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Horizontal Integration – A Model for the Twenty-First Century Nonprofit

Posted by on May 20, 2015 in Arts & Culture, Education issues, Nonprofit organizations | 0 comments

“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 ( mission is to bridge economic, racial and social divisions by providing underserved youth witSusan Rodgersonh 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, photographAFH Sceney, 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. ( is the creation of Marty Johnson, who has devoted his life to empowering people in communMarty Johnsonities, 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.” ( 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 abandonedMill One 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.

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Renfroe’s Elevator – the Power of a Magnetic Museum

Posted by on Oct 23, 2014 in Arts & Culture | 0 comments

Early in Anne Bergeron’s and Beth Tuttle’s recent book, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement, they recount a wonderful story that manages to encapsulate many of the volume’s messages:

Bruce Renfroe operated a New York subway system (MTA) elevator that carries passengers to and from subway tracks 10 stories below ground – a 40-second ride.  As Magnetic recounts, “Back in 1995 when he started the job, Renfroe noticed that everyone was somber, quiet, and unsmiling.  One day, he decided to change all that.”  He decorated the elevator with family and neighborhood photos, pictures cut from magazines, a plant, and fresh flowers in a vase; he played recordings of jazz; he greeted every passenger personally and sent each off with wishes for the day. “Soon his passengers were talking to one another, smiling, bringing in photos of their own to add to the wall, or a favorite CD they thought Renfroe and the others might enjoy.  Those passengers became a community, even if only for the 40-second ride each day.”

It didn’t stop with Renfroe—his “vision of a better morning commute,” as the book calls it, was taken up by other MTA elevator operators who hung images, played music, and prompted conversation.  MTA management eventually got wind of this artistic elevator renaissance, and – you guessed it – banned the practice “for safety reasons.”  Big mistake.  As Magnetic describes it, “Thousands in the neighborhood came to Renfroe’s defense and signed a petition in favor of reinstating the elevator adornments. ‘It has forever changed the way people go to work,’ said Rosa Naparstek, a local resident who led the community efforts on behalf of Renfroe.” MTA eventually signed an agreement with a community arts group to develop elevator decoration projects.

Having recently finished leading a planning process for the Chrysler Museum, one of the six “magnetic museums” profiled in the book, I was stirred by the story’s lesson.  Just the barest of artistic content, available for the briefest moment of time, changed lives.  Despite its simple realization, the vision was so powerful and accessible, and fulfilled such a deep and fundamental human need, that it drew a community of strangers together toward a common goal, influenced others to adopt a new and unfamiliar practice, empowered the powerless, and conquered an entrenched, unimaginative bureaucracy.  Bergeron and Tuttle sum it up well:

Renfroe’s story illustrates how a powerful personal vision, authentically communicated and generously shared, can take root and inspire a movement.  If an elevator man in a steel box can align a group of disconnected New York City commuters in under a minute, imagine what a cultural organization or a business with a compelling vision and resources might be able to accomplish.

Learn more about Magnetic Museums at

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