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Company in the Spotlight: Denali Initiative

Denali Initiative helps nonprofits make a difference on their own

Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Corilyn Shropshire, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"Not Your Mama's Bus Tour" pretty much tells it like it is. While other tour guides shepherd tourists to Chicago's posh and elegant sites, this one shows the adventurous a not-so-glamorous side of the Windy City.

Beth O'Toole, executive director of the Pittsburgh Voyager, stands on the shore infront of the Pittsburgh Voyager vessel, near the Carnegie Science Center. O'Toole plans to launch a program to teach residents of the Tri-State area about their rivers' ecosystems with funding from the Denali Initiative. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

For $22.50, sightseers are privy to a depiction of life on Chicago's streets. From an interactive journey through the life of a homeless teen-ager to Miss Kay's Irish dancing romp in front of the famed Civic Opera House, the tour exposes the curious to an often ignored world. In the process, the customers also help sustain a good cause -- StreetWise Inc., a social service concern that, in addition to operating the tour, publishes a newspaper that the homeless can sell to raise funds.

StreetWise was borne out of the Pittsburgh-based Denali Initiative, a program that teaches nonprofit executives from different areas of the country to transform their social missions into profit-making enterprises. Other Denali protegees include a day care center in Anchorage, Alaska; a distributor of emergency survival kits in Milwaukee; and in Pittsburgh, a floating classroom on the Ohio River.

Denali is the brainchild of social entrepreneur Bill Strickland and Donnie Day Pomeroy, whom Strickland brought to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild to focus on leadership development in the social sector.

"It isn't about starting a business, it's more about a mind set," said Pomeroy, who came up with the Denali name, derived from an Alaskan/native American dialect and the native name for Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. "It's about taking people to a higher summit."

For Denali fellows, the program's zenith is an understanding of how to form a self-sustaining organization -- one that's significantly less dependent upon outside resources for money. For three years, they are coached and mentored on the how's, do's and don'ts of running a business, not so much to generate a profit but to cultivate "social enterprises" that seek to generate sustainable revenues while having social impact.

Beth O'Toole, executive director of the Pittsburgh Voyager, was introduced to Denali by Benedum Foundation senior program officer Jim Denova, who was part of a cadre of philanthropists curious about social enterprise and were looking for ways to help those they fund to become more viable. "The most creatively financed nonprofits are going to be the ones who survive," Denova said.

O'Toole plans to launch "Community River Explorations," a 44-foot house boat that seeks to teach communities in the Tri-State area about their rivers' ecosystems. For two weeks, everyone from seniors to 6-year-olds learn about their region from the perspective of the rivers.

The project's mission is to generate excitement about the rivers and their surrounding communities while offering a fresh, hands-on approach to education. A steady stream of funding to sustain the Pittsburgh Voyager and its programs is integral, too.

Selected by their hometowns, fellows come to Denali with ideas, skeleton plans or perhaps a tried-and-failed business venture. Denali, in turn, provides them with training retreats and intensive coaching sessions with well-known gurus of social entrepreneurship.

In the first 18 months, the fellows design, develop and launch their business ventures. The last half of the program is spent growing and fine-tuning the business, with the guidance and support of the business experts.

"You can go to Harvard or Stanford and take a one- to two-week course that will give you some of the same skills, but when those courses are over, they are pretty much over," said J. Gregory Dees, faculty member at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and a pioneer in social entrepreneurship. "Denali is very action-oriented, a very supportive environment, a long-term commitment to helping people develop."

Denali Fellows say that the program transforms their mind-set of running an organization.

"Nonprofits are not have-nots in need of handouts, but businesses with assets," said Laura Willumsen, executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and soon-to-be Denali graduate. Willumsen's project, a Pittsburgh spinoff of Cinemuse, a national network of high-definition cinemas in museums and cultural centers, was in its initial stages when she applied to Denali.

A social enterprise veteran who managed the Wheeling Symphony in West Virginia and attended a program for nonprofit entrepreneurs at Harvard University, Willumsen couldn't believe her good fortune when she ran across the Denali Initiative. She was in search of expertise and training to help Cinemuse reach its full potential and quickly recognized that Denali was her ticket to achieving those goals. Even though Willumsen doesn't graduate until January, Cinemuse's education program, "ArtTales," already has sold to four museums, including the National Gallery and the Dallas Museum.

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