The relationship between social entrepreneur and investor, nonprofit and funder, doer and donor is intriguing. You can talk to those with the capital and they will tell you how they are in constant search of innovation—to get in early and really make a difference by supporting an idea and making it a reality. You can talk to those with the ideas and they will tell you how they are in constant search of support (both capital and intellectual), looking to build a relationship with a funder and engage them in a way that they remain for the long haul. How these relationships begin, how they grow and change and how they ultimately serve some social good is at the core of this edition of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal.
In the instance of the Brook J. Lenfest Foundation’s support of Mastery Charter Schools, it is a relationship that spans over twelve years, since the schools were merely a concept and the vision of theirfounder, Scott Gordon. This is more than a relationship between two organizations. It is a relationship between two people.I had the opportunity to talk with Brook and Scott about their relationship, about what motivated each of them and about what keeps them moving forward to achieve the vision Scott mapped out over twelve years ago.
According to itswebsite, the mission of Mastery Charter Schools is for all students to “learn the academic and personal skills they need to succeed in higher education, compete in the global economy, and pursue their dreams” (http://www.masterycharter.org). Scott’s original intention for Mastery Charter (at that time it was called High Tech High) was to reinvent secondary education. With the new millennium, it became clear that the world was evolving and kids needed new skills. Scott recognized that kids in Philadelphia were far behind academically and practically and he wanted to create a model school that would develop kids’ critical thinking to help them find a place in the real world. Scott was looking to meet business people and educators because he wanted to ensure that the schools’ educational platform would be aligned with the needs of businesses.
Enter Brook J. Lenfest.
The Beginning of the Relationship
Brook realized early on in his career that there was not much opportunity without the right education. When the Lenfest family started their philanthropic work, Brook focused on education. He quickly learned of the state of Philadelphia’s public school system. He heard and learned from peers and colleagues. And when he started his foundation in 2000 he was able to articulate a clear focus, which remains today. The Foundation’s mission is to make people aware of positive life choices, and provide support and opportunities for those motivated to pursue them. In keeping with this mission, the Foundation focuses mainly on education, job training and mentoring programs(http://www.brookjlenfestfoundation.org). At a time when Brook started experimenting with some programs to attract teachers, Scott came along as an example as to what could be possible for Philadelphia schools.
Scott first pitched his vision at a meeting in Brook’s office in 2001, focusing on the idea, the team and the capacity of the organization he was starting. He painted a picture of something bigger, which would eventually grow into multiple school sites. Brook met with Scott a second time and asked for details—a business plan, a budgetand the like. In Brook’s words, “nothing too rigorous.” At the conclusion of these initial meetings, Brook had decided to become the founding sponsor for Scott’s concept. Brook talks candidly about how he approached this relationship as an investment, viewing the proposal through a venture capital lens, and envisioning how the school they were creating would be a model to be replicated.
The initial request was for $3 million to be paid out over a couple of years. Scott’s intention was to level the playing field between Mastery Charter Schools and the Philadelphia School District, as charter schools do not receive capital funding from the School District.
Mastery Charter leased a building on Broad Street for one year and then later purchased abuilding on 4th Street with the grant money.Brook offered to personally provide the guarantee on the loan for the property, a guarantee that remains today.
Finding the Right Social Entrepreneur to Support
A recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Keys to Identifying Social Entrepreneurs Who Can Make Big Changes” by Cheryl Dorsey (2012), explores how funders can find the right social entrepreneurs to support. Dorsey calls on her experience at Echoing Green, a New York organization that aids aspiring social entrepreneurs, to let us all know what matters most.
Her first piece of advice is “betting on the right jockey.” This means that no matter what the issue, strong leaders share similar qualities like: perspective, purpose, problem-solving and charisma. Talking with Brook and Scott, there is an obvious and mutual respect for what each man brings to the table. A lot of what Dorsey talks about in her article is exemplified in this relationship.
Perspective, as defined by Dorsey, is the ability to look at the world with a sense of humanity and common dignity.One of the guiding thoughts Scott has held with him since the beginning is this idea of breaking the poverty cycle through education. He talks passionately about how the economy and the crime rate in Philadelphia could look so different if our educational system were more successful. The kids graduating from Mastery Charter Schools are going to live a different life than how they grew up,hopefully extending into future generations.
