Professor Gary Nelson has long advocated for ideas that embrace social entrepreneurship and sustainable development. Now he and his colleagues are preparing to launch a new venture that they say will not only fill a community need but hopefully, bring in some additional funding that can be reinvested to help the UNC School of Social Work better meet its mission.
Nelson, along with Christine Howell, John Steed, Katie Stella and others associated with the School’s Jordan Institute for Families, are developing a nonprofit that will help private companies, public agencies and other nonprofits improve the triple bottom line of their organizations—their economic, environmental, and social performance. This new venture, known as “The Middle Space,” or TMS for short, will operate as an arm of the School and serve as a liaison of sorts by helping clients connect to the academic, professional, and public resources they need to successfully clear stumbling blocks that may be stifling their organizations’ potential.
“The Middle Space will be a place that offers design consultation, leadership training, and evidence and experiential learning to help people innovate and move past disagreements to close gaps in performance,” said Nelson, who also serves as an associate director of the Jordan Institute. “Inspiration and innovation emerges when we are willing to suspend our assumptions and embrace our differences. When we do this, we enter the space between the known and the unknown—the middle space—a place of both uncertainty and possibility. Through a process of reflective and integrative thought, action, and learning, we find common ground and birth solutions that benefit us all.”
The nonprofit will offer practice, academic and research knowledge on everything from child welfare to behavioral health—expertise that many outside communities and organizations may have never considered reaching out to the University for, Nelson said. Such a focus fits well with UNC’s commitment to service, public engagement and education, he added.
Although they are still developing a marketing plan, Nelson and his colleagues envision TMS working with variety of clients, such as schools, healthcare groups, and social service agencies. For example, last year, the Jordan Institute’s Center for Aging Research and Educational Services (CARES) began reviewing and designing a learning curriculum for a home healthcare provider that employs thousands of caregivers around the world. CARES is working with the corporation, Home Instead, to enhance training for the employer’s caregivers who work closely with seniors.
TMS could help develop similar types of training for other public and privately-owned organizations, said Howell, the proposed nonprofit’s design coordinator, who has a background in developing and training curricula for directors, supervisors and line workers in the field of social work. TMS could also tailor products such as online courses to meet a company’s specific training and leadership needs, she said.
Nelson expects a portion of their clients to come from the private sector, where he noted many more companies are searching for a balance between profit and social good.
“We have noticed that there are companies that are moving to the middle space and moving away from just profit,” he said. “They’re moving to embrace social entrepreneurship and are concerned about achieving a broader collective impact, or a measure in economic return, social benefits and environmental stewardship—a triple bottom line.”
As the co-founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development, Nelson has the expertise to help organizations explore such practices. He’s spent the last several years bringing together businesses, educational experts and private investors to promote the importance of investing in resources that advance environmental stewardship, social equity and economic prosperity. Organizations are encouraged to pursue and achieve these goals by among other things, offering living wages and ensuring that their employees have access to health care and affordable housing.
With TMS, Howell said they will help clients to examine their own “core values and beliefs,” and to evaluate how those stack up against the triple bottom line.
“We’ll be offering them a new frame to look at how their organization operates,” she said. “We also see ourselves largely bringing folks together so they can find their own answers.”
By helping companies consider their own strengths and weaknesses, they are also promoting an important message in accountability, the colleagues agreed. Individual employees need to better understand how their roles affect the “finished product,” Howell added.
“We want to help organizations connect the dots and see that they’re part of a fabric,” Nelson said. “We want them to map the process and see what works and what doesn’t.”
“We think the time is right to move in this direction. The University and School have embraced the challenge of becoming more entrepreneurial and innovative. When we are successful, we will be able to supplement our traditional sources of funding and effectively meet our mission and serve our public.”