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Creative Spotlight on Social Impact Investing | Part 2

Guest Contributor: Patrick Westerlund, Education & Impact Investment Consultant, The Wells Foundation

patrick westerlundLast month we wrote about the Sofia Quintero Art & Cultural Center in Toledo. This month, we are highlighting an organization out of South Boston called Artists for Humanity (AFH). To tell this story right, we need to go back to 1990.

Susan Rodgerson, AFH founder, had a simple idea: she wanted to give disadvanted youth in South Boston a voice through a large-scale, collaborative painting. A local high school allowed her to work with a small group of students to create what turned into a 4 ft. x 12 ft. painting that illustrated the importance of education to young people. They then sold it to a local corporation, chalked it up as a successful project, and all went on their merry way. Or so she thought.

A couple weeks later, Susan drove to her art studio one morning and when she arrived, there waiting for her was the same small group of students. Now that summer had arrived, they had nothing to do and they asked if they could all make another painting together. It was an art teacher’s dream, so of course she said yes.

In 25 years, AFH has employed more than 3,000 young people and engaged an additional 12,000 youth in art and enterprise activities. More than 80% of the youth are from low- and very-low income diverse families, and 54% live in the Boston neighborhoods most beset with violence. Despite these extreme environmental challenges, 100% of high school seniors participating in AFH graduate from high school (compared to 66% in Boston public schools) and 95% make their way to college. The impact is staggering, and almost entirely attributable to their innovative social enterprise business model. 

Today, AFH organizes 70-80 exhibitions per year. The youth—who have no formal art training, just mentorship and peer feedback—successfully complete more than 700 commissioned art projects annually. That’s right—AFH actually pays their teenage participants, and Susan Rodgerson believes that has been the secret to their success. She realized that youth have the ability to use their creativity and innovation in valuable ways for local businesses. AFH sells creative services and commissioned artwork as a way of generating mission-aligned income that is then used to fund a paid apprenticeship program. Commission-based incentives help to further develop the entrepreneurial skills the teens need in order to make a living doing what they love. The incentives put them in the driver seat to market their own talents and abilities in a business-like way.

What began as a painting project has since expanded into five categories of art and creative work: 1) Painting/Murals, 2) Sculpture/Industrial Design, 3) Silk-Screen, 4) Graphic Design, and 5) Photography/Web Design. Their success and growth soon exceeded their physical space and they decided to build a new facility. AFH continued to dream big and a past student, now a successful architect, helped them design a 23,500 sq. ft., sustainable facility called the EpiCenter. They also included an event space in the building design that would allow them to generate rental income as they hosted events. The bigger bonus was that it would also allow them to increase their services and the number of teens they can hire and serve. Each event comes with additional opportunities to hire more AFH teens to provide brochure and invitation design, audio/visual services, photography, videography, and more.

Rather than waiting several years to conduct a multi-million dollar capital campaign before opening their doors, AFH turned to social impact investing and borrowed the resources needed to construct the facility. The planned repayment would be through a combination of earned income as well as a capital campaign that launched with the start of construction. When the project was completed in 2004, it became the first Platinum LEED Certified building in all of Boston. Since moving into the EpiCenter:

  • AFH has become the largest single-site employer of Boston teens, increasing youth employment from 100 to 280+ annually and nearly tripling their mission fulfilment.
  • The new studios and expanded workforce facilitated a fivefold increase in our earned income capacity from $313,000 (2004) to $1,511,000 (2014).
  • Contributed support nearly tripled from $790,000 (2004) to $1,998,000 (2014).
  • AFH developed a successful events program that now generates $600,000+ annually.
  • Renewable technologies have saved over $650,000 in avoided utility costs.
  • By 2009 the capital campaign was complete and the building was completely paid off.

In 2015 the organization had a budget of close to $4 million. It paid youth nearly $700,000 in wages and 80% of teens reported that they used this income to help their families pay bills and buy food. At the same time, AFH is more than 50% sustainable through earned income and its current goal is to reach 70% by 2017. AFH now has plans to build a 52,000 sq. ft. addition to the EpiCenter, allowing it to employ 500 youth annually, and bring a host of other educational and revenue-generating activities together under one roof.

About the Series | Creative Spotlight on Social Impact Investing

This blog post is part of an ongoing bimonthly series between The Wells Foundation and the Ohio Arts Council. Over the course of this six-part blog series, we will highlight nonprofit leaders and organizations who are taking advantage of a new funding opportunity called social impact investing to stabilize operations, grow existing programs, and to start new social enterprise activities. Nonprofit leaders of Ohio arts organizations are eligible to apply for up to two $1,600 scholarships to attend the Wells Foundation’s bimonthly executive education course on social impact investing (August 2016 – June 2017). Learn more by contacting Patrick Westerlund.

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