Utilizing An Entrepreneurial Mindset To Solve Community Issues

Written by: Kristi Huber

Photos by Dennis Knull

Small businesses and nonprofits are not for the faint of heart. It’s for the brave, the patient and the persistent. It’s for the overcomer.


Nonprofits and startups have more in common than many might first realize. Both kinds of organizations are driven by a vision and fueled by passion to see a significant change or improvement in the world around them. The similarities are even clearer when you look at the way that both approach challenges and risk, and their inherent need to continuously improve skills and systems.

Innovative Partnerships

One of the most frustrating phrases to the ears of an entrepreneur is, “because we’ve always done it that way.” This is also true for growth-minded nonprofits. There is always risk in change, but there is also opportunity – the challenge is knowing when one outweighs the other. As United Way of Cass-Clay identified the challenges that over 26,000 people, including over 6,000 children, in our community are facing as they look to find a path out of poverty, we recognized that new and innovative partnerships were required. The obstacles for these families is a skills gap that doesn’t allow them to apply for higher wage positions and, in addition, challenges related to transportation, quality affordable childcare and safe, long-term housing can create insurmountable barriers to a better life.

Jamie's family.
Just one year ago, Jamie was homeless and struggling to provide for her family. Today, with the help of innovative partnerships, Jamie is now employed as a CNA and her family is on a path to economic stability.

Three years ago, United Way of Cass-Clay leaned into a new partnership with Lakes & Prairies Community Action (CAPLP) and Minnesota State Technical and Community College (M State) to create a new model and position that would assist low-income individuals and families by connecting them with training opportunities to start a career in welding, certified nursing assistant (CNA) and certified production technician (CPT) for manufacturing. The gap in effectively connecting individuals to training was the need for a Workforce Development Case Manager to help navigate the specific challenges that each individual was experiencing, such as transportation, childcare and housing. The results of this partnership have been life-changing for individuals and their families. 

Jamie’s story reflects not just one, but all of the challenges mentioned above. Just one year ago, Jamie was homeless and uncertain about her and her children’s’ future. She was working at a local fast-food restaurant and she was caught in the day-to-day cycle of poverty. It’s a cycle often repeated from one generation to the next. Jamie was raised by a family that was in constant struggle. Domestic violence and substance abuse were part of her day-to-day reality. A young teenage single mother herself, she was told that she would never amount to anything. Jamie contemplated suicide but knew all-to-well what that would mean for the future of her own children. The cycle of poverty is cruel and relentless without hope for an opportunity to break the cycle. 

Living only for the hope for a better life for her children, Jamie learned about the training opportunity through CAPLP when she enrolled her youngest daughter in the Headstart Program, which provides low-income children the opportunity to attend preschool. Soon Jamie was connected with Amy Feland, the Workforce Development Case Manager funded by United Way of Cass-Clay, which would connect her to the M State CNA training program. Jamie was working a night shift until 3 a.m. and then attended CNA training during the day. She had determination to complete the program, and Amy’s support to help her believe in herself. 

Graduation from the program was only a step in this journey, gainful employment was the destination. For individuals in this program, a job interview can seem like a daunting wall keeping them from reaching their goal. Jamie was doubtful and unconfident as she approached her interview with Farmstead, an independent, assisted living and memory care community in Moorhead, who was in need of CNA’s for their workforce. Amy shared, “She just needed the right interview, and she needed a chance.” Fortunately, her new employer saw her potential and hired her. Jamie loves her role and the people that she cares for each day. She sees the opportunity for a career now, not just a job. With this new opportunity, Jamie has been able to move her family into a larger apartment where her children all have their own room and beds and all of them are making progress. 

The Inherent Need to Continuously Improve Skills and Systems

As in the case with startups, nonprofits must be creative in maximizing their financial resources, while at the same time increasing the number of individuals helped. This is the challenge of growth versus scale for both nonprofits and entrepreneurs. Growth means adding resources at the same rate that you’re adding revenue or dollars raised through fundraising. The biggest problem, however, is that it takes significant resources to sustain constant growth. While the company is technically growing, they’re not scaling. 

Scale is about adding revenue at a rapid rate while adding resources at a gradual and much slower rate. Scale is what gives both startups and nonprofits the greatest return on their investments. United Way of Cass-Clay utilizes research and data to focus and measure where we are seeing positive results and to help us direct more resources to continue to scale the success across the entire community.

Jamie’s success and the success of others who have participated in the Workforce Development Case Management program are examples of why it’s crucial for nonprofits to continuously prioritize their resources and lean in to new partnerships in order to realize the positive community results of individuals and families that are on a new path toward financial stability. 

United Way of Cass-Clay’s focus on our BOLD Goals and seeking new partnerships is an example of how our organization has evolved to meet the needs of our growing community. Our role in the community to activate the resources of the entire community to solve complex issues and create lasting social change. We invite you to be a part of our work and join us in creating a better tomorrow for everyone. This is the Power of Community. Realized.  Be inspired and hear more about Jamie’s story at unitedwaycassclay.org

Kristi Huber, United Way of Cass-Clay President and CEO
Kristi Huber, United Way of Cass-Clay President and CEO
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