Part 1: Developing the Vision

Introduction: We’ve embarked on a big project - the Center for Social Innovation - and have been learning lots along the way.  We’ve decided to share our experience here in the hopes that our lessons will be of some benefit to others. Please reach out if you are thinking about a similar project for your community and we’d be happy to chat - hello@socialinnovationaustin.org

Center for Social Innovation

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Part 1: Developing the Vision.

Two years ago, Notley began looking for investment opportunities that would meet two criteria:

  1. The investment could be leveraged to create impact across the Austin ecosystem; and

  2. The investment had the potential to be scalable or to create access to opportunities that were themselves scalable.

We then began validating a few hypotheses by speaking with social impact investors and entrepreneurs. Relatively quickly a few themes started to emerge.  

Investors by and large thought impact investment deal flow was getting better everyday, but it was not yet a fully matured market with sufficient opportunities that met investor parameters, whatever they happened to be.

Entrepreneurs and non-profit EDs generally cited two issues.  The first was space, both office and event.  While modern collaborative office space had become the norm in the technology industry, it was still a relatively new phenomenon in the nonprofit sector.  Moreover, affordable event space was quite difficult to come by, constraining an organization’s ability to put on profitable events to support staff and programming.

The for-profit social entrepreneurs tended to have space challenges that are common to early stage, high growth companies and could benefit from affordable and flexible coworking opportunities.

The second issue identified by the entrepreneurs and ED’s was the need to have a center of gravity where collaboration would be encouraged, programming would be centered, and best practices could be shared.  Where capital providers and seekers would collide and form relationships, or two organizations focused on similar issue areas could collaborate to scale their impact.  A place where the lessons of developing an earned revenue model could be shared among colleagues, or community members could offer their expertise to further a mission they were personally invested in.

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The seed for the Center for Social Innovation had been planted.  We needed to create a modern office environment that could serve a team of one alongside much larger organizations. This place would need to encourage collaboration and provide affordable event and meeting space.  And there had to be enough parking.  It should be centrally located and have good access to public transportation.  

All of this was a tall order.  We also needed to make sure that we could put together an attractive enough package that other investors would want to join us.  We figured since most of the investors we knew already had commercial real estate in their portfolio and the market was strong in central Texas, that perhaps putting together a real estate deal would satisfy everyone’s criteria.  

And what about Notley’s initial criteria?  A commercial real estate project that would serve as a center of gravity for Austin’s innovators working on scalable solutions to systemic problems would certainly leverage the impact we could have far beyond the project itself. And perhaps this could be a repeatable model in other cities.  It was at least worth exploring further.

Matt McDonnell is a Partner at Notley Ventures, a micro private equity firm focused on the intersection of profit and social impact. He previously served as COO of Famigo, an early childhood EdTech company, and a sailing instructor at Outward Bound. He holds an MBA from the College of Charleston, a JD from the University of Texas School of Law, and has been a contributor to Ed Surge and Venture Beat.