Hey listeners. My name is Evan Feinberg, executive director of Stand Together Foundation and one of your hosts for the Stand Together Podcast. Every time you hear my voice in the show, we’ll either be talking about the history of the social sector or paradigms that are shifting within it.
In this episode type, Paradigms, we’ll be unpacking some of the broken paradigms that exist in philanthropy, and exploring some necessary shifts in that vision. I’ll be joined by some of my friends, esteemed colleagues, and brilliant thought leaders in this sector.
I am so thrilled that we are having this conversation today about what is wrong with the social sector, communities, philanthropy, and nonprofits in America today. To have that conversation, I am so thrilled to be joined by my good friend, Lauren McCann. She is the founder and CEO of a company called CALLIOPE, and also the founder and CEO of another company called Procure Impact. She is a serial social entrepreneur and a brilliant person, and I can’t wait for you guys to get to hear more from her. Lauren, thank you for joining us today.
Thank you, Evan. I’m thrilled to be here, excited to have this conversation.
Fantastic. Lauren, we’re going to kick off these conversations by asking a really fun question. Can you tell our listeners what your very first job was? It is a great way to get to know somebody. What was your very first job?
I actually have a really good answer to that. It’s really fun. I was a hostess at Macaroni Grill. And if you’ve been to Macaroni Grill, it’s great Italian food. And they specifically hire hostesses and hosts that can sing opera. So I used to get on a chair, in the middle of dining, and get up and sing opera music during dinner.
That’s amazing. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard that story about you, but I’m not surprised at all, knowing that you also had an illustrious career as the lead singer of an 80s, 90s and pop cover band. Do I have it right called, Slap Happy?
That is true, Evan. Yeah, that was actually part of an onboarding process when we worked together at the Stand Together Foundation, where staff would discover this one fact and start Googling frantically to try to find videos of my cover band, which is kind of embarrassing. We did a lot of Top 40, Kelly Clarkson, Sia. Good stuff that you would want at a wedding. That was my pre-kids journey, being in a cover band.
So you’ve shared an insight now with the audience, that you were one of the very original employees at Stand Together Foundation. So we’re going to have a great conversation today about why we created Stand Together Foundation. But I was one of those employees—I don’t know if this is a confession now—that looked up on YouTube old Slap Happy videos. And I think this was pre-YouTube days at the beginning. So there weren’t a ton, but I definitely caught some… Since You’ve Been Gone. I think some Party in the USA. You’ve got some pipes on you, Lauren McCann.
Thank you, Evan. Thank you.
So I’m quite confident you could have had a professional career as a lead singer of a pop band. But instead of going on American Idol, you decided to dedicate your life and your career to doing work in what I call the social sector: communities, philanthropy, nonprofits, informal associations. Can you just share a little bit more about the journey into this work, and could you even touch on when we first met?
Absolutely. Well, I had been doing a lot of business development, corporate fundraising early in my 20s. And was feeling like I wanted to apply my gifts and talents to have an impact in society. And part of that was personal. I have a brother who is a very gifted artist, but he suffered from mental health challenges essentially from middle school on. And seeing the barriers that he experienced to finding meaningful work, to finding fulfillment, it really motivated me. And I always was thinking about ways I could help people like my brother. So I did a stint in a nonprofit focused on mental health.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness is the largest association focused on mental health across America. And I started to feel that satisfaction and fulfillment from doing work that was applying my skills in different ways. But I knew I wanted to do something bigger. And I had worked with Brian Hooks early in my career, who is the chairman of Stand Together. And he knew that passion and that heart that I had for this type of work. And as the organization was thinking about, how do we impact communities? And how do we build an organization dedicated to focusing on communities?
I got a call to have a conversation, and had the great honor of meeting Evan Feinberg at the time. So we were very early days. There wasn’t really a name, a vision, a strategy for what we were going to do. This was really a brainstorm about what was possible. And I was brought in to join Evan in building the organization from the ground up. And those first couple months, there were lots of ideas on the table. We had a number of different models and approaches we were considering, and we just had a ton of enthusiasm and energy for the work.
Do you remember the first time we met, we got lunch at Sushi Rock, which I think was actually quite perfect for you because while you’re having fusion sushi lunch there’s pop music pumping in. And we had this incredible conversation.
Because like you said, really neither of us, before we got into this work, had been working more directly in communities, in philanthropy. And we were getting involved in this idea of, how could we engage more directly in communities to build not only scalable solutions, but really change the dynamics of the social sector?
And so we kind of started brainstorming big ideas, but before we get into some of those big ideas that we were brainstorming, and some of the early learning—maybe you can wax poetic for a second. What were the problems that you were seeing, that we were seeing, that we were like, “It feels there needs to be something different—we need to challenge the status quo in some way”?
There was a lot of good intention and a lot of resources being deployed to “solve poverty in America.” And a lot of those solutions were either from the government or from large institutions or foundations that were distant from the actual problem. That weren’t proximate with the people and the organizations that were on the ground.
And so there was this feeling that they could orchestrate solutions. They could identify models and approaches from afar and sort of push people towards those solutions and scale them nationally.
And there was a huge gap between what was assumed to be the “answer” and the actual challenges that people were facing at the local level. And it felt very paternalistic. People had these big ideas that they were concocting through research and weren’t actually the ones that were on the ground experimenting and understanding the dynamics at play based on the challenges that people were facing. So it felt very disconnected from people on the ground. And there were a lot of assumptions baked into that.
There’s a common terminology of “when helping hurts.” And oftentimes when people are in need, you think you need to jump in and help them, rather than looking for the strengths that that person has and building upon them. And the sector as a whole was in this very… “I’m trying to help, but I’m not trying to empower, I’m not trying to strengthen.”
