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Leveraging Systems for Sustainability and Opportunity with Jim Shelton

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking Jim Shelton. Jim is the Chief Impact and Investment Officer at Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic vehicle that identifies and scales solutions to the problems trapping youth and their families in poverty. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to KKR Global Impact and is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Jim was the co-founder of Amandla Enterprises and the former Deputy Secretary of Education and founding Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper under President Barack Obama. He also worked in business, government, and the non-profit sectors as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur. In these roles, Jim has utilized management, policy, and programmatic innovations to increase access to opportunity.

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About Jim Shelton

Jim Shelton, is the Chief Impact and Investment Officer at Blue Meridian Partners a philanthropic vehicle to identify and scale solutions to the problems trapping youth and their families in poverty. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to KKR Global Impact and is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Jim was the co-founder of Amandla Enterprises and the former Deputy Secretary of Education and founding Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper under President Barack Obama. He also worked in business, government, and the non-profit sectors as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur. In these roles, he has utilized management, policy, and programmatic innovations to increase access to opportunity.

Jim holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Morehouse College and Master’s degrees in both Business Administration and Education from Stanford University. He lives in his hometown – Washington, DC – with his wife and two sons.

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell: 

You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, everyone. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking Jim Shelton. Jim is the Chief Impact and Investment Officer at Blue Meridian Partners, a philanthropic vehicle that identifies and scales solutions to the problems trapping youth and their families in poverty. He also serves as a Senior Advisor to KKR Global Impact and is a nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Nic Campbell: 

Jim was the co-founder of Amandla Enterprises and the former Deputy Secretary of Education and founding Executive Director of My Brother’s Keeper under President Barack Obama. He also worked in business, government, and the non-profit sectors as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur.

Nic Campbell: 

In these roles, Jim has utilized management, policy, and programmatic innovations to increase access to opportunity. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Morehouse College and Master’s degrees in both Business Administration and Education from Stanford University.

And with that, here is Jim Shelton.

Nic Campbell:

Hi, Jim. I am really excited to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader Series and to get us started, can you tell us about Blue Meridian Partners, your role there, and Blue Meridian’s immediate priority?

Jim Shelton:

Sure. So Blue Meridian Partners is a pretty unique non-profit vehicle where high net worth individuals and foundations come together to invest at scale and solutions that take people out of poverty. In recent days, we’ve made sure that our work focuses in two areas. One is accelerating and improving economic and social mobility. And the second is centering on the issues and the systems and structures that will allow for greater racial equity. Those two things go together as you well know.

Nic Campbell:

And can you talk about what you do there and…

Jim Shelton:

Sure. So I’m, what’s called the Chief Investment and Impact Officer. So I help with setting strategy across all of our investment areas. We invest in solutions that work on national scaling. We have a place-based portfolio, we have a portfolio that’s focused on, we call it justice and mobility. So not only focusing on getting people out of the criminal justice system, but if you are involved in criminal justice system or impacted by it, how do you actually get a real second chance and get mobile. So involved in each of those strategies, as well as working across the strategies to look for alignment and ways to get maximize our impact?

Nic Campbell:

When I think about the structure of Blue Meridian, what should come to mind for me? Is it similar to a donor collaborative, a giving circle, or is it something else?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah, I think that for folks who are familiar, it is a lot like a giving circle, right? There’s a set of folks who have committed to working together to invest. The thing that is distinct is that there is a professional staff that’s in place to source new opportunities, to bet the opportunities, to frame up the investment in a way that will drive the kind of improvement in organizations’ impact, and reach, and influence that they aspire to most importantly, but also that the philanthropic investors would aspire to. And so if you think about it almost like a private investment firm for impact, right, but where the investment committee is made up of the partners who are the largest investors.

Nic Campbell:

And given the time that we’re in, Jim, I know you talked about the two focus areas for Blue Meridian, how is that showing up in terms of the work that you’re doing now?

