Famed architect Samuel Mockbee founded his Rural Studio housing project in Hale County, Alabama, because the area was so poor they couldn't afford to have and enforce building codes. This let Mockbee experiment with green design in ways that would have been impossible elsewhere. Three years after his death, Pam Dorr took over what had become known as the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO) project. That was in 2004, a time when HERO housing relied on federal grants for 94 percent of its funding.
As the economy shifted and those grants became scarcer and smaller, HERO lost access to that money. It would have been easy to simply close shop, but Dorr's response is a lesson in resourcefulness to for-profit and charitable organizations alike.
Know What You Want to Do
When federal funding started to disappear in 2009, Dorr took a hard look at what was still available. She discovered those grants were tangential to HERO's mission of being a catalyst for community development in underserved rural areas. "We realized the remaining grants distracted us from our mission," Dorr says.
Instead of devoting their increasingly limited resources to distractions, she opted to drop the remaining grant funding and seek other sources of income. Any business owner who applies the famed "80/20" rule knows the value—and the risk—of this kind of move. Four years later, HERO derives its funding from ownership in four local businesses and a pair of patents.
Focus on Your Strengths
Dorr developed those businesses by identifying how to create income streams, relying on past experience in management for major national brands. She looked at what Hale County had in abundance, and found four resources.
1. Bamboo, which grows rapidly and wild in the region. Dorr and her team now have two provisional patents for building bicycles out of bamboo, and ship their "HERObikes" nationwide.
2. Pecans, an agricultural staple in much of the south. It's hard to find a backyard without at least one pecan tree anywhere in Hale county. They created several candied varieties and their brand Pecans! is on sale at Whole Foods stores throughout the United States.
3. Junk, affectionately called "architectural salvage." There are so many old buildings in Hale County that the community forgot about an entire mansion hidden in a small group of trees. HERO runs a salvage store/thrift shop in downtown Greensboro.
4. Cooking culture, which is already a major part of life in the south. HERO opened the "Pie Lab" next door to its thrift shop, with the restaurant providing both an income stream and an opportunity for local youth to get job training.
"We didn't concentrate on the need," Dorr says about her decision to create businesses to provide the funding they needed. "We concentrated on our strengths, and the strengths of the community."
Keep Looking for Opportunity
Much of HERO's mission focuses on helping local families navigate the labyrinth of home buying with and without government assistance. Dorr looked at the process and realized that many of the transactions involved required a commission or fee paid to a professional or official. She now has her staff getting credentials so HERO can handle the entire process in-house, with the ultimate goal of turning those fees into additional income the organization can use to help the community.
The result of the innovation is a growing economy and vibrant community in an area once known for a lack of both. "Today, youth don't grow up wanting to leave," Dorr says, "We're seeing a shift in education and job training, and a belief in opportunity right here at home."
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Jason has contributed over 2,000 blog and magazine articles to publications local, regional and national. He speaks regularly at writing and business conferences. You can find out more about Jason at his website.