And so we were trying to take a very different approach to the work by recognizing all of those people on the ground as entrepreneurs, and figuring out what they need to be successful entrepreneurs.
I think you shared a number of really profound insights there. I think there’s this idea when people start talking about nonprofit organizations and feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, and providing shelter over someone’s head. And they talk about those efforts and it’s so hard to be critical of any of it. It’s so many well-intended people, generous people, philanthropists, and volunteers, and staff of nonprofits. It’s so hard to be critical, but you gave a bit of a soft critique of that work that all too often it falls into paternalism: helping that’s actually hurting the people that are being served, or at the very least not necessarily helping them.
So I remember those early days, we were doing analysis of everything from war on poverty, government programs, over to collective impact efforts to try to circle a neighborhood and plan out, “If we just study all the problems in a neighborhood and then push down the solutions that that community needs…”
And we were looking at it and if we got past the aversion to criticizing well-intentioned, good people who were doing work that was generous and kind and thoughtful.
But as we got past that concern about criticizing it and saying, “Hey, actually, is this stuff really helping people to live better lives?”—we were starting to find that wow, most of the work done in communities is maybe making people’s poverty or social barriers easier to endure but harder to escape. Is that how you think about our early journey?
Yeah. And I heard this directly from the groups on the ground in ways that really helped me contextualize the problem. There were amazing organizations. For example, a workforce program that was helping people learn new skills, hard skills, soft skills, and find employment. They would tell us, “We don’t want to take government resources because it constrains our ability to help the people we serve.” Not that they don’t need resources—they need resources to thrive—but there were so many contingencies and so many incentives that were in place that would push them away from doing what they know would be right by their people.
And that was unsolicited. They were just saying, “Hey, this is creating this dynamic where we can’t serve our audiences the way we know that they need to be served.”
I remember going on a site visit with this organization that works with kids exiting the foster care system. And they had amazing results about 10 years ago. And they were getting awards, they were flourishing, and it was finding kids that were coming out of the foster care system and helping them stabilize. Because the statistics are against them, in terms of drug use, in terms of homelessness.
If kids age out of the foster care system and they don’t have a way to enter into society and fully get integrated, they’re kind of left out. And this organization was doing it better than anyone. And I went to visit them, and they had this tremendous impact, but then the government came alongside them to help them grow and scale their operations so that they could go to every state with this innovative solution. But it created all these barriers for their ability to innovate.
So they started telling these stories of how they used to have the kids pay for their housing, but now the government demanded it had to be free. And then all of a sudden, landlords were kicking them out because they weren’t valuing the housing.
So all of these unintended consequences were happening because they were constrained by another big entity’s vision about what they needed to do to serve their customer. And you just realize that was a good intention. “There’s a great model, we’re going to help it grow and scale.” But then they left out the ability for the organization to be agile and innovate, and put their point of view on the organization about what needed to happen in terms of the programmatic intervention. So we just heard these stories over and over again.
You used a really interesting word there. When you were talking about the individuals that were served by that foster care group that was working with young men and women coming out of foster care, you called them customers, right? Talked about how they knew how to meet the needs of their customers and yet their funders with their top-down plans were making it harder for them to serve their customers. Why do you use the word customers? You don’t hear that every day in the nonprofit world.
Yeah. I mean, at the end of the day, the goal of the organization is to create value for the people that they serve. And if you take that into a business realm and think about how businesses approach creating value, they think about creating value for their customers. And one of the things that I think has become perverse in the social sector is that these nonprofit organizations want to serve the people in their communities, the populations they’re trying to impact. But they end up serving donor interests or special interests, to conform because they feel like they have to, they feel like that’s where the resources are.
And so in order to perform, they need to perform for the donor or for the government, or for whomever is holding the checkbook. And what that’s done, is it takes their focus off the people that they’re trying to impact. And that’s still a big problem today.
You would meet with nonprofit organizations. And we would know this when we would meet with them, if they were going to be a good fit for the Stand Together Foundation and how they thought about these things. But they would just casually mention, “Well, we did this program because this foundation told us we should. And so we created this extension on our program line.”
And again, it might sound like a good idea, but if it’s not fully in service of the people they serve, and they’re not getting feedback that it’s a need, then it’s taking them off the ball. Instead of building upon their core focus and programs and capabilities, they’d start doing too much. So you’d find these organizations that were like, “We do housing, we do education, we do this, we do that, we have a farm, we have this.” And it was too many things to be effective. They almost diluted their impact by trying to please lots of different customers instead of focusing on what they do best.
And you find this also in the social sector, where there’s this mentality that you have to fight for every dollar, instead of thinking of organizations as partners trying to solve the same problem. So if you’re partnering with an organization that can provide education and you focus on the workforce side of it, you’re going to be much more powerful than if you start doing all those things. And again, it’s not the nonprofits fault per se, it’s also incentives. It’s also donors. It’s also the government that’s pushing organizations into these directions.
Which is why there’s a lack of depth of impact. You don’t see that deep transformation. You see a lot of really great organizations trying to do too much and they’re trying to please too many customers, too many people.
You and I both came from organizations that were focused on economics and policy and business before we were in this work. And we identified early on that there was, and this is going to sound really wonky, that there’s this broken social economy. That the way that resources are allocated, whether they’re government resources or philanthropic resources, are sort of allocated from the top down, from plans that seem pretty disconnected from any sense of whether they’re actually making a difference in people’s lives.
And usually when we’re looking at whether they’re making a difference in people’s lives, we look at measures that please the funders. Things like high school graduation rates and recidivism rates—whether or not someone goes back to prison—rather than, “Are people transforming their life? Are they living up to their full potential?”
