How can you, your company drive social impact? Five steps to making a difference

WRAL TechWire Live ... Jes Averhart, Geraud Staton, Maggie Kane and Rob Shields.

WRAL TechWire Live ... Jes Averhart, Geraud Staton, Maggie Kane and Rob Shields.


by Rob Shields, Executive Director of ReCity Network, — May 28, 2019 .

Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire Live! hosted a discussion last week that centered on social impact, and how Triangle nonprofits are working like startups to devise innovative solutions to problems facing our region and neighbors. We are reprinting the talks delivered by two of the keynotes. The first is from Rob Shields, who serves as the Executive Director of ReCity Network, the Triangle’s hub for social impact. Based in downtown Durham, ReCity is home to a rapidly growing network of over 40 organizations, all committed to pursuing a shared vision of building thriving communities that are rooted in justice. His presentation follows:

“On June 10, 1946 Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, was refused service at a diner in Franklinton, NC. As he left the diner he lost control of his car and crashed causing life threatening injuries. He was brought to St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh as it was the closest hospital that would serve blacks in the vicinity. It was here that he died from his injuries at 68 years of age. The technology existed to save his life, however it wasn’t available at St. Agnes. It was available at the whites-only Rex Hospital just a few miles away.”

I feel connected to Jack Johnson’s story, b/c 70 years later my wife and I moved into a home just down the street from St. Agnes, starting me on a journey to learn the untold stories of our community. This story also hits home for me, because as a Raleigh native, I was born at Rex Hospital, so learning this story connects me to the disconcerting truth that the doors of opportunity that have always been opened to me–down to the doors of the hospital that welcomed me into this world–have literally been shut in the face of others.

Today we’re here to talk about social impact. But the reality is, you can’t talk about impact without talking about injustice. Because the truth is, social impact work exists in our communities largely because justice does not.

A working definition for justice is “to give people their due”. One side of that is negative – when people do something wrong, they need to be stopped. The other side is positive – to lift up and care for those who have been marginalized. Justice is both retributive and restorative. It is also both individual and social.

So how just is our region? Bryan Stevenson, Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative is quoted as saying “the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

At ReCity, our mission centers around building more just communities. During my time in this work, I’ve seen 3 problems that consistently stand in the way of justice in our communities:

  1. The problem of Proximity

  2. The problem of power

  3. and the problem of partnership

  • Proximity problem: We’re disconnected from the need

Many of us can go throughout our days completely removed from poverty & injustice. I experienced this first hand living in Southeast Raleigh. We’ve literally built roads to enable us to drive around certain sections of town instead of through them.

Stevenson goes on to say how “we must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close”

Otherwise, we draw conclusions about communities where we’ve never been present and people whose stories we don’t know.

  • Power problem: We’re disconnected from our own stories

Creating more diverse tables is a great place to start. But we also have to ask, who owns the table? Because the owner of the table chooses who gets a invitation.


So, let me ask us this morning, who owns social impact?

A few statistics to help paint a picture:

A 2014 study showed that nearly 70 percent of nonprofits state diversity as a core value, and over 60 percent of nonprofits offer services that impact people of color almost exclusively. And yet, only 7 percent of nonprofit executives, 18 percent of nonprofit employees, and 8 percent of nonprofit board members are people of color.

Perhaps most telling of all, foundation funding has never exceeded 8% for organizations led by people of color.

The point here is not to make people feel bad for the power they have. Power is just a charged word we use for the ability to make something of this world. Sadly, that power is often abused. But the point here is not to say, ‘People with power are evil.’ The point is to say, ‘If you’ve been given power or privilege, you have a responsibility to multiply it, to share it, to do everything in your power to give it away.

Because the reality is that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solutions, but farthest from resources and power. If we are to build a more just region, this has to change.

We must amplify voices that have been historically marginalized, because just communities are ones where everyone is empowered to pick up a pen, because everyone gets to co-author part of their own story.

  • Partnership problem: We’re disconnected from each other

Many are proximate to the need, but often justice efforts remain fragmented and siloed, diluting our impact.  

