Several weeks ago, I was asked by WYPR–the local NPR affiliate station–to contribute a radio essay to its year-long series on segregation, “The Lines Between Us.” I was asked to explore the differences between inclusiveness and diversity. You can listen to my essay here and read the text below:
Periodically, someone—or some organization—asks for my advice on how to become more “diverse.” Here’s how that question sounds to me: “Rodney….how can I be less white?”
That’s an awkward role for a 28 year-old black guy to play. Even more so in a majority-minority city like Baltimore. My friend, the Baltimore Sun columnist Lionel Foster, calls it “translating.”
For members of most minority groups, cultural dexterity seems to be a matter of survival. It’s not an option, or something you ask someone to help you with.
If you have a potentially high-impact new idea, you start out as a subsidized nonprofit that is focused on developing a scalable business model worthy of real capital. If you manage to get there, the organization flips into a for-profit and raises money from investors. The emerging business must be structured to ensure that it stays on mission, but that can be managed. We haven’t worked out all the kinks yet, but it’s cleaner than the alternative and more likely to produce a business that really can scale via the market. All we need to make it work are philanthropists and investors who know their jobs and are willing to try something (kind of) new.
And if your impact is profound but your breakeven point stays over the horizon, you can simply remain a nonprofit. You can’t sell equity, but you can get grants and cheap loans. Grants are free money, and zero-interest loans to nonprofits are not unheard of. Better a struggling nonprofit than a dead for-profit, and given the overall performance of social enterprise equity investments so far, would-be impact investors might want to save themselves a headache and just give you the money instead. They probably weren’t going to see it again anyway.
Mark makes an insightful comment to yesterday’s post on financial resources, nonprofit performance and innovation. He writes,
Creating a culture of innovation where the focus is on doing more with less is critical for nonprofits. My take is that money alone cannot buy innovation as defined in this manner. Some nonprofit leaders do believe a direct relationship exists between the amount of financial support they receive (or do not receive) and their ability (or inability) to accomplish their mission. Although the necessary monetary resources are clearly essential, this belief discounts the value of the organization and the potential of its people.
Seth Godin believes the biggest, best-funded nonprofits have an obligation to be innovators. I agree. I quibble with how he arrives at this conclusion. Godin writes,
The thing about most cause/welfare non-profits is that they haven’t figured out how to solve the problem they’re working on (yet). Yes, they often offer effective aid, or a palliative. But no, too many don’t have a method for getting at the root cause of the problem and creating permanent change. That’s because it’s hard (incredibly hard) to solve these problems.
The magic of their status is that no one is expecting a check back, or a quarterly dividend. They’re expecting a new, insightful method that will solve the problem once and for all.
I’ve my reservations about Kickstarter, but Noreen Malone presupposes that Kickstarter intended to be a platform for social change. Kickstarter does exactly what it was meant to do: help fund projects that would otherwise not get funded by (slightly) democratizing access to financial resources.
Robert Egger is a textbook example of how a pioneering entrepreneur can effect sustainable social change and impact. In the late eighties, Egger identified an innovation (food recovery) and launched a high-performing, results-driven organization (DC Central Kitchen) to execute on it.
Last month, I wrote about the need to establish a culture of social entrepreneurship and social innovation in Baltimore. I was wrong; I misdiagnosed the problem. A culture and community focused on social entrepreneurship, social enterprise and social innovation already exists in Baltimore, and it’s growing; what’s lacking is a supportive ecosystem to nurture and catalyze this emerging community and culture.
Cultivating a strong, responsive ecosystem is tough to do; it’s something the Baltimore tech scene continues to struggle with, and the social entrepreneurship/innovation community is years behind our friends in tech. I’ve thought about this quite a bit since the Mid-Atlantic Social Enterprise Summit and in subsequent discussions with smart thinkers, entrepreneurs and funders.
Perhaps Baltimore trails the likes of San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, or Washington D.C., but we’re on to something. We’re desperate for new, effective and efficient solutions to doggedly persistent social problems, and ripe for sustainable businesses that create jobs with good wages and benefits, and generate value for the community.
Baltimore has no shortage of talent to pull this off. But what I see now is too much disconnection, largely between talent and resources (doers and funders), though many other disconnects exist as well. I see too many prospective door-openers acting as gate-keepers, too many burgeoning leaders and game-changers unrecognized and without resources and support. I see the city I love continue to do the same things culminating in the same poor results, the definition of insanity.
I once overheard a well-respected foundation leader admit, “We’ve discussed this problem for nearly 30 years and little has changed,” and thinking to myself, “Well, maybe, it’s time to change course.” But I kept the thought to myself, afraid that the remarks of a twenty-something would be quickly dismissed.
An ecosystem supporting social innovators and social entrepreneurs won’t happen overnight in Baltimore, nor will it happen until we simultaneously value the wisdom and experience of grizzled veterans while welcoming and encouraging new thinking.
Baltimore has all of the pieces of the puzzle to rethink our approach to social services and business; now we need to begin putting them together, which is the difficult part.