So we saw this problem of all of these misallocated resources, which was a tragedy. Because you had all of these incredibly well intentioned, generous people and funders trying to do good work, but it wasn’t actually making a difference.
That’s a pretty weighty problem to be solving, and so this is what we’re stepping into. But you and I very quickly went from despairing over the size and scope of the problem. You mentioned earlier that we were optimistic and that we had big dreams about what could be done. What gave you hope and belief in those early days at Stand Together Foundation, that we could really make a difference on a societal-level problem of a broken social economy, and in the process help many more people to transform their lives?
There were so many organizations that were doing great work that I’d never heard of. That were buried in these local communities, that had some unique insight, that had lived experience and that were just tired of the status quo, and wanted to get in there and build something new. And I felt like we had the opportunity to be a spotlight on those organizations and then connect them distinctly to capabilities that would help them overcome barriers that were in their way. I mean, I saw so many amazing organizations. Over the span of five years we looked at 2000 groups and I was on the road for those first two years personally doing site visits. And that work changed my life.
It’s hard not to get excited and inspired when you are proximate to innovative, incredible, passionate, courageous people. And that was a gift. I mean, I fed off their energy, frankly. I went from my career prior to Stand Together where I was working in a trade association and going to manufacturing facilities and meeting with CEOs, to going into the prison system, to going into what were called the worst neighborhoods in America, to being totally completely transformed.
It’s kind of like once you see you can’t unsee. And it felt like a gift and a duty to illuminate what was happening that was good in these communities, and to shift perception about who were in these communities and what they’re capable of.
So I wouldn’t be doing this work had I not had that early journey on the ground, meeting with these leaders, because their energy became my energy. And I felt like my role was to just connect them to opportunity, to resources, to opportunities, to elevate their story. And the work that they were doing was mind blowing.
So it was a tremendous gift to be able to experience that. And I wanted to share that with as many people as possible so it would transform their perceptions of what the people in our communities are capable of.
What incredible insights, Lauren. I mean, we’ve talked about this often. I wouldn’t trade for the world, especially that first year, those first couple of years where we had a really small team and you and I were out on the road doing these site visits, meeting these leaders. And instead of coming in with preconceived ideas for how we might address those problems or even how we’d understand the problems, we were learning firsthand on the ground.
And I’d say it even more starkly than you said. I learned on many of those early site visits that most people running nonprofits, giving money to nonprofits, don’t believe that people experiencing poverty and social barriers in their life… they do not believe that they can transform their life and escape their situation. They don’t admit that, they might not even realize it, but the majority of nonprofit organizations and people giving money to nonprofit organizations—and that includes government bureaucrats and foundation staff, et cetera—they seem to operate under this idea that the best we can do is make people’s lives a little bit better, a little bit easier, remove a little bit of the sharp pains of their situation, cover the symptoms of their poverty. And to us that just seemed ludicrous because we got to meet social entrepreneurs like the folks at Last Mile. But we saw firsthand that people were helping people to completely leave behind their difficult circumstances to soar and be incredible contributors and participants in society.
And we just were like, “Well, we just need to make sure all of the time, talent, and treasure that’s going toward nonprofit and social sector work goes towards stuff like that.”
One of the moments that really crystallized that distinction for me was reading a book by Mauricio Miller, who wrote The Alternative. And Mauricio started an organization called The Family Independence Initiative, which is called UpTogether now. And he has an incredible story.
He was this darling in the social sector that was building organizations—kind of traditional approaches to workforce development in California. Mauricio was invited to participate in the State of the Union, and was given this great honor of sitting there during the State of the Union and being congratulated for his work. And he secretly felt like a fraud.
And in the story, when you read the book, it’s because his mother grew up in poverty and he realized he would never put his mother in his program. Because they saw her as all of the things she was doing wrong. Her circumstances. They saw her for her poverty, not what she was contributing, not through her strengths. And he said in the book, “My mother could stretch $200 further than anyone. And instead of figuring out how she did that and learning from it, we were trying to help her and saw her as a victim in need, instead of through her assets and her strengths.”
And when I read that book, I was like, “Whoa,” because they have a very strong point of view around this problem. The alternative way to help people, which is actually not to help them, is to get out of the way and empower them so that they can fully leverage their gifts and talents and figure it out.
And to me it was a real aha moment around the way we approach people in poverty, this lens of what they’re missing instead of what they have to contribute.
So just to conclude this part of the conversation before we go to a quick break, really, we sought to learn what was wrong mechanically in the social sector. Where were resources misallocated, et cetera. And tell me if you agree with this, we ultimately came to the conclusion that the problem was a paradigm. A paradigm of not believing in people, that they were not realizing their full capabilities and potential. And therefore, everything else was flowing from that flawed, lack of faith in people. And so you saw all of these programs and money and nonprofit organizations all engaging in some way, shape or form to try to fix deficient people.
And then we started saying, “But we’re seeing all the stuff over here that treats people as essentially their customers, that believes in their ability to transform their lives and then discovers new and better ways to remove the barriers to help them to be the very best version of themselves.” And we are like, “That’s it, that’s the paradigm. If we can proliferate that idea, this thing could be so much bigger than anything we build directly at Stand Together Foundation.”
That’s 100% true. And I think that the reality is that those paradigms are so entrenched that people don’t realize—I think as you have alluded to—that they are engaging in a way that’s counterproductive. And so by illuminating what organizations were aligned to this mentality of really empowering people and seeing them through their strengths and believing in them, providing them agency, that helps to tell that story around why those organizations are doing things differently and are more successful at solving the problem than the alternative.
