Five Questions With: Kelly Ramirez

Social Venture Partners Rhode Island was recently named a Champion in Action for the 2011 first quarter by Citizens Bank and WJAR-TV NBC 10, which means the nonprofit will receive a $25,000 grant and promotional support. The group’s executive director, Kelly Ramirez, recently answered five questions about its mission and how the economy has affected it.

PBN: Explain what Social Venture Partners Rhode Island is.
Social Venture Partners Rhode Island is a partnership of more than 40 entrepreneurs, social investors and leading thinkers who catalyze social enterprise development in Rhode Island. We are connecting the growing community of 100-plus Rhode Island social ventures to our partners to facilitate an information exchange that will help social
entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Our partners strengthen the social enterprises through mentoring, shared best practices and collaboration. We also incubate new ventures through our Change Accelerator and Social Venture Partners-University programs. And, we help early-stage ventures and mature social enterprises build infrastructure and acquire customers through programs like Change Place and Buy with Heart. Also, Social Venture Partners invests in high-potential ventures through our Social Enterprise Loan Fund.

PBN:What will SVPRI do with grant funding and other perks from the Champions in Action recognition?
We plan to use the $25,000 and public relations resources provided by Citizens Bank and NBC 10 to raise awareness about our Buy with Heart campaign. Buy with Heart is an umbrella brand for Rhode Island’s social ventures that will raise the profile of these businesses among corporate purchasing departments and social responsibility offices. At, local companies, government agencies and organizations such as hospitals and universities can easily find social ventures that provide products and services they need – catering, mail processing, copying and shredding, etc. Our Web portal will go live in early March – right now we’re building the directory of social ventures so there is a lot of opportunity for buyers.

PBN: How has the recession affected Social Venture Partners and what it does?
Well, up until just recently our organization depended almost solely on partner contributions. When the recession hit, understandably, there were fewer individuals who were in a situation to contribute full-partner dues. We therefore decided to rethink our business model. As a first step, we conducted several surveys and focus groups with a number of social ventures and other collaborators to better understand the most pressing needs of the growing social enterprise community. The end result was a new menu of a programming and a business model that now depends on several revenue streams, including a membership model that allows people to give what they can afford, a new focus on corporate partnerships, community and foundation support and new lines of business. And the new approach seems to be working. We are growing rapidly.

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PBN: Why is demand for your services going up?
First, more and more nonprofits are launching a social enterprise or integrated business to diversity their revenue streams during a time of cutbacks in government and foundation dollars available to nonprofits. Many nonprofits are also attracted to the work force development component of social enterprise. This transition from dependence to independence is obviously the ideal social service intervention when it works. And, since social enterprises train and employ the constituents with whom they work and help their employees’ transition
to the mainstream work force (many of whom have barriers to employment), they have a good story to tell the public about how patronizing a nonprofit business is an efficient means to alleviate social ills without increasing taxes or the size of government programs. Further, we are seeing a growing number of individuals, university students and recent graduates in particular, interested in launching social ventures.

PBN: How has the tough credit environment affected social enterprises?
To be honest, I haven’t heard any ventures mentioning access to credit as a specific barrier. That being said, in our 2010 community-needs assessment, access to capital was mentioned as the top barrier to growth. Our ventures are interested in grants, contributions from individual donors, social enterprise loans and venture capital. We have seen demand for our loan fund increase to the point where we need to raise new funds to replenish it. And now, we are looking to commercial capital sources because we believe we have a good model and the right experience to assess the risk of loaning capital to early-stage social ventures. We would very much like to team with local lenders to use our loans as leverage against larger commercial loans.

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