Letting The Sun Shine In

June 15, 2010       Jeff Jones      

A friend sent Bill Strickland an orchid. Struck by its beauty, he bought a beginners guide and asked area experts how to grow the flower. But he failed to sustain any orchids in his basement nursery.

Realizing he didnt have the right environment, he set out to build a greenhouse. Nearly seven years later, Strickland, founder and visionary of the Pittsburgh-based Manchester Bidwell Corporation (MBC), effectively cultivated that one orchid into a 40,000-square-foot greenhouse. Horticulturists in training at MBC now grow thousands of orchids there, and 2008 sales generated roughly $265,000.

The MBC serves poor people whose main problem is lack of money — a curable condition, Strickland said. His cure is simple and straightforward. Its called sunlight, good food, flowers and hope, Strickland said recently to approximately 550 funders at a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference in Pittsburgh.

MBC, perhaps best-known nationally for its Grammy Award-winning jazz series, is an arts and vocational technical education organization that helps welfare moms, at-risk youth, and others out of work or financially disadvantaged, train to be horticulturalists, chemical technicians, pharmacy techs, or chefs. Strickland founded the Manchester Craftsmens Guild more than 40 years ago in a hardscrabble part of Pittsburgh. The nonprofit collected additional parts, including the Bidwell Training Center (BTC), and Harbor Gardens Park — a business office park that opened in 2003 and contains the greenhouse. Harbor Gardens Park is a for-profit subsidiary of BTC. MBC was formed in 1999 as the parent organization. In 2008, MBC and its subsidiaries had consolidated revenue of roughly $12 million, said Jeff Teasdale, chief financial officer.

Success hasnt wilted Stricklands sense of urgency. Im in a great big hurry, Strickland said. We have big problems in this country. Millions of people’s lives are being wasted.

To help solve some of those problems, he wants to scale up the MBC model with the goal of opening 200 affiliated centers. The ambitious scaling effort, called the National Center for Arts and Technology (NCAT), has opened additional MBC-affiliated centers in San Francisco (1997), Cincinnati (2003), and Grand Rapids, Mich., (2005). Those three centers had 2008 total revenue of roughly $530,000, $480,000, and $732,000, respectively. Eight centers are in development, including the first international center in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Several other early conversations are in progress for potential centers in Israel, Ireland and Vancouver, Strickland said. At the GEO conference, funders gathered to listen and dissect just how Strickland plans to continue scaling his vision, passion and success in other communities. Angelica Salas, leader of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, joined Strickland on the panel to discuss the perils and possibilities of scale.

Scaling an elusive goal? Scale is a sector catchphrase with assorted meanings. Essentially, its a hope that the right balance of money, leadership and program model can help effective, well-run nonprofits build capacity to better meet societys needs. It can be an elusive goal fraught with obstacles, including stable funding, effective leadership, and sustainable program quality.

Handy Lindsey, president of the Petersburg, Va.-based Cameron Foundation, would add fear to the list. He shared the story of a nonprofit trying to increase adult literacy rates. The nonprofits program was exceptional but addressing only a small fraction of the need, Lindsey said. After his foundation held discussions and cut a check to support the scaling effort, the nonprofit re-considered and returned the check. Officials from the literacy nonprofit said they werent prepared for the scaling effort, Lindsey said. There are good reasons for nonprofits taking a project to scale to be skeptical about climbing out on a ledge and taking a risk, Lindsey said during an interview at the GEO conference. Nonprofits know they need to have partners to take risks. They need to have foundations stay with them for the long term. That has not been the history. Even when a foundation makes the commitment, as Lindseys did, its a tough call. After all, going to scale can mean additional administrative work, layers of bureaucracy — not to mention information technology challenges and program growing pains. Combined, these factors can draw down an impactful nonprofitÕs strengths — creativity, innovation and nimbleness. Nonprofit leaders arent the only ones with a dose of fear on the funding path. Sometimes theres a fear within philanthropy about investing in those projects working on a very difficult situation at that moment, and they are waiting for that success to come before investing their dollars, Salas said. I find it takes time for philanthropy to have a comfort level with programs.

Timing and flexibility are important, too. Salas organization is in the midst of attempting to influence public policy on immigration reform, and the time for investment in immigration rights is now, she said. The Coalitions core funders who have stuck with the organization understand the need for a flexible agenda, Salas said. In 2006, the focus was funding defensive tactics, in 2008 it was driving people to the voting polls and civic engagement, and in 2010 its mobilizing to pass federal immigration rights legislation, she added.

