The entrepreneurial nonprofit Featured

9:49am EDT July 22, 2002

At first glance, the top floor of Vocational Guidance Services looks like any other modern sewing factory with skilled workers operating some of the latest machinery.

And while the nonprofit produces every pair of dress slacks worn by women in the U.S. Army, management doesn’t look at the pants as the product. At VGS, the product is people.

“This organization started 109 years ago,” says President and CEO Robert E. Comben Jr. “The idea of this agency started in 1890 with young women sewing clothes to help (what were then called) crippled children. From that, it’s grown and mutated to what we are now, but the core of what we do is still to help people with significant disabilities.”

By working with small businesses — and through its own entrepreneurial businesses — VGS last year matched more than 1,700 special needs workers with full- and part-time jobs. Whether the problem is of a physical or mental nature, or related to drugs or alcohol, VGS assesses each individual who comes through the door and tries to provide appropriate training.

“It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that is ubiquitous throughout this organization that I think makes us a unique asset for the community,” Comben says. “Entrepreneurial spirit in our industry can mean two things, as opposed to the for-profit sector, where an entrepreneurial spirit has to do with a willingness to take risk and to go where no one has gone before to make money.

“We have absolutely no aversion to making money, but the services we provide to the private or the public sector are a means to an end. It’s a means to better serve people with barriers to employment, as well as a means to serve public and private sector for whatever needs they might have.”

VGS puts those goals into hard numbers. By the end of the year, it hopes to have a $23 million impact on Cleveland’s economy. That includes placing more than 1,800 workers and paying out more than $6 million in wages.

With that for-profit spirit, VGS runs several enterprises. In addition to the expanding sewing business, there are janitorial services, assembly operations — every Dobie pad sold in the United States is packaged in their building — and building maintenance. VGS also offers training in computers and electronic assembly.

As in any business that finds new avenues for revenue, VGS seeks opportunities in a variety of places. “So long as it’s moral, legal and honest, so long as it has the opportunity to help people with significant barriers to employment or significant disabilities and so long as it doesn’t drive this organization into the ground, then we can do it,” Comben says.

VGS faces the same challenges as other businesses, such as a client coming along and asking you to change something, or they’ll take their business elsewhere. For VGS, that client is often the government.

“When they come along and they say, ‘We can buy these products for two dollars less, it may be overseas or something, which is a little irritating, as it is to any American business. But we’ve got to do it; we’ve got to figure out how to do it.”

VGS faces an additional issue, says Comben. “We are utilizing the talents of people who have significant barriers to work, significant disabilities of some sort, and who are, therefore, almost in every case, not as productive as if it was (a more traditional business).”

In addition to skill training, VGS teaches life skills. Many of these employees haven’t worked in a long time and need help adjusting to the responsibilities of a new job.

“The niche that we look for is where we can typically place several people at one site, where the employment is rather steady and where the opportunity for the individual hired is great,” Comben says. “The whole reason that we got into the temporary business was to help people become competitively employed. Most temporary agencies charge a fee or there is some sort of penalty to hire their people.

“We come in and say we will provide the best people available to match your needs and please hire them ... and it will cost you nothing.”

How to reach: Vocational Guidance Services, (216) 431-7800

Daniel G. Jacobs is senior editor at SBN magazine.

The biggest givers

The top 5 largest foundations ranked by assets:

Name Assets as of fiscal year end date

1. Fannie Mae Foundation $402,437,562 12/31/97

2. Alcoa Foundation $353,479,141 12/31/97

3. The Merck Co. Foundation $268,033,089 12/31/97

4. Fidelity Foundation $229,279,674 12/31/97

5. SBC Foundation $204,700,000 12/31/98

The top 5 largest foundations ranked by total giving:

Name Total giving as of fiscal year end date

1. The Ford Foundation $439,323,000 9/30/98

2. Lilly Endowment Inc. $425,188,708 12/31/98

3. W.K. Kellogg Foundation $260,837,874 8/31/98

4. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation $257,227,198 12/31/98

5. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation $241,543,631 12/31/97 Source: The Foundation Center