Purpose is about not getting caught up in a single goal, but rather having a willingness to change gears to achieve impact. One of the things Scott speaks confidently about is his absolute clarity about what success looks like and how to measure it. This is a critical criterion that continues to drive and influence Brook’s grantmaking, as well. The Foundation only supports organizations that can substantiate their impact. Brook says, “One of the things I really like about Mastery is, if you look at the philanthropic dollars versus individuals helped, Mastery is good value.”
Problem solving is critical to the success of social entrepreneurs. Successful leaders know how to maximize and leverage strengths, talents and opportunities. When I asked Scott about what keeps him up at night he quickly responded that it is the quality of teaching staff. Mastery Charter Schools fundraises for innovation. Scott wants Mastery teachers to be the best of the best—masters of their craft. This focus on innovation has led to guidebooks on standards, creative tools for training and coaching teachers, and groundbreaking management practices.
Finally, charisma is the ability to enlist others in support of the venture. One of the comments I found most refreshing during our conversation came from Scott. He said, “I have been very honest with funders and supporters. There have been some struggles, but I respect our Board Members and I actually want their input and guidance. The longevity of Mastery Charter Schools has a lot do with transparency.”
One of the reasons Brook has supported the organization for so long is because of the evolution Scott has gone through as a leader. A lot of what Mastery is doing continues to be groundbreaking. That aspect is exciting to Brook and he believes they are doing a great job with managing growth and results.
The Relationship Today
Over the last twelve years, Mastery Charter Schools has raised about $20 million and established 12schools. They are looking to raise an additional $25 million through a capital campaign over the next five years. This current school year (2012-2013), Mastery Charter Schools serves 7,800 students. In five years, it intends to serve 14,000 students through 22 schools.
At the core of every Mastery school is a set of values that guides all of their actions. Mastery’s values are infused in the everyday life of the organization, including things like achievement, grit, joy, humor and the concept of one team. One team means that everyone is in this together. There may be disagreements, but at the end of the day everyone needs to support each other 100 percent.
This notion captures this relationship between doer and donor.
Brook’s Foundation remains the largest private funder of Mastery Charter Schools, and Brook remains on the Board. When I asked Brook about his thoughts on his time on the Board, he said, “If you are personally involved it’s a lot more satisfying than just giving the money.One thing with a start-up is that you have that hands-on involvement. What has changed the most is that this organization has gone from a start-up to a full-on, $80 million revenue organization. That’s exciting.”
The Brook J. Lenfest Foundation
The Lenfest family minimizes the overhead expenses of running multiple foundations by sharing staff. They currently have two grant cycles per year. Typically the Foundation does not put restrictions on grants. Brook believes in providing general operating support and leaving it in the hands of the leadership at grantee organizations to put the money to the best use.
The Foundation enjoys a close and long-standing relationship with its investment advisor, LGL Partners. Chief Investment Officer of LGL, Bill Luterman, has worked directly with Brook for over a decade managing his personal and philanthropic needs. Through Bill’s strong relationship with Brook, he too has become involved with Mastery, lending his professional expertise and directly investing in their ongoing efforts. As advisor, LGL incorporates Brook’s philanthropic goals into his overall financial plan. Brook’s commitment to organizations does not waiver when markets decline, becausethat is when need typically increases. Understanding this dynamic, LGL has provided a long-term strategic plan designed to meet commitments while actively managing around market fluctuation.Bill, along with his partner and CEO, P. Scott Gregorchuk, has been working with families and individuals like Brook to achieve every aspect of their personal goals.This level of understanding between donor and advisor is integral in effecting change in through philanthropy.
The Brook J. Lenfest Foundation.(n.d.).Available at http://www.brookjlenfestfoundation.org.
Mastery Charter Schools. (n.d.).Available at http://www.masterycharter.org.
Dorsey, C. (2012, July 22). Keys to Identifying Social Entrepreneurs Who Can Make Big Changes.Chronicle of Philanthropy. Available at http://philanthropy.com/article/How-Donors-Can-Find-People-Who/132999/?cid=pt&utm_source=pt&utm_medium=en.
LGL Partners. (n.d.).Available at https://www.LGLPartners.com.