Jim Shelton:

Sure. So it was really interesting is like we had, in 2019, we had actually made applications to our strategy to kind of make these adjustments to the overall strategy, to move from youth development to broader focus on economic mobility, understanding of racial equity. So what’s really interesting about it is, is we had COVID and everything else, taking a hard look to say, so what needs to change about the core of our strategy? And the reality is the core of remaining the same, right? Like economic and social mobility still remains critically important. It is actually, in many ways, the issue of the day when you get past the fundamental rights of human beings and taking a systemic look at that is also critical, which is the way we tend to approach the work. And then what we’ve seen is both for COVID and through the racial unrest that has come after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd Mathers is that our country was just showing us the fault lines that we already had around inequity and that the work that we were doing to lean in to the criminal justice system to lean in on economic mobility was more important.

Jim Shelton:

What we did was we took a hard look on what would be immediately relevant, right? What kinds of things could had a special need right now? So we had a set of relatively early stage organizations for Blue Meridian that we had invested in. And we decided to say, not only what we helped stabilize our overall portfolio, but were there any that, because of the context, might have a real opportunity to expand to meet need. And so, for example, you may have heard of the Family Independence Initiative, that is one of our investees. And we had the opportunity to help invest in scaling their infrastructure, as well as doing some emergency response, to pass through some additional dollars to families that might need some crisis intervention. Again, the bulk of our work basically remained the same, right? We’re trying to build solutions to the problems that actually getting the people’s a way to coming up really mobile and then having more power in their lives.

Nic Campbell:

Jim, I like how you phrased it, right? Which is this, this pandemic, this unrest, is just showing us the fault lines in our system. And we were talking about Blue Meridian and saying, okay, what is immediately relevant to us? And what should we be focused on? And along those lines, I’m wondering if you could tell me what kind of advice would you share with nonprofits that fundraise as part of generating revenue during this time, when you’re thinking we need to focus on things that are immediately relevant, look at the fault lines to really instruct us where we need to go. But you have organizations that are trying to raise money during this time as well. So how do they prioritize and what should they be prioritizing?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah. So I think that it’s important to remember that people have now gotten clear that this is not going to be quick, that even the health crisis has been protracted, the economic impact is going to be protracted. The racial issues that we have to address are not going to resolve quickly. So while people are still…philanthropists in particular, are still interested in being responsive to the need. People are also starting to think, okay, how do I make sure that what I’m doing today is going to have a lasting impact? How do I make sure that it doesn’t…there’s not just one time aid, but it’s something that can go a bit further. There is still an interest in emergency relief and things like that, but people are saying, how does this set up someone to make it to the next run? As opposed to there was, I think, early on, Hey, people are going to be hurting, let’s just get more resources in their hands.

Jim Shelton:

And so for the nonprofits, what I would say is, I think that you wanna keep yourself in that context of saying, here’s how we’re being responsive, but here’s why we were a part of the recovery. And frankly, here’s why we’re important to the systems in the long-term. Relevance in this near-term, the medium-term, and in the long-term, is I think still one of the most compelling arguments. And I think that there’s going to be too, did you have a compelling value proposition that you bring it to the folks that are going to be most impacted. Or at least your particular population, wherever that might be.

Nic Campbell:

Right, and just really looking at it in terms of sustainability at the end of the day. Like when you’re thinking about what’s relevant now, what’s relevant in the immediate future, and then what’s relevant longer term. You’re thinking about how can you yourself as an organization be sustained throughout those periods, as well as the communities that you’re working with. Right? And then trying to really show your value proposition to donors or partners or other stakeholders. So that makes sense to me. Now, if I’m a funder and I’m receiving that message, you know, it’s still COVID, we still have all these issues happening around us. What advice are you giving me? I’m having a lot of these conversations. I’m getting a lot of these inquiries. What do I need to do during this time?

Jim Shelton:

So one, I’d say there’s no cookie cutter answer because a lot of philanthropic investing is tied to both the values and the preferences of the folks who you are representing. And also whatever particular mission you set out, with the funding that you may have access to. And what I mean by that is that there are still going to be pressing needs, right? And it is not in Blue Meridian’s history that we would invest in short-term meat. But when COVID hit, we set up a hundred million dollar emergency relief fund and a little bit more than half of that went to ways of providing aid to people who might not get it otherwise. And so leaning into domestic workers, leaning into restaurant workers, leaning in African-American communities around the country that were particularly hard hit. And so I think that for folks for whom that opportunity is something that fits within their value set, either in the long-term or in the shor- term, that there’s a critical role for them to play in doing that in ways that are strategic and that leverage the resources and infrastructure that exists out there.