And we were looking all over the country for those organizations that embodied those values and created the catalyst program to help bring resources around them. To help them build strong foundations for growth and scale. So we were trying to figure out, “How do we add value to those unique models that are doing things differently?”
All right, well, after a quick break, we will dig into the Catalyst Program. Why “Catalyst” and what exactly it is. We will be right back after a quick break.
Welcome back. We are in the middle of an incredible conversation with Lauren McCann, founder and CEO of CALLIOPE, and also the founder and CEO of Procure Impact. Two incredible companies that we’re going to talk more about in a minute. And we are just in the middle of this very insightful conversation with Lauren about the broken paradigms of not believing in people and not believing that they’re capable of transformation and therefore just making poverty and social barriers easier to endure.
And this different and new paradigm, that we can empower people by believing in their ability to transform and helping them to tap into their gifts and talents to fully contribute. And how we, together, as we launched Stand Together Foundation seven years ago, how we were so inspired by the social entrepreneurs, the nonprofits, the people that we were meeting that were really helping people to transform their lives and be the best version of themselves. And so I want to go back to I think a really seminal moment in the history of Stand Together Foundation.
You and I had been on the road meeting all of these incredible nonprofit leaders that were doing this incredible, inspiring work. And we believed we had something to offer them in a program where we could help them with management and on training on how to be more effective social entrepreneurs. And we were trying to name the program, and I came up with some truly terrible ideas.
If I’m being honest, I think you also came up with some truly terrible ideas, Lauren. I’m pretty sure “trailblazers”, “pioneers”, “heroes”… And then I don’t remember who suggested this, it was probably you because you were always the…
I’m not going to take credit for it because I don’t remember. But we were in my backyard on my deck. It was just a few of us, probably five or six people.
And somebody said “catalyst” and we were like, “I like that.” Because what we’re trying to convey is this innovative idea and approach that would inspire others and create change. And that they are doing that deep work that impacts their communities. And then those people are transformed, and then those people can transform others. And so this idea of that ripple effect was I think a striking idea. And “catalyst” stuck.
And I remember an early conversation with Buster Soaries, Dr. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, who is now a board member of Stand Together Foundation. And he started saying, “Catalyst is perfect. Because a catalyst is something that you inject into a system or some type of atmosphere, and the catalyst ignites and transforms what’s already there to be different, and to be better and to be new, without losing its properties, but without taking over or controlling the atmosphere.” And like, oh my goodness, that’s perfect.
This idea of a social entrepreneur, a nonprofit leader, not solving the problems, not taking control of the situation, but instead instigating change. And fundamental change, not just small change, but changing the properties of the situation or to take the metaphor, individuals. And we just sort of said “That’s perfect.” And it’s become an exciting catalyst movement if you will.
So I still want to take us back to your backyard and thinking about that name. So we started to talk about Catalysts and what has now become those 300 plus. We took all of that experience, everything we learned from being out on the road, meeting these folks. Talk about it a little bit more. What do you see as an exceptional Catalyst? What does it mean to be a Catalyst to you?
I think their approach to the work has to be grounded in that different mindset around the problems they’re trying to solve. We were looking for organizations that were trying to solve these intractable problems, that were innovating and that were agile and that were entrepreneurial. And that had some insight into the populations they were trying to serve.
And what was interesting was that in many of the groups that we selected, the leaders were not only proximate to the problem, but had suffered the problem themselves. That lived experience gave them that unique insight into how to engage.
So if you’re trying to solve the addiction crisis in America, you’re going to want to go to somebody who is in recovery, and that’s successful in that recovery, and build upon their learnings and their experience. If you are going to try to help people coming out of incarceration, you should go to individuals who have been incarcerated and understand the barriers they faced when they got out.
And so some of the most amazing organizations that we saw had that insight because they had lived through that barrier, and had overcome that barrier successfully and were trying to take that knowledge gained through that experience and disperse it to as many people as possible
Really incredible people that we were meeting back then. And I think I love that insight that you shared. It becomes just sort of fundamental to our work. That you need to have proximate knowledge of the problems that you’re solving. You need to be up close to that problem.
That either means you need to be taking some risk and be in it in some way that you’re learning directly from those individuals that are experiencing it, or likely and probably additionally, you’ve experienced those problems yourself in some way that gives you unique insight.
I mean, it’s common sense for entrepreneurs, that often the reason why we start a company is because we confront some challenge in our life, figure out some way to solve it and then figure out, well, maybe the thing that I did to solve it for myself could help a whole lot more people. Same deal in the social sector as well.
But we got an early objection, and we still get it. An early objection we got was, “Well, that’s really nice backyard philanthropy you’re doing. These organizations you’re working with, they tend to be small. They might be working with dozens, or maybe on the higher end, hundreds or a few thousand people. There’s 40 million Americans experiencing poverty, more than a 100 million that are at or near poverty. This is nice little philanthropy, but it’ll never really change the country. And we weren’t just out to help a lot of people, we were out to change the way philanthropy and communities operate.”
What’s your response to that sort of, “this is just nice philanthropy” argument?
There are so many organizations that have similar challenges that are working with similar populations, despite what state they’re in, despite what location they’re in, that don’t realize—because they don’t ever pick their head up—that there are partners that can help them get to the next level.
I remember we were in the third ward in Houston, and talking to an organization that had the same challenges and the same insights and a lot of the same opportunities that a group in San Diego had. And I just thought, “These groups aren’t networked, they’re not talking.”
And so, despite the fact that they’re small, they don’t have the ability to take all of this gained insight and knowledge and think about how they can incorporate that into their model to continue to transform their efforts. And so part of bringing the Catalyst organizations together is to create that network and that community of groups who have that same paradigm and same framework of looking at people through their strengths, of coming alongside of them and empowering them with helping them develop their skills and their talents, helping them tap into social capital and networks they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.
