primary social or environmental mission using business methods,” and Nobis Works began its journey with the intention of doing just that. 

Nobis Works was founded in 1977 as the Tommy Nobis Center to address the lack of options available to special needs adults and originally provided vocational/work evaluations, social, personal, and work adjustment services, job placement, and job coaching for area clients. In the 1980s, the organization expanded its mission to include employment opportunities.

Over the years, Nobis Works has evolved to respond to the changing economic climate. In 2009 an electronics recycling business, Recycletronics…at Tommy Nobis Center, was launched. This social enterprise creates jobs for people with disabilities and other work barriers while creating funds to support other programs that are underfunded but are vital to their mission. (The majority of employees have special needs, while others encounter challenges such as language barriers.)

“This is our sales pitch,” says Kirk, explaining how Recycletronics procures donations. “Our electronics recycling program provides a triple bottom line: a social impact (because this helps us meet our mission of employing people with disabilities and other barriers to employment), environmental (because we keep almost one million pounds of eWaste out of landfills each month), and economic (because we turn tax consumers into tax payers; when they become employed, they pay taxes and stop relying on public assistance such as Social Security, Medicaid and Food Stamps). And we’re doing it right; we provide the highest quality electronics recycling available. In 2011, our team earned the EPA’s prestigious R2 (Responsible Recycling) and ISO14001 certifications which speak to safety and security. Our employees take pride in the work they do and the contributions they make on the environment and on their community.”

Their pitch has worked. Georgia Power’s electronics donations, for example, have provided for the creation of 12 jobs. This rapidly growing social venture generates approximately $4 million of revenue annually, and it has created a total of 71 jobs processing donations of TVs, computers, cell phones, copiers, stereos and other electronics.

The organization’s success reflects not only on its ability to meet the needs of corporate partners and individuals with work barriers but also on its effective and visionary leadership. Although social enterprise is not a novel endeavor for Kirk, she doesn’t settle for the status quo. Instead, she continues learning about new ideas and trends by joining other Atlanta leaders at gatherings like those presented at GCN in early February. With a successful history and an innovative executive to lead into the future, there’s no doubt that Nobis Works will continue pioneering in the growing field of social enterprise for years to come.

To learn more about research done by the Georgia Center for Nonprofits on social enterprise, see our Social Enterprise report found here.

 

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