Bill Strickland on artists and entrepreneurs Matt 22 Sep 2005

16 comments Latest by dhd

Bill Strickland has turned a near bankrupt community training center in Pittsburgh into one of the most successful organizations in America. His work has brought him a MacArthur Genius grant, a Grammy award, an invitation to lecture at Harvard University, and a seat on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts. Now he is evangelizing a hybrid model of social entrepreneurship: “There’s a way to combine the very best of the not-for-profit, philanthropic world with the very best of the for-profit, enterprising world. This hybrid is the wave of the future for both profit and nonprofit companies.”

His take on the overlap between art and entrepreneurship is interesting:

“Artists are by nature entrepreneurs, they’re just not called that,” Strickland says. “They have the ability to visualize something that doesn’t exist, to look at a canvas and see a painting. Entrepreneurs do that. That’s what makes them different from businesspeople. Businesspeople are essentially administrators. Entrepreneurs are by definition visionaries. Entrepreneurs and artists are interchangeable in many ways.”

Sounds like he’s quite a dynamic speaker too. According to Kottke, he blew the doors off the recent AIGA conference. He’s even able to get MBA candidates on board with his message:

“At the end of the lecture, students are lined up wanting to work for me,” Strickland says. “It’s startling. I have students coming up with tears in their eyes, saying, ‘You are doing what I want to do with my life.’ I say, ‘I thought you were in business school because you wanted to run Xerox.’ And they say, ‘We’re here because we wanted to find an opportunity where life could make some sense. You make sense.’ Then I tell them, ‘We’re going to take all this genius, all your enthusiasm, and see the world as a set of possibilities. This is a new game, and I’m one of the guys who’s right in the middle of it. Welcome to the conversation.’”

16 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Irl 22 Sep 05

Social entrepreneurship is indeed the wave of the future, *especially* for many small to midsized nonprofits who can use their particular mission expertise to meet a market need and generate funding for further mission-driven work. The traditional dichotomy has been between mission-driven and market driven enterprises. But savvy nonprofits eschew the mustual exclusivity in favor of a “mission oriented and driven by the need the mission spells out AND the market capital that work around that cause can create.

Interestingly, note that through September 30, has chosen ten socially entrepreneurial nonprofits to feature and gives its visitors a chance to read about ten excellent models and drop them a couple of bucks at the same time. Check it out.

Tim Storm 22 Sep 05

That article was from 1998… anyone have an update as to how things have gone since then?

Brad 22 Sep 05

Social entrepreneurship is indeed the wave of the future, *especially* for many small to midsized nonprofits who can use their particular mission expertise to meet a market need and generate funding for further mission-driven work.

The thing is, this sort of “social entrepreneurship” has been the norm in successful nonprofits for decades…I don’t think it’s anything new. I spent the first decade of my career working for nonprofits in the late 1970s through late 1980s, and they all followed a very entrepreneurial, business-minded approach. Some of my more idealistic colleagues used to complain, in fact, that they felt they were working in the for-profit world. If you don’t run a nonprofit like you would run a business, you’re not going to last long unless you have some dependable sugar daddies, and that’s always been the case.

Irl Barefield 22 Sep 05

In terms of how things have gone since then, there is an article this month on Strickland focusing in large part on his partnership with Jeff Skoll of ebay. So thing’s aren’t bad. See the article at

And certainly management best practices have always been as important in nonprofits as in the private sector. What is growing in frequency, but you are right is not brand new, is the harnessing of private capital earned from work that doesn’t directly serve a nonprofit’s mission, but instead meets a market need. Some of the Amazon examples are very good examples of how this both decreases the reliance on “sugardaddies” and increases ongoing sustainability. Its a hot topic, and the first adopters from years ago are sharing this model often to great success.

Tory 22 Sep 05

Social entrepreneurship is indeed the wave of the future
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new buzzword.

MSF 22 Sep 05

For some reason, this is just what I needed to read today. And tomorrow.

Aaron Post 22 Sep 05

Thanks, that was exactly what I needed today.

V 22 Sep 05

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Strickland speak twice, including at my graduation. He really is an amazing speaker; imagine kids from 1st to 12th grade absolutely captivated by what an old man has to say for an hour—yes, it was that cool.

Dan Hartung 22 Sep 05

Last night I was talking to David Baker, leader of the Smithsonian jazz orchestra. He comes up to me and says, How did you figure all this out, Bill? I told him, I think like you, David — like a jazz musician. Improvisation is my guiding philosophy.

That’s a fine example of speaking someone else’s language, instinctively. It’s probably skills like this that have made him more successful than anything else. Just as with for-profit business, it’s knowing who to partner with, and when, and how to get them to buy into your vision.

Rob Johnston 23 Sep 05

I’ve have heard Bill Strickland speak several times. He brings a carousel of slides and clicks through them while he tells his story of the ‘accidental entrepreneur.’ That’s not his term, but the message I always take from his comments is that there are always opportunities and the trick is to entertain them at all times, even with the most unlikely people.

In each case he describes how a conversation, a tour of his artist workshop facilities and some interested person came together to make a new opportunity possible. He blends the arts training the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild provides for teens with the job training the Bidwell Training Center provides for teens and adults and makes the combination seem nature and responsible.

I always remember Bill saying that his life was “saved by pottery.” He relates that he saw a high school art teacher throwing a pot, and that man introduced him to the skills and disciplines required to make pottery and a life. A better argument for arts education in the schools is hard to find.

Rob Johnston 23 Sep 05

I guess I should read the linked story before relating its opening anecdote myself. The point still stands.

Ben 06 Dec 05

Interesting point, this guy really stands out from the crowd - I would love to see him speak. Suprisingly enough, there is no Wikipedia page on him :)

Thanks for the pointer.

Robert Tolmach 02 Jun 06

For more on social entrepreneurs, see

dhd 06 Jun 06