And when you bring those organizations together, magic happens. Because they’re able to gain insight from one another. We’ve seen mergers take place. We’ve seen groups scale into new communities because they had community partners on the ground in those new communities that they met through the Catalyst Program. And we’ve seen tremendous growth in experimentation with these organizations. We have great case studies of organizations that before the Catalyst Program were small and nimble and now are experimenting and scaling and growing.
So I think that’s the work that’s necessary. And there are certain organizations that don’t have an appetite for growth, don’t have the capabilities for growth. They aren’t the ones that are going to necessarily grow or scale into a new community, but their insights and their knowledge could help build upon the foundation of other organizations.
Yeah. Well, it’s almost as if we set out to be and believe that we can be a catalyst for a broader change. I think there’s so many people that are like, “I just have to wrap my arms around all of those government policies and change them and maybe take the reins of all of those major philanthropic organizations and that’s the way to drive change.” But instead, our theory of change has been—well, let me digress.
I’m a big West Wing fan, you know this about me. I relate pretty much everything back to West Wing. I’m going to try throughout this podcast to bring up the West Wing at least once an episode.
At the end of season five, Will Bailey’s character, Josh Malina, who did the great West Wing Weekly podcast that I’ll give a free plug to here. Josh Malina’s character is being offered a full-time position on the president’s staff. And so President Bartlett says, it’s a famous quote, Margaret Mead quote: “Why do I believe that a small group of people can change the world?”
And the answer of course is, “It’s the only thing that ever has.” And we believed at the beginning that a small group of dedicated social entrepreneurs thinking about these problems differently could change the way the whole country thinks about these problems.
And that independently, people would begin to pick up the product that we were putting out there about empowering people. If they could see the stories of transformation and hear how it’s done… and all of a sudden it became a community of principle. People talk about communities of practice, but this became a community of principle around these ideas of empowerment. We were like, “We think that can change the world.” And now with 300 plus organizations, literally millions of people.
We did a survey the other day—we’ve got a survey that we haven’t published the results of yet— where we just ask people experiencing poverty in 20 different cities a battery of 100 questions about what’s going on in their life and feelings of social isolation and despair and subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction.
And we asked at the end of the survey, “Have you worked with a nonprofit in the last 12 months?” And if they said, yes, “Could you name that nonprofit?”
And in those 20 cities of the 20,000 people that we surveyed, 3,800 of those 20,000 people have worked with one of the 250 catalysts that we work with.
And importantly, they reported much higher levels of life satisfaction, subjective wellbeing, et cetera. It was very encouraging. But this belief that we could be a catalyst for change by working with Catalysts, and that would have this ripple effect across the culture in our country, I think was a pretty bold vision and an exciting vision and one that we’re seeing come true. It’s exciting.
We also had an acknowledgement that there was no silver bullet to poverty. That poverty is extremely complex and that you need lots of diverse models and approaches focused on lots of foundational issues that support the stabilization of one another. And I remember that insight distinctly at the beginning.
If you are in recovery or dealing with addiction issues, you’re going to have difficulty finding work and keeping work. You’re going to have fragmented family ties. And there might be different interventions for different components of that, that help stabilize a whole person.
So I think we were casting this wide net and saying, “We’re not just going to go after one issue because there’s lots of different issues that impact poverty. We’re going to find the best groups that have these mental models and frameworks about empowerment, and that collective focus and impact on individuals, because they’re focusing on one aspect of the problem, will holistically help somebody that’s dealing with poverty.”
So it was ambitious because we were like, “We’re not going small, we’re going big. We’re going to build this mosaic of organizations across the country uniquely tackling poverty in this way. And the learnings and the sharings that happen because we put them together and the support that we give them will create that lift.”
Well, you should be really proud, Lauren, of the work that you did at Stand Together Foundation for so many years. And really what this movement has become because a lot of it was from the heart that you put into this work, now six and a half years ago, seven years ago. And not only the heart, but then the sort of brilliance to think about what this could be and just build, build, build, build. And so I’m very grateful for you and very thankful for your contribution.
It was fun, what an amazing opportunity. We had a great team. But it was just inspiring work that was kind of like a flywheel. Once we got into it. I mean, I know when we were in it, we were like, man, this is hard, but then you look back and go, that didn’t even exist a year ago. So it’s a lot of fun.
It’s really inspiring and exciting.
But I want to move to some of the other work that you’ve been doing since, because what you really offered Stand Together Foundation was that entrepreneurship from when it was a blank page, and really helped to figure out what it could be, and really helped to bring it to life. And being that serial builder and entrepreneur and social entrepreneur, that’s then where your journey took you.
So you left us in good shape and moved on to found first your own company called CALLIOPE. First, tell us what CALLIOPE means and tell us about your journey into that work, and then to Procure Impact.
Yeah, you said it really well, Evan, I realized I was a builder. And I realized that I loved that building phase. That I loved to dream and to think big and to ideate and to figure out how to operationalize complex ideas. And when I decided to take that leap, for me it was kind of betting on myself and continuing this entrepreneurial journey and taking a bit more risk. So that’s a big risk jumping out of a wonderful job and seeing if I can build something on my own. And CALLIOPE was the first manifestation of that.
We are a social impact studio and consulting firm. And we act as a strike team for folks that are trying to build new models to social change, reimagine models to social change. And over the past year and a half have had the great opportunity of working with some incredible business leaders and entrepreneurs and nonprofits that are thinking big.
