One year in, strategic lead Lizz Pawlson reflects on The Studio @ Blue Meridian
One year ago, we made our first investments in a select group of social sector organizations whose visionary leaders had bold ideas and strong track records of success but lacked sufficient resources to overcome obstacles and evolve their strategies in order to bring these existing solutions to scale. That was the start of The Studio @ Blue Meridian — an investment portfolio that aims to address a stifling gap in the social sector market: the lack of flexible funding and tailored resources leaders need to test, refine, and prepare to significantly ramp up the most promising solutions to the problems that limit economic mobility for young people and families.
In over a decade of work with social sector organizations, I’ve seen firsthand the consequences of this gap in funding. A new start-up or an established organization seeking dramatic growth could access resources to scale their current model, but few options exist for leaders seeking to innovate or experiment on their model to ensure the viability of a pathway to scaling. The result? Too often, a lack of access to the right resources at critical junctures prevents our most talented leaders from taking their strategies to the next level. Our goal with The Studio is to accelerate organizations’ readiness for scaling so they can reach their full potential to solve big problems.
The Studio was structured to provide tailored advisory support and flexible financial resources of up to $10 million in a similar fashion as other portfolios at Blue Meridian — but also to facilitate innovation and spur experimentation. In our initial model, we’ve had the opportunity to partner with several organizations at once, allowing for a new level of collaboration and knowledge sharing. The Studio provides both Blue Meridian and the organizations we support the platform to test new ideas, iterate, and enhance strategies as we work toward expanding our impact. It also allows us to act upon one of our guiding philosophies: That empowered with unrestricted funding invested in their own plans, social sector leaders are better able to make the right decisions for their organizations and tackle barriers to growth. Our overall aim is to work quicker than traditional scaling investments, with the goal of hastening an organization’s readiness to scale.
We launched The Studio in 2019 with seven organizations from across the country, each with its own promising approach to combating key drivers of poverty among young people and families. For this first cohort, we sought out organizations with visionary leaders, a track record of strong performance, and a desire to address key barriers preventing them from pursuing significantly greater scale. Each organization was matched with advisors tailored to their needs, and, with their input, they developed a 2 year action plan, laying out what they would test in order to break through these barriers. To date, we have invested over $50 million in these seven organizations: LEAD, OneGoal, New Leaders, College Possible, Waterford UPSTART, Compass Working Capital, and the Family Independence Initiative. And in this process, we’ve learned from fellow funders like Valhalla and the Gates Foundation, among others, and aligned efforts when we were funding the same organizations. Now at one year in, it’s clear that these seven participating organizations have raised their ambitions and matched their bold ideas with a sharpened focus and real-time learning.
Of course, that has all taken place against the backdrop of the most immense challenges that social sector organizations have ever encountered.