Durham has 4700 nonprofits, 5x national average, “Yet 1 in 4 residents is still in poverty, too many of them people of color. Why? It’s not because these nonprofits are doing shoddy work. Many are doing INCREDIBLE work. But they often come to their own limits and have a hard time knowing who else might be able to step in and help.”

You see, a community is at its best when each of us is empowered to cook our signature dish and serve it to our neighbors so we all can flourish. We don’t just need more people at the table. We need people to know there’s a table to begin with. We need to lock arms and do this together. 4,700 nonprofits, working together, won’t just accomplish what 4,700 nonprofits can do, they will MULTIPLY their effectiveness. I know it’s possible. I’ve see it happen everyday at ReCity.


Connect to the need, to each other, and to your story and the story of your community?

Ask yourself a few questions…

  1. How homogeneous is my network, my community? (Who are the last 10 ppl you texted? Who are the last 10 ppl you had at your kitchen table? Do they all look like you?)

Get Proximate: audit your networks and diversify them

You can start small. Read a book on a topic you care about written by a person of color. Be a regular at a restaurant or gym where you are the minority.

  1. Am I willing to lean in and listen?

Listen. Our communities need more people humble enough to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

  1. What’s my social mobility story?

Learn Your Story & the story of your community: Become a student of your story and your community’s story. There are so many lessons waiting for you.

  1. What’s already working in my community, how can I support it?

Partner whenever possible.

  1. If I have power, where can I give it away so others can flourish?

Empower those closest to the problem.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”

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WRAL TechWire Live places lens on social impact at sold-out event


A Place at the Table’s Maggie Kane, The Helius Foundation’s Geraud Staton and ReCity’s Rob Shields will be the featured speakers at the next WRAL TechWire Live event on May 21 from 7:30-10:00 a.m. Leadership Triangle’s Jesica Averhart will moderate a panel discussion.

The event is sold out.

The free event, hosted at WRAL and presented by Wells Fargo, will focus on defining social impact and why such work is necessary. Learn how Triangle nonprofits are working like startups to devise innovative solutions to many of the problems facing our region and neighbors, and see how startups and businesses of all shapes and sizes can learn to work more like these nonprofits.

Attendees will access resources that can help them plug-in where they best fit and either continue or begin a meaningful journey of engaging “the other” and building communities where all can thrive.

More on our speakers & moderator

Maggie Kane is the founder and executive director of A Place at the Table, the first pay-what-you-can cafe in downtown Raleigh. She graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 and began working for a nonprofit with people experiencing homelessness. By befriending many people living on the margins, she knew something needed to be done. Kane has a heart to serve, a desire to always be inclusive, and a passion for loving people. Through her work with people on the streets, she realized the power of community, the importance of dignity, and the beauty in bringing people together over incredible food. In February 2015, A Place at the Table was birthed, and she never looked back. A Place at the Table opened in January 2018 serving thousands of people in Raleigh with a dignified, healthy, and affordable meal; however, more importantly, a meal that feeds more than just the stomach–it feeds your hearts, souls, and minds. Outside of the cafe, you will catch her running marathons and eating peanut butter.

Geraud Staton is the executive director for The Helius Foundation, a Durham-based entrepreneurial consulting company specializing in small businesses and Necessity-Driven Entrepreneurs (NDEs). NDEs are individuals who are unable to find traditional, living-wage employment, including long-time veterans, single parents, people with criminal records or individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Helius has created a means to arm and protect NDEs and provide all of the services that small business owners need to create sustainable businesses. Staton believes wholeheartedly in the mission of the organization and seeks to improve women and minority-owned businesses.

ReCity Executive Director Rob Shields brings a decade of experience in nonprofit management and service, with a focus on youth development. After serving in nonprofit leadership for nearly five years, Shields joined the visioning team for ReCity Network in 2014, becoming the organization’s founding Executive Director. Observing deep divisions in Triangle communities along lines of race, class, and opportunity, he was motivated to create a network of nonprofits, mission-driven businesses, and faith-based organizations that could collaborate to address the most challenging issues facing our communities. By bringing together dozens of organizations since ReCity’s 2016 launch, he has helped build a social impact hub, responding to demand for a more expansive mission of shared space and shared impact for the hundreds of nonprofits that call Durham home. Shields is a native North Carolinian and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UNC Chapel Hill in 2007.

