Malcolm Woodland, a forensic psychologist who works with court systems in the Washington area, found himself sitting across the table from incarcerated African American males hundreds of times.
So often, in fact, he eventually reached a tipping point. He just had to do something to save troubled young African American boys before they found themselves behind bars.
As it happened, Woodland had been thinking about the problem for many years. To get his doctorate, he spent time doing research on nonprofits and after-school programs. At one point, he came across health statistics showing startling high rates of obesity, diabetes and HIV in his own Southeast neighborhood.
That’s when it occurred to him: If he could create an after-school program that exposed African American boys to health care careers, he might be able to not only set them on a better path, but also change the trajectory of those health statistics.
But how to start? Woodland, 35, had little experience managing the logistics of a nonprofit, and struggled to find donors willing to back an effort with no track record.
“We’re doctors and teachers, but we’re not fundraisers and back-office people,” Woodland said. He needed “folks to help us with the back-office stuff so we can focus on the stuff that we love to do.”
Woodland’s plight was one that probably sounds common to any entrepreneur who has an idea, but needs help turning it into a smooth-running enterprise. His big break came after he applied to the DC Social Innovation Project, an “accelerator” for promising socially minded start-ups.
The project agreed to take on the fledging nonprofit, giving his Young Doctors DC program a $7,000 grant, free legal counsel and help establishing a social media presence.
As a result, six African American ninth grade boys from Southeast neighborhoods are now taking the first steps toward a career in medicine.
This summer, the boys received training in local hospitals and were sent into the Ward 8 community to help run health fairs where they administer blood pressure readings and do mental status evaluations.
With help from DC Social Innovation Project, the start-up today runs with the vigor of a far more established nonprofit, even though it has just a $20,000 budget and manages with six staff volunteers.
In providing assistance to nonprofit start-ups, the DC Social Innovation Project is borrowing a page from the incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces that have traditionally focused on Washington’s tech scene.
Social entrepreneurs — people pursuing solutions to social problems —are turning to groups such as DC Social Innovation Project and Capital Cause for funding and pro bono support, and PunchRock for cheap office space.
“All nonprofits start from somewhere,” said Jaye Lopez, president of Association for Fundraising Professional’s DC chapter. “It’s usually one person seeing something that they want to right in the world or on their block. It’s just a matter of finding that support.”
Social entrepreneurship is the latest flavor of a movement that has been gaining strength for years. Nationally, well-known groups such as Ashoka and Echoing Green have funded social enterprises since the 1980s. Their applicants compete with peers all over the world in a rigorous process to win funding.
There’s also the Hult Prize, which works in partnership with the Clinton Global initiative to launch projects that improve communities around the world.
Others are joining the cause, offering their own spins on the concept. The volunteerism organization Points of Light recently began an accelerator program for volunteer efforts.
A San Francisco group called Hub Ventures created an accelerator that offers selected applicants a 12-week crash course in getting off the ground. Chicago’s Impact Engine offers winners $25,000 cash in exchange for a 7 percent equity stake in the social enterprise. A new competition run by another San Francisco group called D-Prize offers up to $20,000 to anyone with a great idea for tackling poverty.
There are also regional programs such as Rhode Island’s Change Accelerator and Propeller of New Orleans.
Business schools and others have taken note. Many now have centers specializing in social causes. Georgetown University’s business school hosts a university-wide entrepreneurship initiative called Startup Hoya that offers training and networking for its students’ start-ups, many of which have a social mission. The University of Maryland’s business school has a center that helps entrepreneurs create social value.
The DC Social Innovation Project is the brainchild of Darius Graham, a 29-year-old bankruptcy lawyer who started the organization in 2011 after leaving law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
The project provides grants to local residents with clever ideas that improve the community — whether it’s teaching urban farming to single mothers in Anacostia or creating an app that connects teachers, parents and tutors for students’ academic progress.
The way the project works is this: Someone with an idea to tackle a specific community problem submits an application on the DC Social Innovation Project Web site. Competitions are held twice a year. The DC Social Innovation Project staff reviews applications and holds interviews. Three winners are selected, with a stipulation to match half the grant. For the next three months, the accelerator dispatches a team of experts in areas such as marketing, legal, IT and finance to get the enterprise up and running.
“If we just gave cash, it would be with the hope that people would use it responsibly. If we just gave pro bono support, it would be with the hope that they could raise the money. To give both, it’s such a great investment because you’re giving the tools become successful,” Graham said.
Since its start, the organization, which itself depends on donations, has given $20,000 in cash and $150,000 in pro bono services to eight groups. This year, the DC Social Innovation Project’s budget has grown to $200,000, up from $71,000 last year.
Maya Robinson’s group was another recipient of a DC Social Innovation Project grant. Through her Upstart Foods program, she wanted to create a resource for people who have food businesses. All she had was a business plan. The DC Social Innovation Project gave her a $1,500 grant, and last year she organized a conference and created a social networking site for food business professionals.
PunchRock is a new co-working space in Adams Morgan that offers office space and workshops for its 12 member groups. PunchRock includes social enterprises such as Waveborn, a company that sells designer sunglasses to fund charities that distribute eyeglasses and other vision aids; Eone Timepieces, which sells wristwatches designed for the blind; and Stand, a group that aims to combat genocide and other atrocities.
“In D.C., there’s a lot of people doing a lot of great work, but if we could see more people coming together to make change in their everyday life, who knows what could happen,” said Roxie Alsruhe, 26, founder of PunchRock. The modest office space is on the third floor of a converted rowhouse, where on any given day members are working on their laptops or holding meetings with clients. Groups can select from a menu of membership options, ranging from $30 a day to $400 a month.
Others around the region are experimenting with different models. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman recently teamed with a New York-based investment bank to start an incubator in the county’s Center for Entrepreneurship that will invest up to $25,000 in the socially minded companies selected to use the facility.
Capital Cause organizes groups of young Washington area philanthropists in giving circles that give crowdfunding grants and skills to start-up and mid-level nonprofits.
“A lot of nonprofits that need assistance are [founded by] millennials,” said Capital Cause founder Kezia Williams, 30. “We’re more compelled to help because we can relate.”
She knows many nonprofit start-ups might not succeed, but “we choose to be optimistic about it.
Indeed, there are typically more failures than successes among any enterprise starting up.
“As with any entrepreneurship, there’s always a risk,” said Lopez, of the Association for Fundraising Professional’s DC chapter.
It is the successes that can make the risks worthwhile.
Rashard Byrd, a student at Anacostia High School and member of the Young Doctors DC program, said he watched a surgeon give a woman a knee replacement during his time with the program.
He said most kids he knows want to be football or basketball players. Now he’s contemplating becoming a pathologist.
“I got to see things and learn things that other kids may not know about,” Byrd said. He and his fellow members will soon plan a health fair with a local church for the boys to show off their new skills to the community.
“When they are in the community with their white coats, they’re like rock stars,” Woodland said.