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Horizontal Integration: Nonprofit Style

“The Reel Connection: Videos, Jewelry, and Tanning,” “Bakewell Auto Parts & Pet Supplies,” “Harbison Enterprises: Military Surplus and Lingerie,” “Rose Computers & Antiques.” Not exactly your business school idea of “horizontal integration,” these real business combinations are the funnier side of a serious nonprofit organization strategy — one that often has a component, if not a core mission, in arts and culture.

Isles, Inc. is an example of an organization in which mission drives a complex, multi-faceted enterprise dedicated to community improvement and the development of young people into successful adults. Unlike our silly businesses above, Isles is moving diverse, mutually reinforcing enterprises forward with an integrated vision of human potential and empowerment, strong values of environmental sustainability, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Isles is the creation of Marty Johnson, who has devoted his life to empowering people in communities, especially Trenton, NJ, to improve their circumstances and environment. Isles’ mission – fostering self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities – is realized through a breathtaking scope of programs and community initiatives. An article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly called Isles a “think-and-do-tank.” The results: a former paint factory renovated as a solar-powered alternative high school and solar-vocational training center, plus a weatherization and home-safety business, has helped 650 high-school dropouts earn diplomas, prepared 870 people for high-demand energy industry jobs, and conducted lead-paint testing and removal in more than 2,000 Trenton-area homes. Add to the list community gardens and beekeeping, a new vacant property mapping website, community organizing training, home foreclosure services, real-estate development for affordable housing, and Mill One, a vast abandoned textile mill down the road from our client Grounds For Sculpture (GFS). Johnson wants to turn Mill One into a center to house nonprofits, artists, private businesses, and residences to create with GFS the core of an arts district on Trenton’s border, creating a new economic engine in one of the poorest communities in New Jersey.

Johnson characterizes himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” but there is more to it than that. He seems to be a natural “systems thinker” who is not just creating program after program, but rather has developed a multi-faceted, complex ecosystem. It is a thought-provoking example for arts and culture organizations struggling to define an essential position in the larger systems in which they operate. Organizations that understand and embrace the full potential of their roles within community systems may open up new possibilities for partnership, impact, and support.

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