The business

For more than 50 years, St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a non-sectarian nonprofit, has served children and adults with intellectual and multiple disabilities in the Washington D.C. area through a school and several adult programs. As part of that effort, the group became interested in helping its adult participants deal with the challenges of finding employment and meaningful activity. Many need constant support to be successful and most businesses cannot accommodate such care and supervision. In addition, since all of the participants receive Supplemental Social Security payments, or SSI, they can only work part-time in order to retain the health and other benefits that come with the aid. So St. Coletta decided to create its own merchandise manufacturing and sales business to generate funds to provide clients with individualized support and training.

The opportunity

St. Coletta Shops at www.stcolettashops.com is a social enterprise that creates and sells jewelry, accessories and home décor designed exclusively for St. Coletta and made by participants in St. Coletta programs. St. Coletta Shops engaged the services of Karthika Audinet, an expert weaver and designer, to work with the staff and participants to design, train and produce two seasonal (spring and holiday) collections of gift items each year. These unique products included fused glass and beaded jewelry, as well as fused glass tableware, hand-dyed scarves and hand-woven scarves and bags. For each holiday season, the group designs a special glass holiday ornament.

Apart from making hand-made products, participants also learn various life-skills such as following directions, time on task and working in teams. These are all skills they can transfer to other jobs.

The challenge

The adult program has manufacturing sites and retail shops in Alexandria and Rockville that are not located in high traffic areas. The online store generates most of the merchandise sales and is attracting customers from across the country. The challenge is how to leverage this increasing audience to generate more revenue and support for St. Coletta Shops. Audinet, the designer, and St. Coletta’s chief development officer, Rebecca Hill, worked with Ed Coleman from the business mentoring group SCORE to develop a growth plan that would leverage the Internet sales potential and maximize the revenue to support its mission.

The advice

Coleman brings to his role more than 40 years experience in retail and catalog/direct marketing businesses. He proposed using a range of marketing strategies, including the use of email and print catalogs to help increase awareness of the St. Coletta Shops nonprofit mission and reach more potential customers. Ed also conducted a detailed analysis of sales, manufacturing costs and their gross margin contribution. This process resulted in a suggestion that St. Coletta Shops reduce its line of products and concentrate its resources on manufacturing the items that sold the best.

Coleman also encouraged the organization to set its prices based on the competition in the market, not what it thought a charitable might charge. Part of St. Coletta’s unique value proposition is not just the products themselves but the group’s mission. Also, Among its differentiators are the fact that all items are handmade in the U.S.A. by adults with disabilities, and all sales support disabled artisans.

The reaction

As a result of Coleman’s advice, St. Coletta’s overcame its reticence about raising prices. To increase awareness and more effectively communicate the St. Coletta Shops’ message, the group created a 2016 holiday catalog that is be distributed in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and will be featured on its website, in email and social media promotions. The online catalog launched in October and the mail version is scheduled to release in November.

SCORE is a nonprofit association dedicated to entrepreneur education. Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? The greater Washington D.C. chapter provides confidential counseling and mentoring from more than 60 executives across the region. Contact capbiznews@washpost.com or request a mentor at www.washingtondc.score.org.