Experts like to share what they know.
Social service providers–from farmers to crisis centre staff–undoubtedly have skills we all could/should know, but setting up a training business is high risk.
When delivering workshops, it is very rare that one can charge attendees enough to actually cover the costs of running the workshop. There are some exceptions, particularly if there is an inherent self interest for the participant (think “how to win in real estate” type of workshops), or if there is some future product (book, consulting, food goods, recipe list, etc) that will sell as a result of the workshop. In this latter case, the workshop can be run at a loss–a loss leader of sorts–on the premise that a future profit can be realized.
There are certainly a lot of non profits who provide workshops for a fee, and some even use a social enterprise model (ongoing, strategic activity with a primary social mission, involving a market orientated transaction). The challenge is that these workshops are almost always backstopped by funding, which makes them precarious businesses when or if the funding disappears. This risk can be mitigated by having multiple funders, but it remains challenging to actually design a self-sufficient workshop business without alternate lines of revenue.
The target audiences for many well-intentioned social service providers are often unable to pay market fees for workshops; elementary to high school youth, marginalized communities, low income, or other audiences either won’t pay or can’t afford it.
For those wishing to sell workshops or training as a business, you are almost certainly looking at a business established on one of the following models:
- Where there is funding to offset losses. (the Charity Model)
- Where there is revenue from another line of business designed for a paying audience to offset losses. (the Robin Hood Model)
- Where the training leads to the sale of other products or services to that same target audience. (the “Loss Leader” Model)
The reasonable example of a social enterprise which provides training in a financially sustainable way is a sport club. These are (typically) non profit organizations with a mission to promote sport (soccer, hockey, jai alai, etc). Team fees cover hard costs (field/ice/court rentals, tournament fees, training, referees, team balls, nets, etc). These social enterprises, however, rely heavily on volunteer labour (coaches, parents, treasurers, etc) to actually function, and there is a natural demand for sports clubs. The learning from the sport example is that the “product” being sold is not only about fitness (’cause all of us could get that by simply running/wheeling around the block). Sports offer other tangible and intangible benefits that parents (and participants) want: comradery , sense of achievement, days off school (!), time with friends, learning new skills, childcare (that is a parent need), being part of a community, etc.
One example of a training social enterprise is The Philippe Kirsch Institute, run by a charity called Canadian Centre for International Justice. The Institute provides legal training to lawyers as part of their mandatory requirement (set by Provincial Bar Associations) for member to take hours of annual legal training (Continuing Legal Education). This business is functioning, but is not yet profitable, although the feasibility study done indicates that profitability is very possible, given the mandated requirement for legal education in every province. Again, like the sports example, the demand is already there from a target audience with sufficient money to buy training.
Community centres or community groups often provide courses on preserving or cooking, and there may be a fee for these. However, the presenter rarely gets compensated with anything more than an honorarium, and the true costs of the business are absorbed by the non profit (the fixed costs like the room, the staff or the marketing or the variable costs like the electricity or food input costs. Good examples of this are the Brainery (in New York, with a branch now in Ottawa). From the private sector, you might find examples like Ottawa Centertown Canning Company, which operates with a strong social mission, and probably a lot of “volunteer” labour from its owner. You’ll note that their training workshops are “complimented” by products sold at various outlets around the city. (ie model #2 above)
The bottom line: Consider providing workshops as a result of your business, rather than your ACTUAL business. If you choose the latter, then make sure you are selling to people/organizations that can afford to pay most if not all of the hard costs of the activity and where there is an intrinsic demand in the marketplace.