A Case Study: HourSchool, by Alex Pappas and Ruby Ku



HourSchool began as a project about homelessness at the Austin Center for Design. We met with homeless people and listened to their stories. The people we met are like you and me, but going through tough times and trying to improve their situations. We found that their biggest problem is perception—both in how society perceives them and how that perception affects how they perceive themselves.

Over and over, homeless people told us that the best part of their day was when they could help others and share what they know—from carpentry and roofing to oil painting and computer skills. Self-actualization, at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, is at the core of what makes us human. It needs to be fulfilled so we can desire to live, not just be able to live. That desire is often what separates people who are chronically homeless from those who are trying to change their situation. And that's where HourSchool diverges from many social-service organizations, including those that provide essential services such as shelter, food, and medical help. They exist on the belief that the bottom layers of Maslow's pyramid must be served before one can move up into social, esteem, and self-actualization needs. But although survival depends on meeting physiological needs, their fulfillment is not enough to lift someone out of homelessness. We combined this belief with our observations of people's enhanced self-esteem when they share their knowledge. These insights led us to focus on people's assets, not their liabilities. For homeless people to feel power to change their situations, we began to look at what they could offer.

The innate need of all of us to feel needed, useful, and part of a community remains true regardless of economic situation and residential status. It applies to anyone who doesn't have outlets to give back and share what they know—the retired folks, the college-educated barista, and those who don't necessarily get to use all of our skills and passions in our day job.

On mission creep

Working to build an enterprise to maximize social impact, we struggled every day to balance serving those who need us the most but can't pay, with those who can pay for the service and keep us financially sustainable. We allowed a certain amount of mission creep as an alternative to reliance on grant cycles and the fundraising model of the nonprofit world. Although our goal was not to maximize profit, a for-profit company was a fitting vehicle for the idea to keep moving forward and to become self-sustainable. Therefore, we looked for other corporations that would find value in our solutions and pay for them. Because of limited time, resources, and energy, small teams are especially vulnerable to mission creep.

On the skill of starting something

A small team on a start-up venture presents other challenges. The types of expertise—finance, operations, marketing, technical development—that a large firm usually provides were not available in starting our own company. Learning how to create something from scratch had a steep learning curve with inevitable failures and mistakes. Creating social impact through ventures required a sustained focus in an area of passion through rounds of success, failure, and evolution. But being a start-up also conveyed a certain freedom, in that we had no brand, legacy product, or people to protect. Instead, momentum and progress became the most important assets.

On measuring impact

The goal of starting a social enterprise is to make a difference. To know if we were succeeding, we first needed to understand what success means to us, as well as how our definition of success might be similar or different than those of investors and donors. For example, we worked with an organization that provides subsidized housing for people who are transitioning out of homelessness. The organization's donors measure success by the number of classes and number of people attending. However, the organization itself looks to other metrics, such as increases in income, education, community involvement, and length of stay in housing, plus intangible, emotional benefits such as increases in self-esteem and rebuilt relationships. These intangible goals require a different perspective than those that result in quantifiable growth. At the same time, though, growth attracts more funding, attention, and talent—resources to do more with less. The challenge for a social entrepreneur becomes keeping this delicate balance through the various stages of growth.

Continue to the Next Chapter:
Concept Mapping

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving