Startup Capital: Jessica Lowe-Minor & INIE

Jessica Lowe-Minor is Executive Director of The Institute for Nonprofit Excellence and Innovation (INIE). We had the opportunity to speak with her at INIE’s office in TCC’s new Capitol Center building. INIE, as an organization, is still in its infancy, officially founded in 2014. Even so, their impact has been noticeable. Local nonprofits now have a place they can turn to for support, resources, and networking. That’s thanks to skilled and passionate leaders like Jessica Lowe-Minor and her colleagues. Below, we chat about what nonprofits can learn from the business world, and what businesses can learn from the other side of the aisle.

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What is your background?
I came to Tallahassee for school, and I actually graduated with a theater degree. Then, I continued at Florida State for a masters in interdisciplinary humanities. My interest at the time was women’s studies. I actually thought at one point that I would pursue a doctorate in interdisciplinary humanities and become a women’s studies professor. So I was doing graduate work and teaching at FSU and Tallahassee Community College (TCC).

While I was a grad student, a women’s studies professor recommend to me an open position for a legislative advocate at a women’s nonprofit organization. So I started lobbying for them. I did that part time while I was in school, but more and more I enjoyed the political arena and advocating on behalf of nonprofit organizations. I worked for about five years as a lobbyist. After that I was hired by the League of Women Voters of Florida as Executive Director. I worked for them for about five years, did a brief stint on a constitutional amendment campaign, and then came here.

Tell me a bit about INIE and your role in the organization.
INIE is about two years old. We were the result of nearly a decade of conversation among nonprofit leaders, the community, and elected officials about the state of our nonprofit sector. What we are is a management support organization for nonprofits.

We provide capacity building services, professional development and training, and advocacy for the nonprofit sector. There are organizations like INIE in other communities, but we didn’t have one here. So folks started to ask what it would take to get a nonprofit support organization off the ground in Tallahassee.

Finally, after a lot of talking, TCC and President Jim Murdaugh said that they were interested in the idea and that they had a building downtown that they were about to build, and that they would also contribute support for an executive director to make INIE happen.

So Kim Moore, the Vice President of Workforce Development at TCC really worked to make INIE happen. I was hired when INIE was about eight months old. Currently, I’m the Executive Director at INIE, so I oversee day-to-day operations, and I’m the agency’s main spokesperson and point of contact.

I saw in a recent interview that Tallahassee has the highest number of nonprofits per-capita of any county in Florida. Tell me more about the nonprofit ecosystem here.
We have 2,098 registered nonprofits in Leon County. It’s often underestimated how impactful the nonprofit sector is on the local economy. About 21% of the Leon County GDP is generated by nonprofits. That includes some major organizations. For example, Tallahassee Memorial is a nonprofit. CHP (Capital Health Plan) is another large one, as well as the FSU Foundation. So we have some major nonprofits here, but we also have a lot of small organizations with 1-3 employees, and those add up. So it’s a major economic impact. Around 3.1 billion dollars a year comes from the nonprofit sector.

What are some of the nonprofits that have worked with INIE?
We have about 130 nonprofit organizations that are members. These range from large outfits, like Big Bend Hospice which has an $18 million budget and over 300 people in staff, to super small nonprofits where one person is trying to get an organization off the ground. They come to us for help with filling out paperwork, making ideas happen – we run the gamut. We try to provide services that are applicable to nonprofits in a lot of different situations.

For example, we provide training for board members, training for nonprofit bookkeepers and CFOs. We do an executive director roundtable which is an opportunity for nonprofit executives to get together and network and share knowledge and solve problems. It helps build a sense of collegiality.

It’s easy for folks in the nonprofit sectors to feel siloed, so we do whatever we can do to facilitate information sharing to help folks feel like they’re not alone. You’d be surprised at how even nonprofits that have very different missions end up having similar operational challenges to overcome, so that information sharing is very valuable.

Do you see a lot of nonprofits partnering with local businesses?
I do. Something that’s really interesting about the nonprofit sector lately is that you’re seeing a convergence of business models. You’re seeing nonprofits looking for new ways to generate revenue through entrepreneurship, which in the sector is known as earned income. In a regular business setting you would just call that profit. You see nonprofits looking at new ways to generate earned income.

Look at the Tallahassee Museum, for example, and the zipline course they built. That was a really innovative and entrepreneurial way to solve some of the issues they were having with the museum in terms of the type of guests they were attracting and their ability to sustain their programming.

When I was at the League of Women Voters, we started to organize group trips for our members. So we became almost like a travel agency in the sense that we were planning trips for our members to go to places like Seneca Falls, New York (home of the first U.S. women’s rights convention), Washington, D.C., and Cuba. We were planning the itinerary, organizing trips, hiring tour guides, and collecting trip fees for our members. That helped us pay for our overhead as well as our voter education work.

So I feel very strongly that that is a great way for nonprofits to grow their operations. A lot of nonprofits have seen an increased demand for their services while at the same time government funding and philanthropy has either levelled off or actually decreased. So this is going to be part of the way nonprofits close those gaps.

Another thing that’s nice about entrepreneurship for nonprofits is that it’s not restricted revenue. When you generate earned income for your nonprofit, you can use that money for whatever you need it for; it’s not like taking grant money that has strings attached and very specific spending guidelines.

There’s always going to be a need for philanthropy and government funding, but I think diversifying nonprofit revenue is really important so that these organizations have the flexibility to respond to changing conditions in the marketplace. If they are on the verge of losing a really talented staff person and they need to be able to look around in their budget to increase their salary in order for them to not go to work for someone else, in a grant-funded situation, you can’t do that. You’ve already given a fixed salary for this position that’s funded by grants for a certain area. But if you’ve got a little bit of extra money lying around, then you can respond to those things.

Then on the flipside, you also see for-profit businesses that are recognizing that customers are demanding a higher level of corporate social responsibility (CSR). So they’re looking at incorporating CSR programs into what they do, or they’re looking at ways that they can actually achieve social impact through their business model. You see traditional businesses that are operating volunteer programs or giveback programs as part of their business.

You’re also starting to see this true hybrid business model of business and nonprofit where you have a for-profit business that has, as part of its business proposition, some type of philanthropic output. Sort of like Newman’s Own: they sell food products, but they are also contributing a huge amount of their profit for charity. It becomes part of their value proposition for customers. You know that this product was produced in a sustainable way and that the profits are going to support things that are important to the community. That’s a really attractive business model.

I see a lot of what they call “social entrepreneurship” becoming active in Tallahassee. How does that play into the nonprofit sphere?

I think it relates directly. Last Summer, we actually launched the region’s first summit on nonprofit enterprise and social entrepreneurship, called NESI. This March, we’re doing NESI 2.0. We’re creating a track for social entrepreneurs and also for established nonprofits who are interested in starting an earned enterprise within their organization. I think that we should view those two business models as parallel. We want to support for-profit social entrepreneurs in the community as well as nonprofits.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first program that the new Jim Moran School will be running is on social entrepreneurship. I think millennials are really interested in business models that are both socially impactful and profitable. There’s a recognition that “business as usual” has created a lot of negative externalities that need to be handled – things like extreme economic segregation and pollution.

What is the 21st or 22nd century business model going to look like? I think we’re going to be looking more at “social bottom line,” not just profit bottom line. What’s the social impact and the environmental impact, and how we can make sure that both of those things are considered throughout the lifetime of a business? We’re really excited to be a part of all that.

We’re also trying to help other local businesses in the community be more strategic and thoughtful about their own charitable giving. A lot of local businesses in Tallahassee are extremely generous in contributing. They’re buying tables at different nonprofit functions, they’re running volunteer programs for employees, and they’re doing a lot of really great things, but sometimes they can be kind of hodgepodge, which there is nothing wrong with. But if they were to step back and say, “We’re going to give $10,000 to charity this year,” it would be more strategic and more impactful. They can see which nonprofits align with their company missions, values, and brand, and choose to focus on that as opposed to sponsoring tables at various events or participating in silent auctions or other less-focused charitable activity. We try to make nonprofits and business align more.

As far as nonprofits directly related to entrepreneurship, obviously we have Domi Education here in Tallahassee, but are there any other types of support organizations for social entrepreneurs?

I think JMI and now the Jim Moran School are going to be hugely helpful. The SBDC, The Big Bend Minority Chamber – we’ve had some wonderful referrals through them. Food entrepreneurship and agriculture are also going to be big focuses here soon. I think we’re going to see more of that with FAMU and things like the Frenchtown Market.

Interesting story: I went on a farm tour about a year ago with one of the directors of New Leaf, and she said they already have a demand for locally grown produce in this area that exceeds supply. So there’s already a customer base for people who want to buy local. Now, on the supply side, how can we help micro-farmers and urban farmers and also some of our rural farmers increase their output, add staff, add staff that are making a living wage, and also price their products appropriately, and bring their products to market?

Where do you see the growth of nonprofit innovation and entrepreneurship taking us over the next five to ten years?

At INIE, we have this program that we’re trying to launch that would almost be an incubator program for organizations that want to build earned income into their organization. The goal would be that nonprofits can apply to be in the program and they would get a year of technical assistance, consulting support, legal support, for nonprofits who want to start an earned income line.

Here is an example: We have a nonprofit who came to us with a curriculum that they had developed, and they wanted to find out how they could license that curriculum and market it to other organizations that work with youth, to school districts, other nonprofits, church groups, and basically have them pay for the curriculum. They needed help with the intellectual property, and the technical details and specifics, and then we were able to connect them with one of our consultants who had worked for years for McGraw Hill. So that was a perfect example of an existing resource that the nonprofit was just kind of sitting on that turned out to be very valuable for the organization.

We’ve recruited a cadre of consultants who will help these “entrepreneurial” nonprofits. We’re raising money right now to be able to pay consultants for their help, and then to be able to provide startup capital for their enterprises, in the form of a low interest loan.

I would also love to see, over the next five years, a real interest in growing our base for success. I would love to see an investment in people and not just buildings. Of course, investment in infrastructure needs to be an important component, but we have a really high poverty rate in this community. So what are we going to do to make sure that the folks who are currently living in poverty have the skills that are needed to secure jobs that will actually get them out of poverty? I think that there are a lot of different ways to achieve that.

Whether that comes via nonprofits, because these organizations aren’t just creating jobs for their employees, doing work in different communities where they desperately need jobs and training and access to resources.

So how can you invest in these organizations so that they can work to address these challenges? We’ve seen the results of having so much poverty, high crime, infant mortality, children who are not kindergarten-ready, all these symptoms of the illness that is the high poverty rate. So I hope that over the next five years we see this rate go down, that we create an environment where growth is inclusive, and the rising tide really does lift all ships, instead of areas that are already heavily-resourced getting even better, and then other areas remaining the same or getting only marginally better.

On the flipside, you could also see such a huge infusion of growth in some of these under-resourced areas in a way that the current residents aren’t kept in the loop. We could see gentrification and have the south side become the new hip place to be, and then the local residents would have to move to Woodville or somewhere and not be brought along. It’s a real challenge. I don’t know of any other communities who have done a much better job at this.

Other cities that you think of that are really successful that have cutting-edge technology and great jobs also have really high rates of inequality. Austin, San Francisco, Raleigh Durham — a lot of the cities who we see as aspirational, they haven’t done a great job of it. So I hope that that doesn’t occur here and that we figure out what needs to be done to make that growth inclusive.

She may work in the nonprofit sector, but it’s clear that Jessica Lowe-Minor means business. With such a large impact on city’s economy and social health, it’s important that we collectively identify the needs of the nonprofit community to discover what we can do to achieve positive growth and fight things like hunger, crime, and poverty. Businesses, like we discuss above, have an obligations to ensure that their activities are not resulting in “negative externalities,” and we as a community have an obligation to make sure that we include everyone in this new wave of economic growth and expansion. Thanks to INIE, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs, we’re getting closer to an answer. Big thanks to Jessica and INIE.

That’s all for 2016, folks. Come back in 2017 for the next Startup Capital interview!