Jesica Averhart is the Executive Director of Leadership Triangle, a non-profit established to educate and develop regional leaders. Prior to Leadership Triangle, Averhart served as the Director of Corporate Partnerships for Capitol Broadcasting. She’s managed the partnership relationships for Google, Google Fiber, Wells Fargo, Fidelity Labs, Lincoln Financial, Audi, Lenovo, Duke I&E, CFCU, RTP, BCBSNC and others.

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ReCity Network: Seeking Shared Success, Impact


Together means everyone

You may have seen these words on our website, front and center, or on any number of collateral materials here at ReCity Network: “Rewriting the story of our city together.” While many may zoom in on the front end of that sentence, a metaphor for the efforts of our non-profits, mission-driven companies, and faith-based organizations to reshape the success dynamic of Durham by attacking and eliminating individual and systemic problems, I like to focus on the last part.


Just because you have a dream doesn’t mean it’ll come true. Very few of us truly live a dream, and for many, such as the clients of our network members, reality is harsh. When the visioning team for what became ReCity gathered nearly four years ago, we wanted to bring opportunity to every corner of Durham, and we knew that there would be a lot of hard work along the way—never-ending work, in some cases.

To accomplish every challenge laid before us, the founding group behind ReCity realized that we would need to pull together an unprecedented coalition of people united by their abilities to understand the issues facing Durham. This coalition must be defined by both sympathy and empathy for the historic contributing factors to inequitable distribution of wealth as well as the current and evolving problems faced by demoralized and downtrodden groups, starting with youth disengagement.

Our coalition – the network itself – must look like Durham, feel like Durham and experience life like Durham. If you look at Durham itself, it’s a socio-economic and racial/ethnic mosaic of humanity. It’s a city of incredible opportunity, home to economic drivers like Duke University and its health system, thriving life sciences and technology sectors, and a near-peerless climate for entrepreneurs. It’s also home to immense, multi-generational poverty.

Non-Hispanic whites, while financially dominant, make up around 37 percent of the population, second to a black plurality of nearly 41 percent. These two largest groups are complemented by a fast-growing Hispanic/Latino population of nearly 15 percent, as well as a small Asian community. When we looked at these demographics, we realized that in order to release the full economic and social potential of this wonderful city, everyone would need to be involved in a big way – black, white, and brown.

And despite the efforts of local business incubators like our friends at American Underground, we also know that men disproportionately benefit from the wealth afforded by thriving sectors in the Bull City. Our visioning team also figured out very quickly that in order to maximize and optimize opportunities for shared success, we would need leadership from men and women alike.


We launched ReCity last September, largely on the strength of an affluent, majority-white donor base that was eager to open a new avenue for sharing success with all. In a few short months, our network has emerged truly representative of the socio-economic, racial/ethnic, and gender spectrum of our city.

Nine months in, we have amassed nearly four dozen partner organizations. That number alone would be cause for celebration among many when launching a new venture. But we have a more difficult measure of success at ReCity. Without the right partners across the entire spectrum of what makes Durham the city it is, we won’t have the impact we set out to achieve.

So, are we building this network in the right ways? To date, over 60 percent of the member organizations of ReCity Network are women and minority-led, making us a true “by the people, for the people” organization. While societal constructs like privilege certainly aren’t shed when people enter these doors, a renewed sense of hope, optimism, and opportunity for all certainly do beckon those who want to be a part of our mission.

Shared success, shared impact. Together.

We all know that it’s easier to build the organization you want when you start off with the end in mind. People tell me that they get a special feeling when they walk through our building. I think I know why – you can’t help but feel a little better about this world when you see people literally sitting down to have dialogue, collaborate, and work to end poverty and all of its problematic permutations.

Discover ReCity for yourself. Let’s turn those harsh realities for some into that shared dream for all. Together.

Rob Shields is the founding executive director of ReCity Network. Launched in September 2016, ReCity is a social impact hub that promotes collaboration among non-profits and social entrepreneurism.

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