The right funding mix — be it public support, government contributions, program service or other revenue — also plays a role. Salas and Strickland hinted at the potential for government funding to help drive social change. One approach is GEOs participation with the federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF). GEO will serve as an intermediary between grantmakers and federal representatives with the objectives of extending the reach, learning and impact of the SIF and other philanthropic efforts to bring effective nonprofit programs to scale, according to a GEO statement. GEO and independent grantmakers will invest roughly $4 million over three years in a project called Scaling What Works. We hope that there is a tighter connection between what we see working on the ground and federal resources being brought to bear, said Kathleen Enright, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based GEO. Its a bridge that we need to build. MBC works on the ground to overcome potential stumbling blocks through community level discussions with local funders, politicians and business leaders in the early planning phases of a new center. Its a checklist of community leaders who we want to talk to, Strickland said. While were involved with arts and vocational education, each center takes on the complexion of the community where it is, he said. These are locally driven. Thats why theres chemical technician training at MBC, driven by Pittsburgh-based chemical companies, but a similar demand doesnt exist in Cincinnati, so isnt part of the training at that center, Strickland said.

Finding good leaders Strickland emphasizes the need to invest in leadership to scale up the MBC model in other communities. Its really important that you invest in leaders not programs, he said. Programs come and go. That focus creates an innate problem — finding good leaders. Strickland tries to find creative, innovative people with a good business sense, who can redefine a community, he said.

There appear to be three keys to his approach. One is the combination of good marketing and a powerful message. Strickland published an autobiography in 2007 that tells his story and details MBCs development. The inspirational book also codifies his passion to fix social ills through arts and vocational education, and the importance of high-quality facilities that provide an environment to change behavior. People are coming to me saying, Weve heard about your model. Can you talk to us? Strickland said. Weve had good luck in finding leaders.

One was a man from Cleveland. He was a manager for a tire company at the time he sought out Strickland to discuss developing a center, Strickland said. Strickland warned of the time commitment and limited pay to which the man replied: The value of saving lives is something I want to put on my life scorecard. Strickland had found his leader. In September 2009, the Cleveland Foundation authorized $3 million to help with start-up costs for the burgeoning Cleveland Center for Arts and Technology, according to a Cleveland Foundation statement on its Web site.

The second key to Stricklands approach springs from the first — taking his message on the road. I only have one speech, Strickland jokes. And, he uses it everywhere he goes.

Case in point: After presenting to business schools, students line up to talk with him. He tells them to keep him in mind once they graduate. One gets the sense that he doesnt forget a face or a name, and they dont forget his. Theres a whole group of young people who want to have a value-added life, Strickland said. I happen to believe theres a whole generation of youth out there who are buying this philosophy.

The third key to his approach is a strong entrepreneurial spirit, exemplified by the orchids growing in that 40,000-square-foot greenhouse.

Strickland and others at MBCs NCAT are attempting to codify that spirit. NCATs strategy, developed with help from Bridgespan consultants and funding by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skoll Foundation, includes a strong focus on community-level relationship building. Strickland acknowledges that building relationships is time-intensive. The payoff, however, is worth it.

You’ve got to become relationship-driven, Strickland said. The relationships through which you operate are where you can achieve scale. Stricklands job is diligently cultivating people who understand the nonprofits concept of creating centers of innovation under the headline of arts and vocational education. NCAT has developed a path to replication that includes: ¥ Engaging with communities interested in replication of the MBC model; and, ¥ Signing a feasibility agreement that focuses on the due diligence process which includes interviews, research and mapping, information on programming needs, community support, possible center location, finding leadership to help guide and direct the activities of a center, and exploring funding sources. As part of the planning agreement an executive director is hired, a board is engaged, the capital campaign is started, the 501(c)(3) status is achieved, a facility is prepared, faculty and staff are hired and trained, and the center opens to the public. NCAT works with the staff and faculty for three years to assure the culture, programs and outcomes are successfully achieved.

At the end of the three-year implementation agreement, the parties may execute a maintenance agreement in additional five-year increments.

What we want to do is take the value proposition and get that established in each of these communities, Strickland said. Our idea is to bring innovation and creativity and new thinking to solve societys problems. Its an affiliated model with a strong dose of entrepreneurial spirit that ultimately relinquishes control to individual centers.

As funders and nonprofits search for the right tactical ingredients (protocols, models, etc.) that can lead to scaling the best and brightest nonprofits — sustained success is more reliant on the intangibles of creativity, innovation and good business sense. Take Stricklands orchids, for example. The greenhouse project took an opportune mix of curiosity, passion, vision, understanding of a communitys needs, deft relationship building with funders, and dogged determination. As MBC attempts to go to scale, its apparent that Strickland believes success will happen only if the seeds for growth develop organically and from the ground up.

Strickland said: Unless you have the quality, and sense of intimacy, and the contact with the individual, this model will not work. NPT

Jeff Jones, a former staff writer with The NonProfit Times, is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pa.