Dallas nonprofit putting ex-offenders to work — but don’t call it charity
Todd Fields stooped as he edged through the dark doorway of a little house deep in South Dallas that, not long ago, was abandoned.
The towering former college basketball player greeted his construction foreman, Byron Rose, and his project manager, Martin Evans.
“When [Evans] showed me the house, you wouldn’t want to step into the house because you might catch something,” Rose explained. “As you can see, we’re really getting into things.”
But their business, 2S Industries, isn’t simply a small house-flipping operation.
It’s the revenue-generating “social enterprise” arm of a nonprofit called 2ndSaturday, which deploys volunteers to do maintenance and community beautification projects around West and South Dallas.
And while adding to the city’s understocked pool of affordable housing is a bonus, that’s not the main goal.
It’s to hire the kinds of ex-offenders other post-prison release programs may not take.
“The affordable home is simply a byproduct of our mission to put guys to work,” said Fields, who made — and subsequently lost — a lot of money in real estate. “We’re not simulating a job — this is a job. ”
A violent criminal record isn’t a disqualifier to work at 2S, for instance. Rose spent eight years behind bars for aggravated robbery.
Though Rose has had other jobs since he got out of prison, 2S Industries has stood apart. It’s more than a way to scrape out an existence working for an employer who looks at you with suspicion. It’s a chance to build a career.
“I wake up in the morning and I get to go to work — I don’t have to go to work, I want to go to work,” the 32-year-old Dallasite said. “To go from taking, stealing, robbing, committing crimes to holding keys to thousands of dollars of equipment, to be able to be left alone at a site by myself.”
The entrepreneurial twist on a more traditional charitable model is what caught the eye of Dallas Foundation leaders. On Wednesday evening, the foundation was slated to give 2ndSaturday its annual Pegasus Prize, along with a $50,000 grant.
“One of the reasons the [prize] committee chose it is because it is a social enterprise,” said Helen Holman, the foundation’s chief philanthropy officer. “Ultimately, it will be a self-sustaining venture.
Holman said 2ndSaturday’s mission to help ex-offenders contribute to communities they once victimized is admirable.
But part of the prize’s aim is to help scale up organizations that are tackling community issues in new and unusual ways.
The move comes amid shifts in the ways charities work to solve intractable social problems in communities around the country. Increasingly, that means embracing business principles as a way to spark innovation and turning away from more traditional notions of philanthropy.
Tony Fleo, CEO of Social Venture Partners in Dallas, said his organization has been working to identify programs that — like start-ups — have proved they can be successful and need the extra cash to expand. Tax status doesn’t matter.
“Philanthropists are looking at alternative effective programs to invest in — whether they’re coming from the nonprofit world, the for-profit world or the government world,” he said.
Still, Leslie Lenkowsky, a former professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ school of philanthropy, said starting a revenue-generating business to help advance a charitable mission is nothing new. (Think Girl Scouts and cookies or Goodwill Industries.)
Lenkowsky said part of the more recent buzz around social enterprises stems from a levelling off in donations and a decline in government funding for nonprofit work that started “long before Mr. [Donald] Trump went into the White House.”
And the idea that nonprofits aren’t innovative is fed by high-profile tech executives, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who tout socially-minded capitalism as a “silver bullet,” for broad systemic problems.
In reality, he said, there’s no shortcut: Organizations hoping to make social change have to be judged based on whether they’re achieving their goals.
‘Do well and do good’
Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, chief impact officer of New York- and Washington-based Living Cities, said that although Dallas is making strides toward a more creative philanthropic community, it’s still behind the curve when it comes to what she described as fostering organizations that both “do well and do good.”
Boyea-Robinson, who lives in Dallas and has worked with various local community organizations, said that’s the result of a range of obstacles.
Two big ones are difficulty raising capital and the lack of a kind of social business “playbook,” especially for women and people of color, who are often best-positioned to fill market voids they know the most about.
But she said Dallas has had trouble overcoming what she called the “charity problem.”
“It’s still the charity mindset [of], ‘We are trying to help people and we feel like … if we’re helping you, you shouldn’t make money,'” Boyea-Robinson said. “Charity is a currency in Dallas.”
The good news, she said, is that Dallas philanthropists have an opportunity to make sure their investments in nonprofits are more strategic.
“You cannot grant your way out of social change problems,” Boyea-Robinson said. “If foundations are using their funding in a way that’s catalytic — in ways that draw change — that’s really powerful.”
Fields, who cops to having a short attention span and big dreams for 2S Industries, said the Pegasus Prize money will help make it possible for the organization to move on to the next phase.
They’re hoping to move their operations into a permanent space of their own in the heart of the South Dallas community they hope to serve, and to hire a caseworker.
But even as Fields said he’s learned the lingo of social enterprise and business, 2S Industries will still be an organic endeavor.
“The original five guys I started with — it was 100 percent based on relationships,” he said. “It wasn’t me drawing up this crazy business plan.”