When I started Sphere seven years ago in Phoenixville, PA, I began by assembling two groups of 10 people. We gathered and learned together, and that lasted for about four years. As we begin now in Asheville, we’ve taken a different approach: We’ve spent our time planning, including developing our vision package, which describes what Sphere is and exists for. In some ways, I wish we had just gotten started with courses, as I feel eager to jump into teaching and mentoring, because it’s what I enjoy most. In other ways, I feel thankful for the time that we have spent understanding Sphere, but also the principles by which we operate and make decisions each day. I also feel grateful for our growing advisory group that has counseled us along the way and continues to bring critical thinking to everything, from what courses to offer to what to pay our teachers.
Sometimes, it’s difficult to know where to start: When you have such a wide vision of what is possible in education and so many new concepts for which you are trying to gain consideration, there are any number of places to begin. And then there are the realities, including financial ones. Thanks to insight from our friend, advisor, and team member, Dee Williams, about the needs of the Asheville community related to skill development, we have now decided to prioritize the creation of Sphere’s social enterprise, which will launch alongside the Sphere College Project this January.
Broadly defined, social enterprises are organizations that apply commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being. There has been a broad movement among 501c3 organizations for several decades now to operate businesses in order to generate revenues and fulfill their missions. Goodwill is a perfect example of a nonprofit with a successful social enterprise: They fund their work-training programs through their retail establishments. They even go one step further to hire candidates from their work-training programs, thereby solving some of the placement issues that can plague some in the underserved or underemployed sectors.
There are a number of reasons a social enterprise is a good idea, among the most important is that the community views us as an innovative, responsive, results-oriented entrepreneurial business. Social enterprises are also practical, as they guard against fluctuations in funding, including government funding cuts to social programs, while building community wealth, which at the heart of our initiative. We believe that providing higher-level learning to all adults who want it in the community will result in the increased wealth of the community: The right amount of high-quality education along with support through mentorship is the key to happier, more engaged community members.
The plan is to launch Sphere’s “Tools for Effective Living” program in the Asheville community beginning in January of 2017. The program, which will include courses and skills tutoring, will be marketed to businesses and organizations for the purposes of improving employee skills and raising employee satisfaction levels. We are incredibly excited about this. Stay tuned for more information on this over the next several weeks.