Matt Overton: A new partnership helps a social enterprise create 'networked impact'

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

Helping another social enterprise get off the ground offered an existing organization a chance to magnify the impact of its own programs to help teens and young adults.

Late last May, a friend contacted me with an idea: he wanted to quit his job and start an affordable, faith-based strength-training program. I told him I was on board.

To make his dream happen, we needed to raise $50,000 for equipment, come up with a business plan, persuade our church it was a good idea, clear a 1,500-square-foot warehouse of vans and junk, install the weight equipment, and begin recruiting the necessary students -- all before I headed out for a sabbatical in a little over a month’s time. We got it done.

Why would I -- a youth pastor and Christian social entrepreneur with several ventures of my own underway -- drop everything to do this?

I proposed that my organization try to launch this dream because I could see that it could magnify the impact of our church-based nonprofit, The Columbia Future Forge.

The Future Forge already was making gospel impact on the lives of teens and young adults, getting them ready for life after high school. But for a while, I had been thinking that we needed to find ways to partner creatively with other like-minded organizations.

So we decided to form an experimental partnership with the strength-training program -- called Utmost Athletics -- under the umbrella of the existing nonprofit. We already had a teen life-skills, job-skills and mentorship program that engaged students in our county. Students in that core program can choose to take part in our other programs, such as our landscaping business. Now they’d have an additional option.

Utmost Athletics seemed like a great partner. My friend Ty Singleton, who had worked for years coaching athletics, had decided that God was calling him to transform sports culture. He was disillusioned with the massive industry that student athletics had become. He saw that increasingly, students were conditioned to be in it for themselves. Some were being sold a bill of goods by local sports teams about mythical college scholarships. And low-income students were increasingly priced out of sports altogether.

I’ve seen it in my own church. One family confessed that they had spent at least $80,000 on their child’s athletic career and were now struggling to pay for college.

My friend was tired of all of this. He conceived of an athletic program that minimized costs and travel. Like us, he wanted to make a difference in the lives of teens and young adults.

While his ultimate goal is to create sports teams that employ a new coaching model, he decided to start with a sustainable strength-training program that would engage students through faith-based mentoring.

Given my organization’s focus on helping overprogrammed, overscheduled and undertrained teenagers prepare for the next stage of life, my friend’s idea seemed to be a good collaborative fit.

It had the potential for “networked impact” -- synergistic progress on significant social problems through the networking of resources and ideas.

The conversation about networked impact is not a new one. Folks in the world of social enterprise have been talking about increased impact on social problems for years.

As I thought about how we might build our network, I realized that, as an established organization, we could provide partners such as Utmost Athletics guidance in mentorship, bookkeeping, and startup and life-skills training.

And by collaborating, we might all develop better strategies about how to connect with and minister to teens who are preparing to transition to the next phase of their lives.

Our partnership with Utmost Athletics has done all of this. Utmost is now essentially a wing of Future Forge, operating under our 501(c)(3). We have helped it get off the ground, providing startup funding and space, as well as business strategy, bookkeeping, and grant acquisition assistance.

Some of the Future Forge core donors have wanted to help with the Utmost startup, and we have students who take part in the two programs at the same time.

The cross-pollination is exciting, but it also has its challenges.

One is that it requires a high degree of trust and good communication. Since launching the program, we have had to spend hours coordinating efforts -- and reconciling differences -- on matters ranging from setting up office and recruitment procedures to hammering out terminology and mission alignment.

What do we mean in our life together when we say “mentoring,” “gospel” or “evangelism,” for instance? Each of us has to balance the tension of not compromising our core mission theology while also trying to move forward together. The relationship has caused me and my organization to move faster on certain ideas than we would have on our own and also to tinker with some aspects of our existing model to make the relationship work.

It’s not easy to enter into these vulnerable and risky conversational spaces when the income of the people involved is at stake and you are dealing with your callings.

While it was helpful that the founder of Utmost and I had a relationship of trust prior to this partnership, we have still needed to develop our relationship along the way. Our conversations require prayer, trust and careful listening. It has taken us hours and hours to work toward a relative degree of alignment, but so far we seem to be getting there and reaching more students in our county in the process.

It remains to be seen how the kinds of partnerships that our ministry is forging will work over the long haul.

What I do know is that right now my organization has been able to help a friend who wanted to pursue his calling. He’s now making an equivalent wage in a new startup that is already self-sustaining. He is also helping us further hone our goals for equipping and training students and mentors in the faith.

We don’t have true metrics of success in place yet, but we have reached an initial sustainability, we’re coming together for shared meals, and we’re moving toward further mentorship and study of Scripture. What’s more, we went from working with 23 students last year to about 75 students this fall.

Those seem like promising signs of hope amid the chaos of a short-runway startup. It’s a delightful scramble.