And so it very much feels like those early days at Stand Together. I just sort of export that and have that as a service now for clients. We also do some philanthropic advisory work. And so I’m very much still in the social sector. Our projects range from working on problems like combating extremism in America, and the tribalization that has made us other-ize people who think differently than us.
Working with Daniel Lubetzky the founder of KIND, and an organization called Starts With Us. We worked on an app to help drive racial unity, and helped an organization, a large nonprofit, think about how they could approach family stability in poverty.
So it’s very much up my alley in a lot of the things that I’ve learned here at Stand Together. The part of my big leap was that I wanted the space and the energy to really imagine new models to social change of my own. So our consulting firm, CALLIOPE, we do that for clients.
But I reserve some space to really think about and dust off some ideas that I had when I was at Stand Together, and Procure Impact was one of those ideas.
To take us back five years ago, when we were going across the country, we saw these incredible workforce development programs that were helping people learn new skills, earn income, get on their feet, find long term employment. And many of these organizations were manufacturing products. They are manufacturing high end tables, art, decor, bath and body products, groups like Thistle Farms that works with women who’ve experienced sex trafficking and manufactures candles and incredible products that help these women heal.
I got to do all of these site visits and see the high quality products myself. And my background before that, before joining Stand Together, I was in manufacturing. And so I was like, “These are shop floors that are just like any other manufacturer. They’re creating high quality products that are transforming lives in the process. And many of these organizations are selling these products so that people can earn income and it can help them grow and scale their models.” But many of these organizations don’t have dedicated sales teams that are helping cultivate corporate relationships, helping them think differently about wholesale or retail opportunities.
They’re trying to stabilize these people that they’re serving. So for Thistle Farms, that’s women that are dealing with trauma. They’re providing housing and education and mental health counseling. They don’t have the time to necessarily cultivate corporate relationships. So I saw this huge gap. There were these great products, great organizations that were transforming lives, that weren’t thinking about B2B strategies.
So Procure Impact acts as this bridge between high quality social enterprises that are producing products, and corporate buyers that are looking to align their supply chain and impact the communities they serve.
And it totally aligned my skills, my talents, and my purpose. And I’ll bring it back to my story about my brother really quickly. So my brother, I mentioned before, has struggled with mental health challenges his whole life, but is a very gifted artist. And at one point he was represented by a social enterprise called ArtLifting. ArtLifting works with 140 artists with disabilities across the country. And they provide them with a market for them to sell their art. My brother had been creating art just for himself. Really it was about healing himself, helping him get out his challenges and the emotions associated with his illness.
But all of a sudden he was seen for the value he could create through his art. Somebody validated that it was great and that they wanted to buy it. And he had a moment that really transformed his life. Amazon purchased eight of his original paintings through ArtLifting. And at the time it was $10,000, which was more than he had ever earned in his life.
And as I mentioned previously, he was a missing person. He was homeless, living out of his car just a few years ago. And for somebody to see him, see his art, value it and to purchase it and to give him that revenue of $10,000 was way more than just the money. It was about validating he had something to contribute. It was seeing him through his strengths instead of through his disability and through his illness. And that moment totally transformed his life.
And I was always trying to think of ways to help my brother, and Procure Impact allows me to impact millions of people like my brother across the country. People that have disabilities, people that have barriers to work coming out of incarceration, in recovery, refugees, veterans. I’m working with hundreds of these groups that manufacture products, and then helping find corporate buyers for them.
And right now we’re working within hospitality and retail. And when you imagine a hotel, your bath and body products in your room can be from a social enterprise like Thistle Farms. Your art on the wall can be from a group like ArtLifting. The furniture can be made by homeless carpenters. There’s so many places where companies can be purchasing these products and fulfilling their community goals and objectives, impacting the communities they serve and creating jobs in the process.
Thinking about it like that, imagine how many people can think differently about the strengths of the individuals who’ve been experiencing those problems by using those products and experiencing the quality and the contributions. And so, the millions of people that will go through those hotels and will see those pieces of art on the wall, or use the Thistle Farms body wash or eat off of a table…
Right in front of us is a Lamon Luther table, a social enterprise working with formerly incarcerated or homeless individuals who learned high end carpentry. And the reason why this table is here is because you found Lamon Luther back when we were designing our offices, and you sort of sourced an outfit at our entire office with furniture and ArtLifting art on the walls. And essentially everybody who came into our office was transplanted into this mindset of, “Oh my goodness, I’ve been thinking about individuals in poverty for their deficiencies, but look at their incredible strengths.” I mean, it makes a huge difference.
Yeah, we demonstrated that that was possible. So that’s what I’m trying to build. I’m aggregating all the groups across the country that are manufacturing products and helping identify corporate buyers and product market fit. And every CEO I talk to gets so excited. Because I’m helping them do something they want to do already.
A lot of people are talking about supplier diversity and how to go deeper on ESG and corporate social responsibility. And each product is tied to earned income in a job, it’s super tangible. So I had a hotel owner tell me, “You’re going to help me bring the soul back to my properties.”
I had a procurement executive breakdown crying because she said, “I’ve never thought I could use my job as a lever to do the things I want to do to create impact.” And I’m giving people an opportunity to just shift what they’d already be purchasing to groups that we know are creating high quality products and deep impact.
Well, we talk to a lot of nonprofit leaders. There’s a lot of them out there that are trying to start social enterprises, and I would argue for all the wrong reasons. They want to create a social enterprise because like, this fundraising thing. It’s a lot of work. “If I could just make some money, I could then…”
But the social enterprises you often work with, they don’t do it because they’re trying to make profits to sustain their nonprofit work. Maybe some of them are successful enough to do that, but actually the key part of the transformation that they’re delivering is the earned success of delivering that product. Which means those Thistle Farms candles can’t be second -class consumer products, they have to be world class consumer products. That art can’t be, “Oh, this is nice,” pat someone on the head, they did some nice art projects. It’s got to be art befitting a three or four star hotel. Is that right?
