Naked City

Frozen philanthropy

Ben Cohen (r) and Jerry Greenfield
Ben Cohen (r) and Jerry Greenfield (Photo By John Anderson)

I scream, you scream, we all scream for socially conscious conglomerates utilizing their brand awareness to increase charitable contributions to the community? Well, you should. Saturday, Vermont ice cream magnates Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (yes, that Ben & Jerry) were in Austin to celebrate the grand opening of their Austin PartnerShop, a fully functioning ice cream parlor, albeit one owned and operated by Austin nonprofit LifeWorks.

Located in an upscale, outdoor mall at Fifth and Lamar, the PartnerShop, in a unique arrangement to both the business and nonprofit realms, provides real-world job experience to the at-risk youth LifeWorks serves. The group, formed in 1998 from four existing charitable organizations, offers 12 different services, including a 24-hour youth shelter, yet lacked a very good job training program, Executive Director Susan McDowell said. "We can help them get jobs, but we have a hard time helping them keep jobs," she continued. "We're successful at every service that we do where we control the environment." The PartnerShop is the 12th of its kind in the nation, and LifeWorks runs it like any other franchisee, operating under the same quality and profitability expectations. The only major difference is that both a franchise fee and royalty payments are waived.

"The general theory is that businesses have a responsibility to give back to the community," waxed Cohen, a jovial, graying individual, the self-professed "big-picture" partner and the more talkative of the two. "The next part of the general theory is that just giving away a percentage of profits – it's a nice thing to do, but it doesn't really do enough. It's not really maximizing the potential to help improve the quality of life of people. … We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if a nonprofit, social services organization could own the PartnerShop, then the profits would go back to that agency?' We make the application process purposely very difficult, in order for the nonprofits to prove they're up to the task," deadpanned Greenfield. Tweaking the program over 15 years, Cohen said, the PartnerShop functions best as job training. "It turns out to be a self-funding program," he said.

"The purpose of what were doing, and the purpose of whatever any private companies do, is not to replace what government does but to add to it," said Cohen of the PartnerShop's larger role. "We're doing our bit, but government really needs to do its bit."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

corporate philanthropy, Austin PartnerShop, LifeWorks, Susan McDowell

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