“The Reel Connection: Videos, Jewelry, and Tanning,” “Bakewell Auto Parts & Pet Supplies,” “Harbison Enterprises: Military Surplus and Lingerie,” “Rose Computers & Antiques.” Not exactly your business school idea of “horizontal integration,” these real business combinations are the funnier side of a serious nonprofit organization strategy that integrates missions and strategies in education, youth development, community development and community organizing, and arts and culture.
I wanted to share two organizations where mission drives a complex, multi-faceted enterprise. Though very different in program and activities, both are dedicated to the development of young people into successful adults and the development of their communities. And, unlike our silly businesses above, both move their diverse enterprises forward with an integrated vision of human potential and empowerment, strong values of environmental sustainability, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Boston-based Artists For Humanity’s (www.afhboston.org) mission is to bridge economic, racial and social divisions by providing underserved youth with the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in the arts. Founded by artist Susan Rodgerson in 1990, AFH recruits 250 Boston teens annually as paid apprentices to work with professional artists and designers on commissions and client projects in mural production, industrial design, photography, graphic design, motion graphics and other art and design disciplines. The AFH model fuses an after-school destination for youth and a commercial art and design operation with STEAM career-oriented training, youth mentoring and leadership development, and college readiness and retention programs. An important overlay is a focus on environmental sustainability and community development, realized through the construction of the AFH EpiCenter, a LEED Platinum building situated in the Fort Point arts district, functioning as a public and private event space, gallery for youth-created art, and resource for environmental awareness.
Isles, Inc. (www.isles.org) is the creation of Marty Johnson, who has devoted his life to empowering people in communities, especially Trenton, NJ, to improve their circumstances and environment. Isles’ mission—fostering self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities—is realized through a breathtaking scope of programs and community initiatives. An article last year in the Princeton Alumni Weekly called Isles a “think-and-do-tank.” (http://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2014/10/08/pages/5394/) The results: a 20,000 sq.ft. former paint factory renovated as a solar-powered alternative high school and solar-vocational training center, coupled with a weatherization and home-safety business, has helped 650 high-school dropouts earn diplomas, prepared 870 people for high-demand energy industry jobs, and conducted lead-paint testing and removal in more than 2,000 Trenton-area homes. Add to the list community gardens and bee keeping, a new vacant property mapping website, community organizing training, home foreclosure services, real-estate development for affordable housing and countless other examples of Johnson’s self-characterization as a “serial entrepreneur.” Then there’s Mill One, an abandoned historic 130,000 sq.ft. textile mill down the road from our client Grounds For Sculpture. Johnson wants to turn Mill One into a center to house nonprofits, artists, private businesses, and housing. Grounds For Sculpture and Mill One together would form the core of an arts district on Trenton’s border, creating a new economic engine in one of the poorest communities in New Jersey.
Marty Johnson characterizes himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” but there is more to it than that. Both Johnson and Susan Rodgerson seem to be natural “systems thinkers” who are not just creating program after program, but rather develop multi-faceted, complex, and highly responsive ecosystems that broadly serve their missions. Artists for Humanity and Isles provide thought-provoking examples for non-profit organizations struggling to define an essential position in the larger systems in which they operate. Organizations that understand and embrace the full potential of their roles within community systems may open up new possibilities for partnership, impact, and support.