Evolved Impact. Too often, nonprofit work fails due to mistaken assumptions on what communities need. Through our innovative framework, communities develop projects that address self-identified challenges, create self-directed structures of accountability, and leverage talent and resources already present. Through this approach, programming is more impactful, accountable, and responsive when compared to traditional philanthropic efforts.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing M. Scott Frank of The InteRoots Initiative.
M. Scott Frank draws from a wide base of professional experience as a policy analyst, business owner, community organizer, and writer/academic. After completing formal studies at Stanford University and New York University, his professional work in the complex space between the public and private spheres inspired his commitment to innovate the nonprofit approach to community-led progress.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your nonprofit?
Interestingly enough, InteRoots began as a conversation through music. In 2008, I participated in a musical collaboration with Dr. Ronald Kibirige (Current InteRoots Chair). We were leaders of two musical organizations, one composed of students from Stanford University, and the other children of the Peace Africa Children’s Ensemble, a “Community Based Organization,” from Uganda. The music itself was an inspiration, highlighting the innate human ability to connect and communicate beyond the barriers of language and history. But the experience also provoked a larger discussion regarding the barriers between us, especially those implicit in our collaboration despite our best intentions. Over the next decade, Dr. Kibirige and myself continued this conversation, ultimately focusing on a dynamic social system for change that represents some of the best and most problematic elements of our society: nonprofits. InteRoots is our effort to address the divisions between us by creating a new model of nonprofit work that directly responds to legacies on all levels of society, which continue to shape, for better or for worse, our shared desire for a better world.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
InteRoots is designed to innovate the work of change on multiple levels of society.
- Evolved Impact. Too often, nonprofit work fails due to mistaken assumptions on what communities need. Through our innovative framework, communities develop projects that address self-identified challenges, create self-directed structures of accountability, and leverage talent and resources already present. Through this approach, programming is more impactful, accountable, and responsive when compared to traditional philanthropic efforts.
- Bridging the gaps. Our social system is rife with barriers preventing communities and individuals from accessing resources through the nonprofit space. InteRoots works to eliminate those barriers by providing an infrastructure, resource base, and talent pool that can be leveraged by community change-makers to effectively gather resources to bring their vision to life.
- New Equity. As an organization, InteRoots is designed to be directed by the communities it serves. This effort goes beyond asking for input. Instead, community partners are integrated into the leadership of the organization as voting Board Members so they can exercise true equity in influencing the way InteRoots works.
- Knowledge sustained. As InteRoots grows, its framework will encourage the preservation of lessons learned, and the cross-germination of ideas between communities across the world. This is accomplished by asking the InteRoots leadership cultivated from previous projects to serve as collaborators, advisors, and evaluators on new initiatives.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
InteRoots is designed to partner with communities, but it is more importantly designed to grow out of communities themselves. In practice, what this means is leaders from community projects are asked to serve as actual Board Directors so they can exercise true equity in bringing together resources to support their visions, as well as share their gained experience with new projects. We have already seen this model blossom, as leaders have been able to work within InteRoots to incubate innovative visions, while concurrently gaining expertise in nonprofit management, which they can utilize as their visions achieve autonomy. A clear example of this working was our program relating to direct aid to families impacted by the pandemic. Not only was aid accessed and made available due to this type of leadership, but the manner in which this aid was given and for what purposes it was directly managed by the community itself.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The unfortunate reality of nonprofits is that, for the most part, they shouldn’t exist. Many of the services nonprofits provide are only necessary because our prevailing social systems fail to meet our individual and collective needs — they are triage for larger systemic issues. This shortcoming in the provision of beneficial services has existed in some way throughout all of human history. The thing that has not always existed, however, is nonprofits in their legal sense. In the context of the United States of America, nonprofits are an outgrowth of private systems of support codified into tax law. In other words, they are required to conform to law designed to benefit those with resources to begin with. This is not to say systems of accountability are not useful and necessary for any group acting for the benefit of the community. Rather, the key is adjusting the system so barriers of access to these resources are minimized. Actually providing publicly funded resources designed to help someone register, set up an infrastructure, and manage a 501(c)3, for example, would be a huge step forward.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is mastery of context. A leader, whether an individual or organization, needs to be able to effectively evolve to meet circumstance. Whether this means innovating old systems, making sure that core values persist during times of change, or even delegating authority, a leader adapts for the benefit of those connected to their work. The mark of an excellent leader, however, is bringing all elements together in common purpose and shared equity. If done correctly, an excellent leader simply becomes a part of the team.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
Failure cannot be an option. Nonprofits face significant challenges from the onset. Due to how the sector is structured in terms of resource access (something InteRoots was designed to address), there will be significant challenges that will require perseverance. Sometimes your vision is all you will have to fall back on, and you must believe in what you are trying to achieve to keep moving forward.
