Rubicon Programs Inc.
Rick Aubry, Executive Director
Bite into a Rubicon Turtle Cake, and the first thing you taste is the light, creamy caramel—followed by hints of rich chocolate and a pecan crunch. In that ecstatic moment, the matter of who actually made the confection seems utterly irrelevant. And that's exactly the point. These cakes are the latest creations of a unique team of bakers—formerly homeless, often mentally ill people or recovering addicts from communities in the San Francisco Bay Area who come to Rubicon Programs looking for a way out.
Rubicon hands these folks measuring spoons—and explains how to use them. It trains them in the tools of the baking trade, then starts them on easy tasks, such as peeling apples or washing pots. From there, bigger jobs: mixing batters, then supervising a line. At every step, these employees relearn (or learn for the first time) what it takes to hold down a job, to do work that inspires pride, to advance and feel a sense of accomplishment.
The cakes themselves are out of this world. "We can't be the best nonprofit cake in the display case," says executive director Rick Aubry. "We just have to be the best cake. Period." But to Aubry, it's about more than that. "We are not only creating a wonderful product but also a range of jobs on a path to sustainability for these people. It is helping them move out of poverty and disenfranchisement, and back into the community with skills."
The bakery, which grosses $300,000 in its busiest month, is one of two businesses run by Rubicon. The other is a landscaping service, also staffed by hard-to-employ people, that does $4 million a year in services that range from mowing grass to installing irrigation systems. Both businesses pay their workers living wages, and the landscaping unit brings in enough to reinvest in operations—and spin off small surpluses to support other Rubicon programs.
Together, the operations account for half of Rubicon's budget, which otherwise funds an eclectic menu of community programs. There's the career center, which provides career counseling, interview preparation, and email and voice-mail service to jobless and often homeless clients looking to enter the workforce. In 2003, it provided 800 people with job training and placed 400 clients in new jobs. Rubicon also supports substance-abuse counseling, horticulture therapy, money-management programs, and a host of other offerings.
Rubicon forged this strategy 30 years ago: create operating subsidiaries that deliver on the organization's social mission while generating a revenue stream to augment other funding sources. It's an approach that social enterprise organizations across the country have strived to replicate since. Rubicon still does it better than almost anyone.
And Rubicon does one more thing: It tracks results, almost ferociously. In 1999, staffers completed an in-house information system that charts the status of each client according to individual assessments completed every three months while enrolled, then biannually once they have left. The database has current information on participants' housing status, their finances, substance-abuse counseling, and employment status.
The reports may sound intrusive, but they enable clients to see their own progress in black and white. They also allow Rubicon to measure the effectiveness of its programs and simplify financial reporting to major donors. No wonder other not-for-profits are eager to adapt the technology. Rubicon isn't ready to share just yet—but the organization that pioneered the revenue stream can always smell a nascent business opportunity. "We're still in talks," says Aubry. "It's under consideration."
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A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.