Yeah. They have to be able to compete. And I think that’s what’s exciting, is it creates this feedback loop to make the products better so that they can grow and scale through market forces. So I’ll give you an example.
I was at the hospitality design awards, and one of the largest art procurement companies for 80 plus hotels every year… I actually was walking around and telling everybody about the work that I was doing. Because she said, “Hey, I was skeptical. I thought, this is going to be nice to have. But when I saw the portfolio of artists that they had in Procure Impact’s portfolio, I was blown away by the quality, by the diversity, by the ability to directly impact communities and narrowly focus on specific cities.”
So I think a lot of people have preconceived notions about these social enterprises. These aren’t Etsy makers and one or two people. These are manufacturing facilities with highly sophisticated processes. So Thistle Farms is about to move into a 10,000-square-foot facility. So they have the ability to distribute nationwide.
And that opportunity for an individual in their program to work on the manufacturing line means that they’re learning high quality, tangible skills that allow them to find long term employment. Because it’s not an easier workforce environment, it is replicating what they’re going to get when they leave the program. So it prepares them more effectively.
Yeah. The Thistle Farms example really speaks to me because they’ve got dozens of sister programs all over the country that are doing the very nonprofit side of what they’re doing, which is residential safe and supportive communities. They built a real culture around healing that I think is really inspiring.
The idea that Thistle is sort of this beautiful growth in the midst of tough circumstances, Thistle coming up through the concrete, for example. But if we’re being honest, a lot of those residential programs that they partner with probably look pretty traditional, right? Residential programs, just trying to stabilize, put a roof over someone’s head.
But imagine if the products that Thistle Farms produces could compete with Burt’s Bees and other consumer products in that space. Imagine how many manufacturing facilities they could open up across the country to provide meaningful work to the individuals that are in those programs and take what looks like the broken paradigm we were describing before, and transports it into this empowerment—believing in those women and their ability to contribute and overcome those circumstances. It could be revolutionary.
And I’m seeing that already, because I’m, in some ways, stress testing how far these groups can go. By creating lots of opportunity that then allows them to say, how does this align with your growth objectives and goals? And can you reach this new level?
A Catalyst organization, Mile High Workshop in Denver, manufactures pillows. They actually took over a pillow manufacturer. They were providing the talent and then now own the entire operation soup to nuts. And so I’m calling them to say, “Hey, I think I have a buyer for a thousand pillows for a new hotel launch, are you game and what would it take to get there?”
And so it’s allowing them to stretch to new goals in terms of this sophistication, to really understand how many people they could hire if I bring additional revenue streams to them. And to me, this is a really exciting and disruptive way to grow these organizations that is buffered by philanthropy. So the market can bring in new revenue streams to help these groups grow and then philanthropy can focus on their infrastructure, their supportive programs. So it’s such a great complement to bringing in this market-based approach that allows groups to grow.
That’s fantastic. So in addition to starting two companies here and being this pioneer, this trailblazer, this hero, this catalyst for social change in your personal life… In addition to those two companies, you also continue to be very involved with our work at Stand Together. And in particular, you found your way to becoming a board member of The Phoenix. An incredible peer-to-peer addiction recovery effort. I would love for you to share more about The Phoenix and how you found your way to become one of their board members.
The Phoenix was one of the first groups that was a part of our Catalyst Program. When I talked about the initial nine, they were part of that cohort one, the Catalyst Program at the very genesis. And when I say the work with Stand Together changed my life… One, I wouldn’t be doing anything that I’ve been doing currently, in terms of CALLIOPE or Procure Impact. All of that insight into what really fulfills me and my cup and how to leverage my skills and talents to create change came from the insights that I gained building the Stand Together Foundation with you.
But it also helped kick off a personal journey for me. When you work with bold, courageous leaders that are unmasked, it’s very easy to then turn a mirror to yourself and start to ask yourself some deep, hard questions about your motivations, challenges, and barriers you’ve experienced in your past.
And because I was around all of these amazing leaders through the Catalyst Program, and through the organizations that we supported, it kicked off a deep excavation process for me personally. And one of those organizations that deeply impacted me was The Phoenix and Scott Strode.
Scott, he recognized that a lot of the recovery programs out there were bandaid approaches because he’s in recovery himself. And it’s important to stabilize people in recovery that are dealing with addiction. But what happens after that initial intervention? He created The Phoenix because part of his recovery journey was that he got into a boxing gym and he started boxing, and he realized when he was sweating alongside people that was helping to heal his wounds and helping him stay sober.
And that turned into a cycling club. He’s going up mountains with people in recovery and bringing people along together. And that community that was being built was unique. It was people in recovery, living actively together, sweating it out and supporting each other. And The Phoenix was born with that vision of building this active community in recovery and leveraging things like physical fitness and music and other experiences to help bond people in their post-addiction journey in their recovery. And we were very close with Scott, and got to know Scott very well. He’s in the first cohort.
And the more I heard the stories of the people in The Phoenix, I started to say, man, that sounds a lot like my story. And it was interesting. I never really examined my alcohol use, never really thought it was an issue. I was a work hard, play hard person. So I got things done. So on the outside I checked a lot of boxes in terms of accomplishment and achievement, but I was feeling very empty. And after my second child in particular, I started feeling like I was using alcohol as a way to get through life instead of living.