Jim Shelton:

So we were really excited to partner with organizations like Propel to get dollars out or CDO, which works with folks who’ve recently been incarcerated, to get…they’re not eligible for lots of benefits, so we were able to utilize them to get dollars using their pay card system out to folks who were not going to be employed in this current context. So use the infrastructure that’s there to reach the target populations that are most in need and maybe frankly, hard to reach otherwise. Look for those efficiencies to look for scale. Then there is the opportunity to really think about how you are leveraging this opportunity, for lack of a better word to describe it, where people are suspending their belief about how things have to work. Whether you’re an education person and now, all of a sudden, online learning has been off the table, off the table, off the table for many, many people for a long time, not it is required in many contexts.

Jim Shelton:

And so how do you make sure that you’re not just enabling that, you know…a quick patchwork effort to get people online, but you’re starting to say, what would it look like to help us get much better at understanding what it looks like to use online learning where it could actually have a real benefit to the students. Where it can provide greater access or can provide better use of tools and resources to meet student needs? I mean, how do I use this as an opportunity to have people to experience that in a way that can shift mindsets about what’s possible? And the third thing is how do I do that in ways that builds an infrastructure that I can leverage later and that is sustainable, to your point, over time, right? It’s really important that, for example, we’ve made an investment through Code for America and trying to get the…there’s normally a very robust infrastructure of people who do with tax preparation for low income people.

Jim Shelton:

And that’s what you basically had to do to get access to your stimulus check. Well, what we realized is that that infrastructure was broken down at the time because the centers were closed. And so a lot of the people who needed the money most were not going to get access to those supports and services. So we worked with a nonprofit called Code for America to develop the online platform to work with those providers to be able to do their work, even though their offices were closed. We hope to reach scale, reach millions of people with it. Actually, didn’t reach millions of people with that, but it doesn’t…it’s two things. One is that infrastructure is going to be there no matter what. Now people who are amending their taxes, people who filed tax extensions to October 15th next year, that infrastructure is going to be amortized over many, many years.

Jim Shelton:

And by the way, like we made a very relatively small grant we already got, that looks like three to four X just on that part of the investment. And there’s another small investment alongside it. We invested in something called Pandemic PBT Infrastructure, which is context. It basically is, they allowed the dollars for free and reduced lunch to go home to the parents. And so they had to put together a plan, the state had to put together a plan, for how the dollars would get there. The first thing that Code of America did was partnered with states to figure out a better way to match parents with their kids. And so I’ll give you an example of California, in California there were like 3 million kids in this category. The algorithm got them to half of them without ever having parents have to apply separately. And then…but that still leaves like 1.7 million kids and families without having been connected.

Jim Shelton:

So they built their quick application online that allow people to sign up for the benefits. Let’s put it up on a Friday morning at eight o’clock and by three o’clock, there were 200,000 plus signed up, by the end of the weekend, Sunday night, close to a million people had already signed up. Two weeks later, 1.5 million people had signed up. So very quickly, like tens of millions, like 50 X on the investment, 50, 75 X on the investment was able to be returned and an infrastructure that now when they do to the stimulus round two, it’s going to be used again. So those are the kinds of things that if we’re thoughtful about the ways in which infrastructure, the ways in which organizations that are doing smart work can do this work. It’d be great. And the last thing I’ll say is notion of providing access to benefits and making it easier for folks to get the things to which they’re already entitled is the high leverage infrastructure investment. People don’t usually love plumbing, but that you couldn’t make last for a long time.

Nic Campbell:

Wow. So, you know, Jim, from everything that you just described, I think at the core I’m hearing, you know, be thoughtful, understand the environment in which you’re, you’re operating so that you know who’s out there to inform the kind of infrastructure you can build to start to be able to be responsive to the needs of the communities that you’re working with. Right? So you’re talking about looking for efficiencies and then looking also with an eye towards scaling and in the midst of all of this that, you know, central to it, is innovation, right? Like thinking creatively about how you can put together solutions. So I’m hearing all of these things and I want to ask a pretty technical question around if I’m a funder and I start to think, okay, I have all of these things in my mind. What does the grant look like? Can I do that through general support? Can I do that through capacity building? I’d love to hear how you’re thinking of then getting the funding to groups ands individuals that do the work.

