Carter Stewart isn’t your average crimefighter, and he’ll surely shun the description as much as he defies the stereotype.
Following a career watching broken systems contribute to incarceration, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio left government service to become a full-time mentor for the social enterprise sector. Riding a borrowed desk at the Columbus Foundation, he’s a one-man Midwest outpost for the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. He’s also been recruited and charged with identifying worthy causes and applying Silicon Valley ingenuity to philanthropy-focused businesses—all to the tune of more than $100 million.
Imagine if instead of investing in capes and cowls, Bruce Wayne spent a fortune funding innovative approaches to solving long-standing injustices?
Not exactly cinematic, but far more effective by addressing the underlying circumstances that foster it. The shortage of services, access, and advocacy are all predictable indicators for both victims and perpetrators. Equipped with the insights and instincts of a prosecutor weary of always being on the receiving end of avoidable tragedies, Stewart shares his experience and expertise with fellow do-gooders, guiding them from shaky startups to scalable success.
We first met a few months back at Roosevelt Coffeehouse, itself an anchor for the local social enterprise movement. Overdue for a follow-up cup, we discussed the future of “purpose beyond profits” and why Columbus is the perfect incubator for ideas that really could change the world.
A career in criminal justice isn’t the typical résumé for a social justice champion. You’ve seen the world through an entirely different lens. How has your work as a US Attorney informed your search for solutions through social enterprise?
Carter Stewart: It’s not uncommon to leave law to go into the nonprofit sphere, but it is uncommon to leave prosecution. The only other US attorney I know who has done it is in Pittsburgh. I actually surveyed colleagues at the DOJ to see if anyone else had done this, and he was the only one. My desire to help is based on what I’ve seen as a prosecutor as much as my childhood experiences growing up in the South, in Atlanta. So many of the people my office prosecuted came from broken systems—school systems that weren’t adequate, housing situations that were poor. So many people in state and local jails suffer from mental health issues, addiction issues. I felt that if we could fix those broken systems, it would reduce the number of people who end up in the criminal
“Not all tension is bad, and there can be positive creative tension between traditional businesses and social enterprises.”
Social media and social enterprise seem to have come of age at the same time. There’s not a mutual dependency, but an undeniably growing parallel between purpose and purchase. What trends in digital connectivity distinguish successful social enterprises from those that fizzle out?
CS: I can’t say there’s one pattern, but there is recognition of the importance of social media, especially for start-up organizations that don’t have a big budget and want to spread the word as far and wide as possible. Everyone we fund has to have a website. It sounds obvious, but they have to have something up and running. But we still have some organizations that are spread more by word of mouth. ROX, Ruling Our Experiences, is a good example. It’s a program that teaches girls leadership, entrepreneurship, self-defense, self-awareness. The 20-week program is spread, mostly in-person, by the founder, Dr. Lisa Hinkelman, speaking at conferences to school counselors—who then google it. It’s the second bite at the apple. They hear from her first, then they learn more online and decide it’s something they want to pursue. But our organizations aren’t limited to the US, and some are dependent on social media to work. But where it’s critical for everyone is funders, who are more likely to research an organization before contacting it directly. They don’t want to raise hopes or expectations too early. It’s interwoven and social entrepreneurs recognize that.
There can be friction between traditional nonprofits and social enterprises serving the same cause. Ideally, raising awareness creates a larger pie, and everyone gets a bigger slice. How should social enterprises answer the concern that they’re competing for the same donors and dollars?
CS: There is perspective among some funders that there are too many nonprofits—to solve education, to solve poverty. Instead of creating new ones, we should improve and, perhaps in some cases, combine the ones that we have. There’s a degree of creation exhaustion. I happen to disagree. You need constant creation and rebirth, new ideas cycling in. Traditional nonprofits that have never considered the social enterprise model might feel threatened by that new entity going after the same funding dollars. In an ideal world, the new entity inspires the older entity to change and to grow. I consider the YMCA one of the oldest social enterprises in the country because they have a revenue stream. You pay for membership. So even though most nonprofits haven’t had that revenue stream, social enterprises have been around. It’s just been a small slice. I haven’t heard traditional nonprofits wishing social enterprises would go away as much as how can they be more like them and less dependent on philanthropic capital. And I think social enterprises can learn from nonprofits, their leadership structures and governance models. It’s a dynamic evolution that will hopefully lift everyone up.
Traditional businesses can also feel threatened by social enterprises. We don’t just vote every four years for president and every two years for Congress. We vote every day with our wallets. How to both kinds of businesses build brands that inspire their customers to become agents of change?
CS: That competition should help businesses recognize the importance of having a second bottom line. Maybe not a social mission, but a mindset of corporate citizenship. That’s what drives people to Roosevelt Coffeehouse. They know when they spend money, the company does good things with it. It’s a brand they feel good supporting. Not all tension is bad, and there can be positive creative tension between traditional businesses and social enterprises. Draper Richards Kaplan has someone on staff with whom we connect all of our entrepreneurs, to understand that communications is how you reach people, but branding is more, and an essential part of our process. Some folks come with more savvy than others, but in addition to helping build capacity they’re also building a brand. It’s something you should do in the early stages of your organization, so it becomes ingrained in your DNA.
The Midwest often gets overlooked when it comes to venture capital, despite our academic credibility, technological capacity, and desirable test market demographics. What does the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation see in Columbus that many still miss?
CS: We’re a particular type of donor. Not all donors look for what we look for, most don’t. Most foundations I know won’t fund an organization unless they’ve been around for four or five years. And they don’t always look for organizations with the potential to scale. They look for organizations that are well-run, already likely to survive, and succeeding in their mission. We look for organizations at an earlier stage, those that have finished a pilot and want to go big….We look for ideas that have the potential to disrupt, to change broken systems, and not many funders share that desire. But in Columbus, there’s a hunger for it. Social enterprise is a buzzword, and they’ve been in Columbus for years before I got here. But 75 percent of funding still goes to the East Coast and the West Coast, and that’s a huge oversight. People were looking for mechanisms to get national funding to Central Ohio, to build and scale the organizations that are here and those just getting started. There’s a synergy between governments and businesses, nonprofits and social enterprises. It’s an enthusiasm and pride many on the coasts don’t realize is here. I was once one of those people. I lived in New York and California. It was my wife who decided we were moving to Columbus 13 years ago, and I still tell people it’s the best decision I never made.
For more on social enterprises and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, visit drkfoundation.org.