So I’m four years sober and that was a big shift for me. And I ended up running a marathon for The Phoenix. I ran the Chicago Marathon and raised money for The Phoenix. And once I stepped out at Stand Together, Scott approached me and asked me to join the board. I got emotional when he called me because it’s a huge honor but I really wouldn’t be where I’m at, I think, in terms of my clarity of purpose, my clarity of heart, my clarity of what I need to accomplish in my life, had I not met Scott and The Phoenix. So I’m a product of their model.
I leveraged The Phoenix community early in my recovery journey. And I’m extremely proud of what they’re doing and what they’ve built. And we haven’t hit upon this in our conversation yet. But The Phoenix is a great case study of the impact that the Stand Together Catalyst Program had on organizations.
They were in six cities when they started with us in that first nine. They are in 50, 60 plus now, and continue to climb in terms of their programs and their reach. So we saw this innovative approach to addiction that was built upon community versus sort of top-down medical or systemic approaches to addiction.
And we empowered Scott and the team and really got very close with them. And I’m extremely proud of what they’ve built over the last several years. They have an app now, they have virtual programming. They’re getting into the music space with Send Me A Friend and a unique partnership with Stand Together Music. And they’ve reached over 100,000 people.
I mean, it’s mind blowing, when we first met Scott to where they are now. So I’m very proud to have played a part in that in the early days with Scott and very proud that I get to now serve on the board.
Lauren, thank you so much for sharing your personal story and being vulnerable. And actually, it’s sort of a hallmark of The Phoenix, is this sort of transformation in culture to not talk about addiction and recovery in a way that pushes it into the shadows. But instead, when individuals like yourself are clearly thriving in your recovery—and that story is so inspiring, as you tell it—I’m quite certain that somebody somewhere is listening to this podcast right now, and able to think about the opportunity for them to transform their life by hearing your story.
Which is just deeply motivating and inspiring to me to preview here, we’re going to be talking to Scott Strode about that journey on our next episode and I couldn’t be more excited to talk more about him.
To the point of the movement piece, one of the things that’s really special about The Phoenix is they wear sober t-shirts and they show people what recovery looks like. There’s so much stigma which is part of why I’m public about my story, because I’ve seen the courageous few who get into the arena and tell their story.
And that impacted my recovery, and like you said, you start to see yourself in other people’s stories and make different choices. But alcohol is glorified in our society. It is in every celebration, at every football game. It is a cultural phenomenon.
And recovery is pretty awesome. You can wake up and run as many miles as you want. You have clear thoughts and clear heads and clear emotions, and you’re able to engage with people with full authenticity. That’s pretty awesome. And The Phoenix celebrates what recovery looks like and shows people cool, amazing, creative, influential business leaders and individuals all across the country that have embraced this lifestyle. And makes it attractive from the alternative and starts to shift the narrative around our challenges with addiction as a country.
And so I think a huge part of their magic is that when I first met Scott, he’s like this muscley guy wearing a sober t-shirt. Who wouldn’t want to jump onto a bike and go up a mountain with Scott Strode, or go with that community and experience life to its fullest? It’s invigorating.
Lauren, this has been a phenomenal conversation. I want to close this out with the question that we’re asking all of our guests, and that is: if folks can put just one thing in their Google search bar coming out of this conversation that will inspire them, give them hope, help them to learn more, think more about how they can transform communities in this country, what would it be? And you can’t say—because they should write in CALLIOPE, they should write in Procure Impact—that they definitely should Google those things.
But what’s one thing? It could be one of the organizations we talked about, it could be a video that they should search for. What should they type into their search bar to go deeper on after this conversation?
I mentioned previously some of the work that I’ve been doing with Daniel Lubetzky, the founder of KIND. And just a quick anchoring of who he is. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor. And so all of his work really emanates from this deep fear of what can happen when we move towards extremes. And so his life’s work has been about bringing people together. And you don’t see a lot of that right now. There’s a lot of entrenchment and fighting.
And he has launched a new organization called Starts With Us, that has wonderful videos and a lot of inspiring content and tools and curriculum and nudges that help people to get outside their box and embrace curiosity and embrace courage and compassion.
Former KKK members that are now deeply involved in racial reconciliation. People like Leon Ford, who we know very well, who was shot and paralyzed by police, that’s actively working with police. These are stories you just don’t hear because they’re not perpetuating this narrative of “us, them” and this drama that is trying to be played out in our news media. And so I would encourage everyone to look at Starts With Us and their content.
Because it gives you hope that there can be deep entrenched points of view that one might have, where people can move closer together and understand and appreciate the other person’s perspective and might even find opportunities to collaborate. I feel like we just need a lot more of that right now.
Well, Daniel Lubetzky is a hero of mine. Starts With Us is an exciting effort. That is a great way to close this out.
Lauren McCann, thank you so much for everything you’ve done to help transform the social sector, to build Stand Together Foundation, to launch new efforts with CALLIOPE and with Procure Impact that are changing the world.
I hope our listeners have been able to go deeper on how to think about these things and maybe have taken away some hope and inspiration from this talk as well. So thank you so much for being with us.
Thanks Evan, it’s been great to be with you. And I appreciate all of the work that we’ve done together. It’s been a pleasure working with you.
Hosts for this Episode: Evan Feinberg and Lauren McCann
Produced by BitterSweet Creative
Executive Producers: Obiekwe “Obi” Okolo and Robert Winship
Editing, Engineering and Sound Design: Robert Winship
Title Track: “A Much Needed Vacation” by Matt Large
Special Thanks to Producers: Molly Ringel and Elgin Cato
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The Stand Together Podcast is a podcast for people who care about tackling the biggest challenges facing our country. New episodes drop every Wednesday, exploring the origins of philanthropy, the challenges and opportunities facing community organizations, and the experiences of nonprofit leaders across the country. Click here to learn more and subscribe on your platform of choice.