mission

More Than Words: The Art of Balancing Mission and Margin in Social Enterprise

“Why books, Jodi?” 

“Why not books, Ramon?”

There is money to be made in books! Jodi Rosenbaum, Founder and Executive Director of More Than Words, says they are selling them to the tune of $3.7 million a year. She says every book that they receive is in the hands of young people that they’re giving jobs to. Books are not going obsolete. “While there might be lots of ways to access great literature moving forward, we definitely know to be true that there is still money in books. People are still buying books, people are still holding and smelling, and spilling coffee on books.” Especially used books which is the business Jodi is in.

More Than Selling Books

More Than Words is a non-profit social enterprise. To Jodi, as a social enterprise, they “believe in using business to deliver on [their] mission.” More Than Words is in the business of helping some of society’s most vulnerable young adults prepare for the difficult transition into adulthood. The organization is committed to helping youth who have grown up in the foster care system, who are court involved, who have or are currently experiencing homelessness, or who have dropped out of school. Young people who are on a trajectory towards a life of relying on adult welfare, homelessness, dealing with the criminal justice system, or worse. Jodi says, “We flip the script. We give them paid jobs in our businesses, running More Than Words, as a vehicle for taking charge of and transforming their lives.” More Than Words employees are young people from ages 16-24 who are out on a fleet of trucks picking up over 4 million donated books all over the greater Boston area. They bring those books back and going through the rigorous process of sorting and scanning those books. Some of those books go to their online business where they’re sold on marketplace websites including eBay. Others will get sorted and selected to go to their retail locations, while others are selected to go to pop-up shops, some are donated, and what’s leftover gets sold wholesale to third-party buyers, so they’re really using every book that they bring in. 

Preparing Youth for The Future

Through the process Jodi described, the young people they employ are learning a ton of critical and marketable skills. In addition to their business job, Jodi says each employee has a second job that they refer to as a “you job”—taking care of themselves. For that, More Than Words youth meet weekly with full-time, dedicated youth development managers who help them get back in school, stay in school, and map a concrete plan for their future education, work, and life. The organization also has a team of career service managers whose sole focus is to help the youth transfer their new skills and experiences to other jobs, to graduate high school, and to prepare for post-secondary education. 

Jodi says they are open 7 days a week, nights, and weekends because that’s when their young people need them. “It’s pretty extraordinary the work they’re able to do when you give them high expectations and the opportunity.”

Healthy Tension of Mission and Margin

This is the last line of defense, the last opportunity to make a radical move to shift the trajectory of where these young people’s lives are headed. Jodi refers to the “healthy tension of mission and margin” often cited in social enterprises. “If you’re too focused on making sure the business is performing, and it’s at the expense of meeting young people where they’re at…what’s the point?” But, Jodi says on the flip side, if you’re only focused on the mission and not running a functioning and performing business, the youth can see right through that. Jodi says balance is critical and that it rarely comes easily, but that’s the beauty in running this kind of business in action.

Jodi’s way of making it all work is with an incredible team. She says she executes this balance by employing both generalists who can think about integration and how the model hangs together, but says having specialists is imperative. You have to have those people whose first thought when they wake up is to check online performance metrics, make sure they’re hitting goals, managing commissions and fees the same way you would in a for-profit business. But they also have the specialists who wake up thinking about the lives of their young people. 

At the end of the day, the mission comes first and that’s a major consideration for hiring and training. While running a successful business is key to the social impacting More Than Words is making because without it they wouldn’t be able to reach and teach young people in the way they are currently able to. Although there are two sides, the business side and the youth development side, Jodi says everyone there does youth work. For each employee they interview, there has to be a desire to work with youth. 

Getting the Word Out

Jodi says that marketing plays a key role in bringing in new business. These are the top 3 marking tools More Than Words employs:

  1. Social media- robust presence, consistency, reposts from bigger accounts.
  2. Media coverage- their mission naturally draws media attention, creates a memory that leads them back to the business at a later time.
  3. Virtuous circle/cycle- engaging people with multiple touch points, word of mouth, grassroots donors

E-commerce

More Than Words starting selling on eBay when they were one year old and has since become one of their primary selling platforms. Jodi says they ship out hundreds of books a day all over the world. More Than Words was just named eBay’s Small Business of the Year. Jodi says that eBay has been monumental in recognizing the work More Than Words does for young people and has been incredibly supportive. 

More Than Words has had success selling on the eBay platform and Jodi says those looking to sell on eBay should be mindful of these 2 things:

Fulfillment- know where everything is and have audit systems in place to double and triple check that so you can find products. You have to be able to deliver on what you say you have. 

Description- be able to accurately and consistently describe the condition of your product.

Hiring a Team That Suits the Mission

When hiring youth staff, Jodi says they’re looking for barriers, challenges, and areas where the youth need help. They don’t expect them to come with work experience or the typical qualities you’d expect to see from a job applicant. Jodi says gone are the days of looking for the same “canned credentials.” More Than Words “believes deeply in lived experiences…and non-traditional pathways.” They want a team that reflects the diversity of their young people with life experience that can connect them with their young people, which for Jodi means having an open mind when looking at resumes.

Hiring adult staff at More Than Words might also look different than traditional hiring practices. The ability to understand the balance between mission and margin is critical. Someone might have the hard skills, but they also have to have the values and qualities that line up with the mission. 

One thing Jodi does look for on applicant’s resume is a history of job retention. She says it really affects their young people, and the model, if they have people who can’t “stay the course.” Jodi also lets the young people greet the applicant and ask the first few questions. Second-round interviews allow applicants and the youth and staff to get a feel for if it would be a good fit.