Finding a profit in a charitable endeavor

Friday, April 1, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 13
By Tim Ghianni

The Nashville Mobile Market operates as a 501c3, but it’s “very much a business,” says executive director Alexandra “Alex” Arnold.

Organized and operated by Vanderbilt students from various disciplines – business majors, medical students, public health majors and humanities students all are involved – the 28-foot, food-laden trailer hauled by a university pickup was seeded with a $65,000 grant from the Frist Foundation.

Right now, the market’s proceeds cover food and operating costs for its seven stops in the city each weekend. ”We spend $400-$500 a week and we bring in about $600,” Arnold says.

The plan is for the market to make a 28 percent profit. Whatever the profit – around $100 weekly at this point – it is divided three ways.

Half goes to the operating costs of the market.

Another 25 percent goes to the Organized Neighbors of Edgehill. The market spends a good amount of its time parked in and around that sprawling urban food desert which butts up against the city’s trendy 12South district.

The final 25 percent goes to the Shade Tree Clinic, a free health clinic in East Nashville that’s staffed by Vanderbilt med students. That center’s medical director is Robert Miller, associate professor of clinical medicine at Vanderbilt .

Miller was the one who encouraged Mobile Market founder Ravi Patel, a med student who works at the Shade Tree Clinic, to act on his passion to provide a healthy food source for people living in the city’s food deserts. Developing such a plan, which served as a research project for Patel, only stoked the fire.

In an effort to learn how to develop a business plan, Patel took professor Jim Schorr’s Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship course at the Owen Graduate School of Management.

There is other assistance from Vanderbilt University, Arnold says, noting that the pickup truck used to pull the 28-foot food trailer “has been loaned to us by Vanderbilt’s Plant Operations.”

“Plant Operations has also provided us with warehouse storage space, a secure location to park the trailer during the week, and an external power source to plug into while parked” to protect the contents.

“We purchased the trailer with the start-up funding we received from the Frist Foundation,” says Arnold, speaking for the market’s board.

While propped up by the grant and supported by the university, there is a long-term vision, says Arnold, who plans on working in Nashville and remaining active at the market after graduating this spring.

“We are hoping to become a self-sustaining business,” she says, meaning all costs would come out of the proceeds from sales and perhaps the program could even be expanded.

She says that as far as she knows, this enterprise is unique to Nashville.

There are mobile markets in other cities, but she has not learned of any others that are designed to succeed via business expertise. The others, she says, are completely grant-supported.

“We are on our own,” she says, adding that the students hope other cities look at what is being done by the VU students and the other volunteers.

“It’ll be replicable, we hope,” she says. For now, the coalition of VU business, medical and other students are “kind of making it up as we go along,” but producing a thriving business is the ideal.

The next step for her is to help build up the pool of student volunteers, tapping increasingly into the freshman and sophomore classes to give the program some legs.

The Nashville Mobile Market is also experimenting with incentives. Those who sign up as “regulars” on the list will be getting text messages prior to visits and will be receiving 10 percent off.

“We are trying to build a loyal customer base,” which will help in planning of quantities of food, limiting the leftover that is sold -- at a loss -- to Mobile Loaves and Fishes when the weekend’s over.

They also are handing out coupons to shoppers and will be offering specials on certain produce in the future.

And while the young people are learning how to help the community in which they are studying, they also gain.

“It’s a great learning opportunity,” says Arnold, noting that students can put practical application of their business, organizational and humanitarian skills to helping this grow. “It is a great business opportunity.”