Investing in Workforce Development and Systems Change: Social Enterprise

By Iolanthe BrooksPolicy Associate

Social enterprises—nonprofits that generate revenue to support their ongoing operations—present an innovative approach to workforce development, with the potential for systems-level impact. The Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) funded the work of three growing social enterprises: Drive Change, The HOPE Program’s Intervine, and Sweet Generation Bakery. In late September, a group of funders, peer organizations, and other policy stakeholders gathered to discuss lessons learned from CJII’s social enterprise portfolio.

Finding and maintaining employment—especially a fulfilling job that pays a living wage and provides pathways for growth—remains challenging for all too many jobseekers. For people who have been disconnected from school and work and/or been incarcerated, finding employment is often even more difficult. Jobseekers returning from incarceration may have gaps in skills, qualifications, work history, and connections, and face employer discrimination. Yet, we know that developing pathways into careers for people who are too often locked out of the workforce is a building block of community safety. Social enterprises rise to this challenge by providing workforce development services, while generating revenue to support their programming.

Over the last three years, the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII), a project of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, has funded three social enterprises—Drive ChangeThe HOPE Program’s Intervine, and Sweet Generation Bakery—to develop and grow programs in the green and hospitality sectors. Through CJII, we have learned about the impact social enterprises can have, as well as what it looks like to fund their work and support program sustainability.

In late September, ISLG hosted a conversation about the social enterprise model with Jordyn Lexton (Founder, Drive Change), Jennifer Mitchell (Executive Director, The HOPE Program), Amy Chasan (Founder and CEO, Sweet Generation Bakery), Danielle Mindess (CJII Director, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office), and a group of funders, peers, and other supporters. This panel, held in Sweet Generation Bakery’s new location, shared reflections on what they have learned over the last three years of CJII, where their work is going, and what lessons funders and policymakers can draw from the social enterprise approach. Below is a video of the panel, and a few highlights from the discussion.

Watch the Panel


Transforming Systems through Quality Jobs

Beyond the hundreds of individuals the CJII-funded social enterprises directly serve, these organizations designed their job training to be a blueprint of bold visions for systems- and industry-level change.

  • Drive Change runs a fellowship for justice-impacted young people ages 18-25 that focuses on culinary skills, leadership development, and healing. With CJII funding, they developed Hospitality for Social Justice (HSJ), a training program for food businesses in how to be anti-racist and to support justice-impacted staff. Drive Change has a vision for a transformed hospitality industry, where workplaces operate equitably and invest in workers with lived experience in the justice system. They channel this vision into generating revenue to support their programs by charging for HSJ trainings.

  • The HOPE Program’s Intervine is a paid training program focused on the green sector—the industries that reduce environmental risks and increase sustainability. The Intervine curriculum includes environmental and digital literacy, certifications, and hands-on training. As participants learn about growing green industries—including solar, horticulture, and green infrastructure—they complete paid work contracts, generating revenue to support the Intervine program and producing a positive environmental impact. The HOPE Program has a vision of a robust green industry to support the city’s climate resilience.

  • Sweet Generation Bakery is a bakery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that runs the RISE program, a baking and entrepreneurship internship for young people. After completing the program, interns can progress into six-month apprenticeship positions and then onto long-term employment within the bakery. Sweet Generation has a vision to create a work environment that invests in young people’s growth and development.

As social enterprises, all three organizations see the reach of their work beyond the individual participants they serve. From maintaining NYC’s trees to training cohorts of restaurant management staff in cultural competence, the social enterprises have developed businesses that have social impact as their bottom line.

“It’s not enough to train people to enter work. Jobs have to get better. It’s all of our responsibility to make jobs and employment better for all people.” – Jordyn Lexton, Drive Change

How Funders can Support the Social Enterprise Model

Social enterprises like the three funded through CJII cannot support themselves through generated revenue alone. Instead, to remain sustainable, this model requires investments from funders, private and public.

In Sweet Generation CEO Amy Chasan’s words, “as a business, we take very seriously creating a workplace that supports learning and growth. We want to see that change in all businesses, but it’s not easy and it’s not cheap. When we talk about the flexibility and adaptability that we must have, and the mistakes that will inevitably happen – it’s what the program is about – we depend very heavily on support from funders.”

In this conversation, the panelists spoke about the best ways funders can support their work. First, remaining flexible for programs to evolve to better serve participants and adapt how they generate revenue – without withdrawing funding or support – has allowed the organizations to be responsive to changing participant needs and industry opportunities. For example, early into CJII, Drive Change proposed to pivot their model from being based around their food truck to the Hospitality for Social Justice approach. Proceeding to fund this new vision has allowed Drive Change to reach dozens of food businesses with a scalable model, while creating more culturally competent workplaces for their participants.

In addition to programmatic funds, CJII invested in capital projects for all three organizations. Using this funding, Sweet Generation Bakery moved from a small storefront in the East Village to a large, modern location in Bushwick where the event was held. This new space has allowed their business and programming to expand.

Finally, funders and policymakers should complement traditional, quantitative measures of impact (focusing closely on the individuals served and immediate outputs) with additional ways to capture the full reach of social enterprise work, without becoming burdensome for the organizations. This includes incorporating qualitative measures and elevating participant and community narratives, looking beyond just quantitative data to understand how a program is working with participants. It also means integrating metrics that capture the social impacts of the enterprise itself (e.g., how many solar panels HOPE’s Intervine has installed across NYC) and the impact of their organizational training and advocacy (e.g., how many businesses have been reached by Drive Change’s HSJ training), alongside day-to-day program performance measurement. All of these measurement decisions will work best if funders provide long-term grants with few restrictions, allowing organizations sufficient time to roll out programs, assess their success, and course-correct when needed.


Sweet Generation Bakery, Drive Change, and The HOPE Program are very different organizations that share a commitment to the social enterprise model, enthusiasm about investing in marginalized jobseekers, and passion for shaping the economy so that equitable practice becomes core to every business. With support from funders, policymakers, and their generated revenue, these organizations will continue to grow, transforming the industries they operate in.

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