At Philanthropy Day event, a focus on innovation in the nonprofit sector

Pittsburgh nonprofit leader Bill Strickland addressed a packed room Monday at the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s annual Philanthropy Day luncheon at the Boar’s Head. Photo: Sarah Jane Winter Pittsburgh nonprofit leader Bill Strickland addressed a packed room Monday at the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s annual Philanthropy Day luncheon at the Boar’s Head. Photo: Sarah Jane Winter

On Monday, Charlottesville’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence packed a Boar’s Head ballroom with a who’s who of local civic and arts leaders for its seventh annual Philanthropy Day celebration—a moment not to rest on laurels, said CNE board and staff members, but to reflect on the value nonprofits bring to the community. And in the keynote message from Pittsburgh education pioneer and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Bill Strickland was a lesson in how to amplify that value.

Over the clink of more than 400 forks on china, Strickland told his story. He founded what is now known as the Manchester Bidwell Corporation in 1968, when he was still at the University of Pittsburgh. He first offered pottery classes to local public high school students, and a few years later took over a struggling trade school down the street. Now he helms a thriving educational community center, where kids gain confidence through the arts, and low-income adults get tuition-free career training. The center has been replicated successfully in cities across the country.

It was an inspiring case study to mull on a day that celebrates Charlottesville’s spirit of giving and engagement. But it also underscored a concept that the CNE is increasingly trying to drive home to the hundreds of organizations it advises in the area: These days, successful nonprofits are the ones that employ social entrepreneurs, that think beyond the donor, and that put the same value on innovation and business acumen that for-profit ventures do.

We sat down with Strickland ahead of his talk, and asked him to put a finer point on it.

C-VILLE Weekly: How do you define social entrepreneurship?

Strickland: Everybody’s got a different interpretation. At the end of the day, it’s really a distillation of business principles with social purpose—you learn to think like a businessperson, but your goal and your market is in the social sphere. In my case, it’s working with the chronically unemployed and at-risk kids in the school system. The way we approach this uses a lot of principles from business—understanding your market, the resources that are appropriate to your market, how to evaluate what you do, determining whether this is a good outcome, is it cost-effective—all these things that as a business person you have to do, but applied to the social sphere.

C: Has that always been your approach from the start?

S: We’ve gotten more sophisticated about it, but at the core we’ve always been interested in demonstrating outcomes and results. And that’s I think in part why we’ve been around so long.

D: How does the traditional idea of giving and philanthropy fit into that, if there’s this increased focus on being self-sustaining?

S: Well, I didn’t say self-sustaining. If I wanted to become self-sustaining, I could do that tomorrow by becoming a for-profit school. People would pay tuition, we’d find them a job, and we’d keep the difference. But I decided to work with people who can’t afford an education. So for the privilege, I have to go out and raise the money. We’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out how to create a diversified revenue base that allows us to do this work. A lot of nonprofits don’t understand how to do that. They’re kind of learning as they’re going along. And that’s O.K., as long as they’re thinking about it long-term.

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