InteRoots launched right when the pandemic hit. The impact was significant when it came to seeking funding, and relief was inaccessible due to our startup status. Funders we were hoping to approach also adjusted their focus or in some cases even paused their cycles of funding all-together. InteRoots had few resources in the bank to begin with, but we doubled down on our mission, adapting our scope to address the crisis at hand while continuing to pursue our larger vision. It was not easy, and we often considered stopping altogether, but our belief in what we were doing was unshakable. Our supporters could feel this commitment, and thanks to so many, we actually increased our size and impact during the year.
Gather a network of trust.
Nothing is ever achieved alone. It is important you have a group of advisors and collaborators who not only believe in your mission, but believe in you. These individuals will become your roots. Even if they don’t play a formal part in growing your institution, they will remain at the core of all you accomplish, and will always be there when you encounter setbacks.
InteRoots formed its Board and also cultivated a group of advisors around this concept. In the beginning, as systems were created and concepts were tested, they served as trusted partners in dialogue, allowing the institution to evolve and make mistakes along the way. In the end, even in the difficult moments, it was trust that kept the organization going, and will hopefully keep it going for years to come.
Every decision has consequences, both positive and negative. Whether it’s bringing together an effective Board that has a set of skills you lack personally, or making the decision to expend time and resources seeking a specific partnership, it is necessary to envision every step that will follow as you pursue your goals. Nonprofits are human institutions, and as such there is a great deal of inertia when it comes to correcting a misstep. In a resource scarce environment (as inequitable as it may be) it is tempting to try to jump at every opening that comes your way. This is a real hazard to the continued progress of an organization if you don’t have the current capacity to engage the opportunity effectively, or in the worst case, commit to a partnership that is toxic. With this in mind, always ask yourself the question: “Is this the right move to make, and the right time to make it, to bring this dream to life?”
Fiscal accountability comes first.
Although the goal must always be to carry out your mission, with some wiggle room to adapt and grow, nothing is possible without strong systems of fiscal accountability. Specific systems may differ depending on context, but regardless of circumstance, the process of allocating resources and executing oversight of their ultimate use must be crystal clear if you want to move forward. Build these systems from the very beginning, and create a framework that can theoretically accommodate your biggest self. This process is often one of the biggest tripping points for nonprofit organizations just getting started; funders often will ask for a multi-year audit trail to even consider support, and a year is a long time to wait if you have to create new systems to meet certain requirements. This can be frustrating for new nonprofits since programming needs funding to begin with to create these paper trails (the nonprofit catch-22), but not all organizations will require financials from previous years if you can show strong systems of accountability are in place to serve your mission. Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Invest the time in finding a CPA who will help you get your books in order. Consider (carefully) a fiscal sponsorship through another organization to help you in the early years!
Believe in people.
In order to run an organization that serves the community, you must believe in the potential of individuals to rise to the occasion. We all have flaws, and we all have experienced disappointment in ourselves and in others, but assuming the worst rarely leads to the creation of something beautiful in the world. There is a tendency in the nonprofit world to be mistrustful or territorial with other people and organizations, but if we are to accomplish our collective mission of creating a better world, we must believe in each other.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Currently, we are at a stage when we just need to find more resources to provide stability for growth. Our programming is ready to go, we just need to find partners who will believe in us and commit to supporting our efforts to help us gain stability. A few big institutional players come to mind, some that we hope we may be able to engage with in the future: Ford Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Skoll Foundation.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.” James Baldwin
We stand at a moment in history when the inventions of our histories are buckling under the weight of their truths. Yet, we must believe it is possible to build something better out of this moment. Anyone can make change, but we all can’t make change in the same way. Some of us must accept that we have greater agency in the work of change due to our histories — this is reality — and those who do have greater agency must accept that their actions and existence in society cannot be disconnected from this legacy. This is not a burden to be borne by those with agency, quite the opposite, it is an imperative to share society’s weight. It has been carried by others for long enough.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.