Few local charities growing their influence outside Indiana

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This year Indianapolis became the seventh city in the country to launch a chapter of Back on My Feet, which engages homeless people in running and local runners as volunteers and fundraisers.

Central Indiana is fertile ground for novel not-for-profit concepts, so it’s no surprise that Back on My Feet would send a shoot here. Others taking root include IndyFringe, the fringe theater festival that originated in Scotland, and School on Wheels, which tutors homeless children.

The area also hosts what are essentially national brands in charity—Habitat for Humanity, YMCA and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, to name a few.

Yet at a time when the not-for-profit sector is buzzing with terms like “scaling impact” and “venture philanthropy,” few native not-for-profits have sown seeds outside Indiana.

Peace Learning Center, which teaches conflict resolution, has a presence in six states and five countries. Primary Colours’ signature event, the auction event Art vs. Art, has been copied from coast to coast. And College Mentors for Kids has expanded to campuses in Illinois and Ohio, and its leaders are contemplating whether to go further. But those are exceptions. For the most part, Indianapolis not-for-profits focus on local missions. Most don’t have the time or resources to spread their ideas.

Central Indiana Community Foundation, which has incubated a number of not-for-profits modeled on concepts developed elsewhere, places little emphasis on helping homegrown organizations find new markets, President Brian Payne admits.

“We do have a very active and creative not-for-profit community where people are coming up with ideas a lot,” Payne said. However, “That’s not been our focus as a community, and it’s not our priority as funders.”

Scale up, solve problems

As in business, a regional or national presence is a sign of success for not-for-profits. Mostly, though, the sector both locally and elsewhere is populated by small organizations that essentially re-invent the wheel.

“It’s a field with a huge amount of homegrown organizations, some of which do great work, some of which would benefit greatly from looking outside,” said Jeffrey Bradach, founding partner of the Bridgespan Group, a Boston firm that helps fellow not-for-profits with strategies.

A major reason not-for-profits are replicated so seldom is because the charitable world lacks natural incentives for adopting successful models, Bradach said, adding some philanthropists and foundations are trying to change that.

Two are in Indianapolis. The Mind Trust, founded in 2006 by former Mayor Bart Peterson’s charter schools chief, David Harris, is essentially a venture fund for education.

Five years after launching the city’s charter schools program in 2001, Harris said, “We were frustrated by the pace of change. We also saw the enormous power of empowering talented people to innovate.”

The goal of Mind Trust fellowships is to bring the best ideas to Indianapolis schools, Harris said. One recent fellowship winner created Summer Advantage USA, which packs three months of reading and math education into five weeks of summer school.

After working in Indianapolis, the fellows—none of whom have been local—may take their work to other cities.

In higher education, Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation funded a national, research-driven program called Achieving the Dream, which focuses on success of community college students.

For the most part, though, so few funding sources in the nation emphasize scaling up that the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University created a national business plan competition for that purpose.

No one from Indianapolis has entered the two-year-old competition, said Executive Director Matthew Nash.

Bradach and CASE scholars aren’t advocating for bloated not-for-profit organizations, but a bigger impact from charitable activity.

Nash said scaling up is important because “we see problems are increasing at a rate much faster than available solutions have been able to address the problems.”

Networks needed

Networking is a key factor in spreading proven models, and that can be more difficult than it sounds in the not-for-profit world.

As an affiliate of a national organization, United Way of Central Indiana has shared ideas as simple as creating the “Company that Cares” award to whole programs in education or day care, CEO Ellen Annala said.

The United Way network also works on an informal level. That’s how Back on My Feet came to Indianapolis. The program, which started in Philadelphia in 2007, netted as a volunteer a United Way executive who happened to be a runner. Enthused about her experience, the United Way exec sent an e-mail blast to her colleagues across the country, extolling the virtues of Back on My Feet.

When Annala got the e-mail, she immediately thought of the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), for which United Way is the fiscal agent. Annala forwarded the e-mail to a staff member, and she said, “The next thing you knew it was happening.”

Most not-for-profits are so focused on their local mission that they don’t spend much time or money sending staff members to national conferences. But there are other ways to make one’s good work known outside of Indiana, said Jennifer Vigran, CEO of Second Helpings.

Because it rescues perishable food, Second Helpings interacts with a lot of people who are in town for national events, like the NCAA Women’s Final Four, Vigran said. Second Helpings also gives a lot of tours, which helps people understand the scope of its three-part mission: food rescue, hunger relief and culinary job training.

A few years ago, Second Helpings’ mission got national exposure when the reality TV show “Extreme Home Makeover” visited Indianapolis and made the organization beneficiary of a food drive.

Second Helpings is actually a variation on a long-running program in Washington, D.C., called D.C. Central Kitchen. The local organization focuses on job training. “Our culinary job-training program is the only one of its kind recognized by the American Culinary Federation,” Vigran said.

Vigran will be talking about the program this fall at Philanthropy Roundtable’s national conference because Second Helpings’ funder, the Fairbanks Foundation, arranged a tour of Second Helpings’ facility for representatives of the national group.

“There are those opportunities, and they do happen here,” she said.

Next big thing?

College Mentors for Kids holds potential to see its influence spread.

Each week, the organization sends 1,300 elementary and middle-school students to 23 campuses for quality time with their mentors. The goal is to introduce students to the notion of higher education and raise their aspirations while giving them mentors to boost their confidence.

Since its founding at Indiana University in the 1990s, the Indianapolis-based organization has spread to colleges throughout the state and to Illinois and Ohio. Most of that growth is the result of word-of-mouth by the college students who want to start a chapter, said CEO Erin Slater.

Slater herself started the Purdue University chapter in 1998 upon a recommendation from a friend at IU. College Mentors for Kids is different from other not-for-profits that work on college campuses because it takes an active role with the college students to make sure the kids are having a quality experience, she said.

“First and foremost it’s about the kids and ensuring the kids are given an opportunity for a brighter future,” she said.

But to reach more kids, College Mentors would have to expand. That’s because each campus has only so many student leaders who can reliably serve as mentors, so it’s not possible to simply pair more schools to the existing campuses, Slater said.

“The second piece is the college students. That’s what our niche is,” Slater said. “We are fostering … these college students to run a miniature not-for-profit on campus.

“As we look at expansion, it’s essential for us to remain focused on high-quality programming and sustainability.”

Despite its growing presence, College Mentors is not a big organization. The budget is $869,000, and it covers seven staff members, including Slater.

Can College Mentors grow by tweaking its model, or does it simply need a bigger budget and more staff? Slater said the board is taking its time on the strategy.

“When you research growth, you quickly find some groups can grow themselves out of business.”•

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