Jim Shelton:

Lots of people have lots of perspectives on this. I’ll give you mine. Mine is, in particular, when you’re trying to do work that is innovative, I think that providing funds that are more flexible, donor operating support grants, if possible, where the folks who are closest to trying to solve the problem have the flexibility to move at the pace that they’re learning is one of the best things you can do if you really want to invest in innovation. And that’s particularly true when you’re trying to work on problems where there is no roadmap already, right? Because there’s the more framework you put around it, the more constraints you put on the organization and the leaders trying to do the work. The second thing is that frankly, there’s a level of trust that you ought to have in the folks that you’re betting on, that providing that kind of flexibility gives you a really good opportunity to see if you made a smart decision.

Jim Shelton:

If you give that flexibility and it’s not rewarded with the responsible investment and impact, then you don’t need to make that investment anymore. But to be honest, you actually can’t hold your grantee accountable if you prescribed what they’re going to do, and they feel like they are negotiating their strategy with you, as opposed to actually having the autonomy to actually go into the rest of it, I think is best. So I know people have different points of view on that, especially when they work with innovation. I’ve just always found that being over prescribed is a recipe for a suboptimal solution. The last thing I’ll say, because I want to blend these two things together, is you want to find mechanisms for finding the folks who you don’t already know about. And what I find in philanthropy is that our referral networks are usually really small and that being more open, even when you’re in a hurry about the process, by which you identify folks tapping other people’s networks, opening up prizes, short windows, things like that. So that leaders and organizations and solutions that you might not be familiar with at the table is really important.

Jim Shelton:

If you want to do things that give you a different view into what’s possible. And that’s something that they’re in the crisis period, it’s kind of hard to do, but as time goes on, I think we are going to be looking for more and more creative ways to become aware of other parts of the solution space. And frankly, that is going to create more opportunities for investing in leaders of color and others who normally might not be in the channels. Those referral networks turn out to be kind of excluding a lot of leaders who were approximate to the work.

Nic Campbell:

We’re talking about these tenants that underline all of this funding, you’ve mentioned being flexible, having trust, and then just being inclusive at the end of the day, right, in order to create the best solution. And I think they all resonate with me. And I wanted to ask you about the sector generally, right? And maybe some of your, what you’re going to say, builds on the flexibility, trust, and inclusiveness that we’re talking about. What does the sector do you wish we were doing less of and what do you think we should be doing more?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah. So these two things go hand in hand for me, I wish we were doing more collaborative work in a way that reduces the fragmentation and incoherence of which both the field at large, meaning the social sector, operates. But in particular, the way that the organizations that we fund have to respond to all the different funders in their demands. And so to the extent that we can come together to use common reporting to reduce common metrics, to get behind the plan of the grantee, as opposed to each of us having our own special project that we want them to do to get our money. the more impactful and strategic and innovative every organization we invest in is going to be. That’s number one on my list. And number two is I wish that we lived into our rhetoric of investing in the things that work and really starting to ask our questions.

Jim Shelton:

One, to have a robust definition of what success looks like. So we’re not looking at very narrow metrics to define these things, but also that we’re really being clear about what does success look like at every stage of development. And that might not mean that you produce the outcome you were looking for, but you have to produce the learning that you were looking for and then a path to the next level of output or outcome. And I think that people talk a big game about doing that, but the reality is it gets really easy to keep giving money to the same people, whether they’re producing or not, or get people to the folks that everybody’s excited about, whether or not they’re producing outcomes or not. And if we just all were much more disciplined about saying, what are we hoping that this produces for the world and for the people we’re trying to serve, and then being really hard nosed about saying this either it looks like it’s going to do it or it doesn’t, or it is doing it, or it’s not, I think the deal will move much more quickly.

Nic Campbell:

Yeah. And I think it’s about developing that discipline to ask that question, right. Does this work, will this solution be viable? And really holding ourselves accountable to doing that. Because I think it has implications as we think about evaluation, right? Like that then provides the framework and all the fundamentals for how we then go about evaluating.

