Recognizing Game-Changing Non-Profit Leaders

With rich examples and inspiring details, Everyday Heroes celebrates nonprofit leaders and impactful social entrepreneurs. Portraits by Paul Mobley (see slide show after the jump) accompany first person narratives created by Katrina Fried through interviews with the individuals profiled. Katrina’s introduction also lays out quotable rules for social entrepreneurs:

1. Out with charity, in with partnership.
2. You’re never too young.
3. You’re never too old.
4. Crazy is good.
5. Entrepreneurs are born, not made.
6. You can’t rely on the kindness of strangers.
7. Go big or go home.
8. True heroes never consider themselves heroes.

I had the opportunity to ask Katrina some questions about her research process and perspective on social entrepreneurship:

TriplePundit: What personal experiences led you to focus on the topic of social entrepreneurs as everyday heroes?

Katrina Fried: The idea for the book was born about five years ago; America was in the early grip of the recession and this notion that we had to become architects of our own destiny—both as individuals and as a nation—seemed more critical than ever. We’re a small publishing company, and we were giving some deep thought to what the world really needed at that time. Considering that we generally publish more expensive, high-end art and photography books, we asked ourselves how we could make some kind of a contribution.

The more we discussed it, the more this idea of really wanting to create a book that provided some sense of hope and concrete ideas about what we could all do to help lift ourselves, as a society, out of what was a pretty dark moment developed into this idea of finding individuals who were doing extraordinary things to help other people. By spotlighting the everyday heroes among us—individual agents of hope and change who had committed themselves to improving the lives of others—I hoped to challenge and empower myself and others to lead and give within our own communities.

3p: What is your definition of social entrepreneurship?

KF: Social entrepreneurs are pioneers and founders of businesses with a social mission. Like all entrepreneurs, they are endowed with an innate ambition to build enterprises around new and untested ideas, to risk, to mobilize others, and to fight tirelessly to succeed. But unlike traditional entrepreneurship, the goal of social entrepreneurship is not success solely for the sake of success, but rather for achieving social good.

3p: You chose to focus on nonprofits leaders. Why did you decide not to include any social entrepreneurs who are working on for-profit endeavors?

KF: I am extremely interested in the subject of for-profit social entrepreneurship, but would argue it deserves to be a whole separate book. The motivations, obstacles, and risk-factors of a nonprofit versus a for-profit are fundamentally quite different, though there are certainly some overlaps—as you can see in many of the examples included in the book. A growing number of nonprofits have recognized the critical importance of financial self-sufficiency, and thus integrated a profit-making mechanism into their organizational structure to support the work of the nonprofit.

That said, the stakes are much different for a nonprofit than they are for a traditional business. For this particular project, my interest was in those who shoulder the greatest responsibility without the promise of a conventional reward. Jill Vialet, of Playworks, put a point on this when she told me, “If you don’t succeed as a for-profit, someone doesn’t get rich. If you fail as a nonprofit, someone gets sick; someone starves; some child gets an inferior education.”

3p: What were some of the common threads of experience that you heard from multiple heroes?

KF: Though there are numerous common threads of experience among the heroes, one that struck me early on in my research was the profound influence of their own personal hardships on the work they’ve chosen to do. Wynona Ward, for instance, was a childhood victim of physical and sexual abuse in rural Vermont, and later decided to dedicate her life to advocating for battered women who were trapped in isolated locations throughout her home state. Geoffrey Canada grew up in the crime-ridden, impoverished neighborhood of Harlem in New York City and chose to return there to build his comprehensive public education and community-outreach programs. Darell Hammond grew up a ward of the state in a group home for orphaned children and now devotes himself to strengthening the bonds of family and community through the building of neighborhood playgrounds.

Another common experience among a number of the heroes is what they often call their “aha” moment. For some it took the form of a slow boil, for others it was a lightning bolt, but in all cases it left them with a recognition of both a pandemic problem and a potential solution, which once glimpsed, could no longer be ignored. This theme, of knowledge leading to action versus denial, is at the very heart of what it means to be an everyday hero.

3p: In the introduction, you write about the importance of leadership and authenticity. What were some examples of great leadership and authenticity in your research?

KF: I could give you fifty beautiful examples of this—truly every hero in the book personifies great leadership and authenticity. Among the most well known leaders in the book, Geoffrey Canada is particularly compelling. His steadfast adherence to the mission of his organization and his mandate not to compromise or accept failure—to never take no for an answer—has led to the astonishing success and scalability of the Harlem Children’s Zone. That kind of fierce determination is simply impossible without an unwavering belief in the value of one’s cause. Faced with obstacles, these heroes never step backwards.

Back on My Feet’s founder, Anne Mahlum, whose youthful appearance is often greeted with suspicion, is unfazed by her skeptics. She attributes her confidence to the influence of her father: “I can remember once when we were kids in North Dakota—it was the middle of the winter. We complained that there was nothing to do. And my dad finally said, ‘Go get your swimsuits.’ So we put on our suits, pile into the car, my dad takes us to this hotel, we pull in, and we’re all looking at him and I say, ‘Dad we can’t swim here, we don’t have a hotel room.’ He told me to walk in like I own the place and ask where the pool is—and people will tell you. I’ve taken that approach with this organization. I know that it works, I see it every single day.” For Mahlum, as for all the heroes I profiled, her truth is her power.

3p: Do you have any advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs based on what you learned while researching Everyday Heroes?

KF: My best advice is taken from hero Linda Rottenberg, the founder of Endeavor: “If people don’t think you’re crazy at the beginning, then maybe you’re not thinking big enough.”

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Shivani is Principal at Friday Consulting, where she works with food and technology startups on strategy, finance, and business planning. She is also a founding consultant at AchieveMission. Shivani holds a BA from Stanford University, and an MBA from Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on twitter @shivaniganguly.