How do you take a good idea and make it grow to its full potential? And how, in this time of diminishing resources, can you make a grassroots project into a sustainable program?
In 1998, OSI-Baltimore created the Baltimore Community Fellowships Program to identify and support the unsung innovators working in the city’s most underserved communities–believing then, as now, that providing these social entrepreneurs with the tools to get their ideas off the ground, their innovative ideas and projects would improve the lives of Baltimore’s most vulnerable populations.
But over the last 15 years, a pattern has emerged: Most projects take at least five years to develop and flourish. Many of the alumni fellows who embody the entrepreneurial spirit, need more than just seed money. Often, they need to adopt business principles to advance and sustain their work—and those principles change as an organization grows.
Recently, 11 alumni fellows took part in two OSI-Baltimore-funded entrepreneurship courses at the University of Baltimore Merrick School of Business. Both classes— “Social Enterprise” and “Design Baltimore Link”—were designed to help fellows either tap into their earned income potential or strengthen their organization’s brand and promotional materials, with the idea that they could increase their fundraising and influence through more sophisticated strategies and marketing.
At the end of the courses, participants presented their projects to a jury of experts and were awarded prizes ranging from $2,000 to $25,000 for writing smart, creative business plans to support their projects going forward. Fellow Shantel Randolph (2007) was the top prize winner in the Design Link course, and Patrice Hutton (2008) took the highest award in Social Enterprise.
Shantel Randolph, who works with young adults who age out of the foster care system, said the Design Link course was invaluable because she and her staff have found it challenging over the years to adequately communicate to funders and the general public just whom they serve and how they serve them.
“How do you convey a message that is simple, but that makes an impact at the same time?” Randolph says. “We really needed to take a look at our messaging and make it crisp, clear and more distinct.”
Randolph and a team of professors and designers at UB spent a semester reviewing aspects of the Maryland Foster Youth Resource Center, including its website, logo and even the name of the organization.
Randolph was surprised to learn that her website had unnecessary information that distracted visitors from the most important material. Her logo included a pair of brown-skinned hands reaching upwards, possibly giving the mistaken impression that the nonprofit only served African American youth. And the organization’s business-like name conveyed “state agency”—an inaccurate implication— and not much else.
“The professors really questioned us: Why do you do what you do? Why should I care what you do? Why should this be important to me?” Randolph said. “I thought we were doing a good job of conveying that. But it was really good to have a fresh perspective. It turned out that we had the passion but they had the ability to craft our message in a way that made sense.”
So Randolph’s team redesigned the logo and is reimagining the organization’s website. Most importantly, she is changing the name of her nonprofit to “Hope Forward” with a new tagline of “Empower. Inspire. Dream.”
“We really work with young people to inspire hope in them—hope that they can get a job, move into that new place, get off the streets and move forward with their new life,” Randolph said.
With her prize money, Randolph plans to revamp the nonprofit’s marketing materials and stage a re-launch event, with the goals of reintroducing her freshly rebranded organization and attracting new funders.
Patrice Hutton founded Writers in Baltimore to offer literary development classes to low-income public school students. The program uses volunteers in the undergraduate and graduate writing programs at Johns Hopkins University to provide in-school, after-school and summer creative writing workshops to Baltimore City middle school students.
The program has been increasingly successful, drawing 150 students each year who leave with demonstrable skills—often returning the following year. But the challenge became, how could it bring in money?
After taking the Social Enterprise course, Hutton learned that just about any nonprofit can branch out and generate income that can be used to sustain the organization.
“I often heard, ‘You need to be selling something,’” Hutton said. “But there’s definitely a tension between wanting to do something that serves kids and wanting to do something that makes money. I had to shift my thinking. Initially, making money seemed like I would be robbing those kids of something.”
Hutton discovered that similar programs charge schools for their curricula—and that schools do have budgets to purchase them. “I felt better about it when I began to understand that trying to work towards sustainability will be helpful for the life of the program,” she says.
The course was extremely helpful to Hutton, whose training is in creative writing, not business. She now recognizes that she can earn income from her writing program by expanding the curriculum to include poetry—something the schools want—and providing training to teachers that will help them meet new state standards—something the schools need.
“Getting to work on a business idea under the direction of a professional instructor and with a group of business students really fleshed out our ideas and gave us a timeline for implementation,” Hutton said.
Hutton will use some of her $25,000 award to expand and lengthen the writing curriculum— from 24 weeks to 36 weeks—making the program more attractive to schools. Hutton then plans to sell the training of the curriculum and also her services providing the after-school workshops.
“We’re still figuring out how to do this, but we are much farther now than we were before taking this course,” Hutton says. “OSI has made all of our dreams possible, from helping us get off the ground in the first place, to development consulting, to giving us the tools to move forward to become a self-sustaining organization.”