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Sunday, 24 May 2015 22:00

Comprenew embraces its social mission while competing with for-profit companies

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Participants in the Comprenew Academy have an opportunity to take a hands-on approach in learning about technology and developing soft skills needed to succeed as members of the workforce. Participants in the Comprenew Academy have an opportunity to take a hands-on approach in learning about technology and developing soft skills needed to succeed as members of the workforce. COURTESY PHOTO

Scott VanderKooy is a nonprofit director who leads with the mindset of an entrepreneurial for-profit executive.

As the president and founder of Comprenew, VanderKooy takes a business approach to his 501(c)(3) nonprofit to ensure that the social aspect of the organization can remain effective throughout the West Michigan community.

“We do have a very unique model because we really strive to operate as a business would operate,” said VanderKooy, who launched Comprenew in 1986.

“We have this very clear, distinct social mission that permeates in everything we do. We’re in a space that is really growing in significance regarding the environment and even just the recognition that this product and product stream has to be handled appropriately.”

FOR-PROFIT ROOTS

Now serving as a local leader in electronics waste recycling, data security/destruction and the sales of refurbished electronics, Comprenew was first established as a for-profit IBM mainframe manufacturer. VanderKooy admitted that, even during the company’s for-profit past, the business always maintained a certain social awareness.

VanderKooy and his team decided to explore the social side of the business and make it a part of its model in 2004 when Comprenew introduced two vocational programs.

“We decided to become a nonprofit because we really wanted to harvest the unique potential of technology to improve someone’s self-esteem, who has been beaten down by society or has seen a tough, tough road,” VanderKooy said.

“Technology has a unique ability to improve someone’s standing and hope level.

“We live in a digital world. There is a definite digital divide and that correlates with income. If you’re not familiar with this digital world, your options for employment and social growth are very limited.”

The introduction of these vocational programs has created two very distinct components to Comprenew, each of which is approached differently.

VanderKooy’s roots in for-profit businesses paid off with Comprenew’s electronics recycling service. Comprenew stands as the only nonprofit e-waste recycling organization in Michigan. But even as a nonprofit, the company strives to be the very best to compete with — and beat out — for-profit businesses in the same space, he said.

The drive behind that competitive spirit: Any lack of success for Comprenew in gaining business can negatively affect the social side of the organization, VanderKooy said.

“It was clear that we couldn’t operate as a typical nonprofit — we had to employ best practices,” VanderKooy said. “Not that nonprofits don’t employ these, but we really could never be less than (our for-profit competitors) — we had to be a leader when it came to environmental practices and protecting our customers’ data.

“That’s always been really a foundational part of Comprenew. We can’t accomplish our social mission unless we are — without question — the best provider of service to corporations and the residents whose materials we depend on.”

GROWING OPERATIONS

Comprenew has stayed busy recycling e-waste, accounting for more than 4.5 million pounds of products recycled in 2013-14. Around 50 percent to 70 percent of that waste was cathode ray tube technology, such as bulky, old-style televisions and computer monitors.

On May 18, Comprenew announced that it was awarded a $67,500 grant by the Michigan Department of Environment Quality to expand its PureMAPP program. Under the program, Comprenew partners with municipalities, counties, townships and cities to create permanent collection sites for electronics recycling, complete with staffing.

The grant will allow Comprenew to add 10 additional sites within the next two years to a program that already has 19 locations. The program targets smaller, more rural locations and spans as far east in the state as Howell.

As part of its recycling efforts, Comprenew staffers strip out as many salvageable electronic components as possible to be installed in refurbished products. These products are sold in one of the four Comprenew re-sale stores, where proceeds from sales go to fuel the organization’s social programs.

A SOCIAL CONSCIENCE

Comprenew also offers educational programs that are a natural fit with its work with electronics.

The Comprenew Academy, for example, is a summer program targeted for high-risk, inner-city youth, offering a hands-on approach to learning about technology and getting participants ready for the workforce — all while earning a paycheck.

Similarly, the Comprenew Workforce Development Program is aimed at men and women looking to re-enter the workforce after a prolonged absence — potentially disabled veterans or refugees.

Cris Kutzli, youth and education program director at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, said Comprenew’s programs are very attractive because they have an environmental and community impact, all while helping young people develop the soft skills needed to find success in the job market.

Kutzli is the adviser of the foundation’s youth grant committee, which consists of 30 high school students responsible for issuing $45,000 in grants. Over the years, some of those grants have gone to Comprenew’s summer youth employment program.

“(The committee) develops a survey on what the issues are and what each program offers in order to help,” Kutzli said. “The responses around actual work experience and job opportunities always rank quite highly, and young people are really motivated to have that kind of experience — not just to earn a paycheck, but to also prepare themselves for what lies ahead.”

That Comprenew uses those same skills to find success for itself in the marketplace also lends the organization credibility and additional attractiveness, Kutzli said.

“The credibility that a program brings to the table, their history and that triple bottom line, really, is helpful to us in terms of making a funding decision,” she added. “They bring a lot to the table.”

MISSION-DRIVEN

Not all programs are technology-related, either. The Comprenew Tru Food Café teaches its volunteers about maintaining a healthy diet within their everyday lives. The program began out of an awareness of what was going on under the company’s own roof with its volunteers.

“We have a number of vending machines and we were noticing that they were going through a lot of Coke, Pepsi and Mountain Dew,” VanderKooy said. “Our mission is to inspire people to live and work in a sustainable manner. How do you do that if you don’t care for your own self — if you’re not trying to treat your body in a more sustainable way?”

VanderKooy added that the programs are not just about teaching others how to use technology since there is also an additional mentorship piece to each program.

It’s these social efforts that keep VanderKooy and his staff vigilant in their efforts, brushing off the idea that a nonprofit organization has to have a singular purpose or be an underdog when it comes to delivering superior goods or services.

“We refuse to say that, because we are a nonprofit, we are less than (for-profit companies),” VanderKooy said. “We prefer to say, because of our mission, we are going to be the best example. We are going to be the best provider. We are going to hold the highest level of certifications, for example.

“So, we don’t put ourselves on a different plane because we are a nonprofit. We have to be the best option — we want to be the best option — for our corporate customers and our residents.”

Read 2549 times Last modified on Sunday, 07 June 2015 23:31
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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