Catalyzing Nonprofits for Greater Impact: A Conversation with Evan Feinberg of the Stand Together Foundation
Evan Feinberg is the Executive Director of the Stand Together Foundation, an organization committed to providing support and resources to social entrepreneur-led nonprofits working to break the cycle of poverty across America. Previously the president of Generation Opportunity, a millennial advocacy organization, Feinberg has worked extensively to improve nonprofit management and encourage people to reach their full potential. Spotlight recently spoke with Feinberg to discuss the formation of the foundation, its organizational network, and its impact on nonprofits throughout the country. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is Stand Together’s mission, and how has the Koch network’s recent rebrand affected the Foundation and what the organization is doing? (Editor’s note: The Seminar Network, the larger collection of groups funded and led by industrialist Charles Koch, was rebranded as Stand Together late last month)
The Foundation was launched three and a half years ago based on a realization by philanthropic leaders – many who were engaged in institutions such as higher education and government policy – that there was a gap in helping people transform lives. The folks that face the most significant barriers to opportunity are those who are stuck in the cycle of poverty or are struggling with poverty to some degree. We found that there is so much incredible work happening through social entrepreneurs, people, and organizations—and we wanted to invest in their work breaking barriers to help people realize their full potential. If you want to help break the cycle of poverty, you must invest in solutions and opportunities. Stand Together was founded on the ethos of uniting individuals who are making a difference and giving them complementary capabilities to do more.
Over time, we realized that should be the name for everything we do. That’s what we launched last month: a broader entity. The organization continues to have that same ethos but now has a legal identity, a 501c3. We are now the Stand Together Foundation.
What is the connective tissue among the groups you support? What are key characteristics that you look for?
The most fundamental issue is human dignity. We have a belief that all people are capable of extraordinary things and need to tap into their unique gifts and talents in order to do so. It’s not that people need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, but that people need help overcoming barriers to opportunity such as the injustices of racism and antipathy toward immigrants, or today’s criminal justice system, and the other institutional barriers that are preventing people from succeeding. We allow people to tap into gifts and talents as we seek to change those barriers more broadly. The connective tissue between our Catalysts is that they believe in and help support folks who face those barriers.
Are there particular metrics you use to measure an organization’s success after you start working with them?
Our goal as an investor is to deliver a bottom line of transforming people’s lives. We have some of the most sophisticated capabilities in evaluating the outcomes and growth potential of each organization. We want to know how they measure success and see if it’s leading to people transforming their lives and breaking through barriers.
Do you have any good examples of organizations who have been successful in this work?
One of our most impactful partners is The Phoenix, a peer-to-peer fitness addiction recovery program that has amazing results. The organization delivers dignity and self-worth, which comes from not just peer-to-peer support, but also from removing the stigma around addiction. People are supporting each other and wear recovery shirts—they are proud of their sobriety. While the best clinical programs typically have around a 50% relapse rate, The Phoenix has a 22% relapse rate, which is incredible. They also use a survey tool to understand how individuals are living better lives, and their participants have shown greater quality of life improvements.
How did Stand Together support The Phoenix?
They completed our Catalyst Program in 2016, and we also helped them make multi-million-dollar investments in their operational capacity. Phoenix now has 10,000 people in 45 cities, and we think they have the potential to innovate and reach hundreds of thousands of more people. It started with a guy on a bike helping people overcome addiction. We’ve also helped them think about how they expand their operations, how they analyze the market, and what the best hiring practices are. We’re really hands on given the size and scope of our investments.
How does peer-to-peer investment help with a group like that? Would you connect them to other groups in the network?
We leverage the business management philosophy of Koch Industries as a frame for management. We’re not teaching groups how to do accounting. What we do that’s different, we help nonprofit leaders become more effective leaders to grow their organization. We’re working on culture; asking organizations “What’s your vision and capabilities? How do you hire the right talent that’s consistent with your vision and values? How do you pay people to incentivize value-creation?” They are then talking to their peers on how to overcome those challenges. We cultivate that network for high impact individuals that want to get better at what they’re doing.
How do you promote peer-to-peer relationships?
We select four cohorts of sixteen groups each year that overlap during six-month programs that we run. We also have an annual event we invite everyone to as well as partnership events where partnership advisors help their assigned groups connected with other groups. One thing partnership advisors do is keep a tab on the network of their groups. Groups experience similar challenges that would be productive to connect around. It’s all about finding the right connections.
What’s your strategy for sharing best practices and spreading them throughout the network?
Publicly, we do a lot of storytelling to inspire change. We do long-form journalism at stories.stand-together.org, which has a lot of innovation-focused language that is about the work these organizations do. We also have a Catalyst show on a Facebook watch page that we manage with Free Think. It’s a lot of powerful storytelling.
Similarly, we share what’s working and not working in two ways: We recently started to conduct case studies, like the ones you do in business school, in order to share information with a broader network of organizations. We also share the analysis from groups we network with on an ad-hoc basis.
Can you talk about your partnerships with the NFL and Boston Red Sox?
We started working with the NFL after we met with former Seattle Seahawks player Shaun Alexander. Shaun made the connection to the NFL, and they got excited about one of our partners: Café Momentum. It’s a restaurant run by juvenile offenders in Dallas. The transformation goes in a couple directions: 85% of their kids never go back to prison, whereas half of juvenile offenders in Dallas overall return to prison. The people who eat in that restaurant also change their perspective on juvenile justice. We’re now helping look for ways to scale their restaurants into cities across the country. One way is to host pop-up restaurants. We did our first one in partnership with the NFL in Nashville, where they were holding the draft. We had a bunch of influencers and NFL legends come to the event. Our next one is likely to happen in LA. We’re building out that strategy since the NFL is really committed to criminal justice reform and social justice.
The Boston Red Sox are partnering directly with The Phoenix, who has their flagship location in the city of Boston. There is likely a lot of exciting stuff coming during September, which is addiction recovery month. We’re excited about how the Red Sox can call attention to The Phoenix as a model, while also reducing stigma around addiction.
Is that a model you will look at going forward—connecting smaller entrepreneurs with large sponsors in the private sector?
We’re working with incredible nonprofit social entrepreneurs who have different needs. Sometimes they need resources, sometimes management training, sometimes major partnerships. Regardless, they will have greater leverage with the philanthropic community after working with Stand Together Foundation. Whatever the need is, we’re excited to remove those barriers because that’s what they do for people they serve.
For the would-be Catalysts among our readership, do you take submissions or is this by invitation only?
We’re enthusiastic about innovative and effective models. Folks who want to be in our network can apply here.
Evan Feinberg is the Executive Director of the Stand Together Foundation.