Interview: Eric Weinheimer Gives His Top Tips at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit 2014


By Robbie Hall

There have been countless keynote sessions and workshops that have piqued my interest at the Annual Social Enterprise Alliance Summit, but one in particular that I would like to share is from a personal interview I had with Eric Weinheimer after the “State Of The Art on Employment Social Enterprises” session.

During the session Eric had mentioned “the thing no one is talking about” in regards to social enterprise and the strain it can put on your infrastructure if you are not adequately prepared. He drew the comparison of The Little Rascals and how often, when confronted with a troubling situation, the group would say, “Let’s put on a show!” This is similar to how some people view social enterprise. When you feel the pressure of X, Y or Z in your business or industry your instinct may switch to “Let’s become a social enterprise!”

It can seem like a quick fix to a problem. But when you do not have the necessary resources to support your goal then ultimately you end up with an unstable and unsustainable business.

Robbie Hall: Why is it important to be part of a larger community like SEA?

Eric Weinheimer: It is important to be part of a larger community like SEA so that you can learn about all of the innovation and the execution that is occurring in the social enterprise sector around the country. There are a ton of ideas, but who’s actually executing on those ideas? Who’s bringing these ideas into reality, and who’s doing it on scale? If we were not part of this SEA community, we would not have access to those best practices, networks, role models and inspiration.

RH: What would your advice be to anyone looking to join or become a social enterprise?

EW: Creating a social enterprise requires a great deal of resources, energy and inspiration. And if it is not managed properly, the creation of that enterprise can distract people from other important work that the nonprofit organization might be doing.You want to make sure that your proposed social enterprise complements, supports and enhances your mission. If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t start a social enterprise.

RH: How do you deal with the tension and disengage between money and mission?

EW: It is certainly a delicate a balance. You need to make sure that your social enterprise is furthering the programmatic goals of the overall mission. But with no profit margin, there is no mission. When there is a conflict between the two, there needs to be a clear understanding for all the staff and board about which one takes priority and under what circumstances. The more clarity, the better.

RH: If you could go back, knowing what you know now in social enterprise, what would you do differently?

EW: I would ensure that we had more resources in our infrastructure to support the growth of social enterprise. I have seen the enormous strain that the lack of a strong infrastructure put on our existing nonprofit. It almost harmed the organization.

RH: What is the next step for someone looking to build up those resources for their infrastructure?

EW: There are a couple of things… You should be looking for funders who would consider grants or program-related investments for general operating and infrastructure support. But if you do not have those funders, then you should consider partnering or collaborating with complementary organizations that have similar missions, strong infrastructure and also are looking to start a social enterprise.

About Eric Weinheimer:

Eric has been the President and CEO of The Cara Program since 1996. Prior to this, Eric worked 10 years in the financial services sector. Eric earned a B.S. from Boston College and an M.B.A. from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, where he was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award for Public Service. Eric was selected as a member of the Emerging Leaders Program for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Class of 2011. Eric was also selected as a Chicago Community Trust Fellow for 2013.Eric was appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Task Force. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise Initiative at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Streetwise, the Social Enterprise Alliance, Chicago Chapter and the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation.

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