North Market opened its doors in December, offering north Minneapolis residents a place to shop for fresh, nutritious groceries in their own neighborhood.
Around the same time, the KRSM 98.9 FM radio station crackled to life in the Phillips neighborhood on the city’s South Side, giving people of color and women a chance to sit in front of the microphone and shape programming.
Both the market and radio station were started by the nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities, growing its portfolio of business ventures to eight. Pillsbury also operates a bike shop, a secondhand clothing boutique, a community newspaper, an interpreting agency, a wellness center and a theater.
Nonprofit business ventures — often called social enterprises — are growing in popularity as an innovative way for philanthropy to meet community needs, and Pillsbury’s rapid and diversified expansion in that area is drawing attention. It’s a strategy that moves away from the conventional social-service model of handouts.
“It starts with this notion that we understand and interact with the community in a very different way,” said Pillsbury United President and CEO Adair Mosley. “We are not about creating the nonprofit industrial complex and perpetuating poverty. We are about creating the conditions to allow families to thrive.”
Pillsbury United’s enterprises address a host of community issues including job training, access to heathy food, health and wellness, community organizing and environmental consciousness. They all have strong focus on equity and amplifying the voices of the communities they serve.
“We want to creatively solve complex social problems and disparities that exist in these communities,” Mosley said.
There’s also a benefit to the nonprofit. Social-service nonprofits, in particular, are looking for ways to become less dependent on government money and be more entrepreneurial, said Kate Barr, president and CEO of Propel Nonprofits, which provides services to nonprofits. She said she has been providing more training and loans to charities looking to start their own social enterprises.
“It’s a really growing area of interest, and there is some developing expertise and knowledge on how to do it well,” Barr said.
Pillsbury United is a leader in the movement, she said, and they’re making sure their business endeavors grow revenue and support their mission.
“Pillsbury is a long-established, historical social-service organization. It has deep roots in the traditional charity mode,” Barr said. “For them to be making this move is helping to disrupt that social-service sector.”
Pillsbury United raised more than $6 million to open the 16,500-square-foot North Market in a shuttered grocery store. In addition to groceries, it has community meeting space for cooking, yoga, aerobics and meditation classes where participants pay what they can.
North Memorial Health has a resource center at the market with a nutritionist and a pharmacy liaison. The market employs nearly 40 people from the neighborhood — most of them full time. Part-time employees working more than 20 hours a week are offered health insurance.
“I really think it’s the right way to go. It’s not a handout, but it’s helping people, “said North Market store director Cerise Ligneel, who grew up in the neighborhood.
Money collected through Pillsbury’s social enterprises goes back into the businesses and covers 25 to 100 percent of the operating expenses. The nonprofit makes up the difference through traditional fundraising and grants, although those have grown increasingly scarce as traditional funding streams dry up.
“It’s a much more sustainable model of meeting community needs that has a larger impact than a traditional transactional social-service model,” said Brenna Brelie, chief of staff at Pillsbury United, which operates on about a $10 million annual budget.
The business endeavors also feed a growing consumer consciousness as people want to shop at places that invest in the community and provide good working conditions.
On a recent morning, a strength-and-conditioning class was in full swing on the North Market’s front plaza. Inside, Alison Purkey shopped for produce to make a vegetable lasagna. She had walked to the store, pushing her 4-month-old daughter in a stroller.
“It’s a nice neighborhood feature,” Purkey said as she bagged some fresh spinach. Her family has a car, but many in the neighborhood do not, and North Market provides access to healthy food.
“That’s why we keep shopping here — to make sure something like this survives in our community,” she said.
KRSM “Radio for All” went on the air last fall with talk and music programs broadcast in nine languages, including Spanish, Somali, Ojibwe and Hmong. More than 70 percent of its volunteer hosts are people of color who discuss local politics, events, health trends, art and culture.
A group of activists worked for a decade to start the community radio station, said station manager Brendan Kelly. When things finally came together, Pillsbury United agreed to be the host agency because there was value in providing programs for and by communities of color and other marginalized groups.
“We can be radical, be bold, make big mistakes, try things out and show other media outlets what is possible,” he said.
Felicia Perry arrived at the studio on a recent Wednesday — her 7-year-old daughter in tow — for her weekly radio show “DesignHer Life.” Her radio talk show features artists, particularly women of color, exploring how to be true to their art and values while still paying the bills and getting the kids to school. That day, she interviewed a woman healer from Puerto Rico.
“Everyone has really unique stories about when their art became their work,” Perry said.
Kelly said Pillsbury’s investment in social enterprise is the right direction for philanthropy.
“The nonprofit industrial complex is insidious and hard to get away from: People are hungry. Give them food. People are bleeding. Give them a Band-Aid,” Kelly said. “Is a Band-Aid what people really need, or do we need to disrupt and transform the system?”