Jim Shelton:

Yes. And it also requires that we all have a more shared perspective about what does evidence or rigor look like at every stage of development. So my evaluation framework for the at-scale organization with tons of resources and a model that’s been demonstrated over and over again, that they use in lots of places, it should be very different than the way I think about what rigor looks like for a relatively new organization, with a relatively different model that others are taking that shows tremendous promise. We should know what rigor looks like at that stage of development, but know that it’s not going to look like the evidence that these more mature organizations are producing. And we can get clearer about how we think about that collectively. And then frankly, it’d be crucially invest in organizations being able to produce that kind of rigor, which means adequate investing, flexible investing, so technical assistance and support that will allow us to build a field that is many other sectors, especially [inaudible], like they have natural mechanisms by which the things that are better products, quote, unquote, ultimately win. Doesn’t always work that way, but there’s definitely a feedback loop that says resources flow to things that people are saying are better than the others in our sector, because we don’t track outcomes against the things that are happening. Resources can flow for a whole lot of different reasons. And if we don’t begin to fix that basic mechanism in our ability to get the things that work to the most people and give them a scale is also going to suffer.

Nic Campbell:

You’re talking about things like less fragmentation, so encouraging more collaborative work, really having that kind of rigor to approach the kind of impact we want to have. And these were, you know, in many cases, seismic shifts, right? So it makes me start to think about the infrastructure of organizations and what needs to be in place to make sure that you have an environment where you can start to make these shifts and start to get more collaborative and develop that rigor at Blue Meridian. I’d love to hear how you all are thinking about infrastructure capacity of organizations and, you know, the sector generally, to be able to do their best work. What are you focusing on when it comes to, for example, boards, governance, the way they’re set up, the vehicles that they’re using, and even how they’re organized internally?

Jim Shelton:

Yeah. So I think for us, we’re on a learning journey on this ourselves, in some ways I think our founding principles was about investing in organizations to give them the assistance and competence and infrastructure to actually scale, right; give them enough capital and then allow them to invest in the things that are going to allow to provide that, as you described, core infrastructure, so that they’re not just growing, they’re growing with quality and in a way that will be able to be sustained over time. Earlier stage organizations have an even more challenging thing where they need to figure out what the infrastructure needs to look like to scale and increase their impact on the ground. And so we have to be willing to invest in them, both in what I’ll call more bespoke ways, so, Hey, we’re not ready to give you a big, giant, scaling grant, but it seems like you really need to build out your capability around measuring and evaluation, or you really are trying to figure out new ways of applying technology to your work.

Jim Shelton:

And so where can we do some selective investment to help you get to that next stage? And then once you’re there, we can come back and say, Hey, you look like you might be ready for a real scaling opportunity. So I think we have to be let the grantees do their best work, provide our perspective about where we might be able to assist them on things where it looks like they’ve gotten to the kind of capability that they will need to go to scale and be willing to fill those gaps and then to tie opportunities for more scaling, to having those gaps filled.

Nic Campbell:

That approach really requires, you know, a thoughtfulness; being analytical, but also empathetic, right? And trusting your grantees, the organizations that you’re working with. You know, Jim, your responses have been so incredibly thoughtful and relevant and insightful. And I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about to close this out. What do you think we should read next? Or what artists do you think we should be paying attention to?

Jim Shelton:

So I would say that anyone who has not read ‘Biased’ by Jennifer Eberhardt needs to read it. I read a bunch of books on race, but the intersection that she brings between history and neuroscience does two things. One is, it just makes plain the issues that we’re all feeling. And it’s really interesting because she started her work in criminal justice. So a lot of the examples are really relevant that way. The other thing it does is it makes it clear how hard this work ultimately is going to be for us to shift the way we actually behave as individuals. And as a country, it gives you a sense of possibility because there are things to be done, even though they’re hard, we don’t know all the answers, but there are things to be done. And to start, we have to actually look at like how difficult it’s really going to be.

Nic Campbell:

Thanks so much for that recommendation, ‘Biased’. I will put the information about the book and its author in the show notes. So everyone will be able to have access to that. You have shared so much knowledge and have been so insightful so that leaders can practically use the information that you have shared in their own organizations to help them build bravely and think about how they can collaborate with others. So I just want to thank you so much again for joining us today, Jim.

Jim Shelton:

Nicole, thanks so much for what you’re doing. And for the work you put into supporting so many organizations, it makes a huge difference. Not everybody likes plumbing, but everybody knows when plumbing breaks down. And so, just really appreciate you leaning in on it.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Nicole, thank you for all the work here, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.