Social Entrepreneur - Nancy Carstedt

As executive director of the Chicago Children's Choir, Nancy Carstedt runs a high-impact, fast-growing nonprofit that touches the lives of tens of thousands of children.

It is a typical summer Tuesday, and the 10-person senior staff of the Chicago Children's Choir is gathered around a conference table at the organization's headquarters in downtown Chicago. word spreads through interesting networks. I asked for the CDs on Friday night so that I could bring them to the cheese man at the farmer's market on Sunday," says the compact woman with the raspy voice at the head of the table. The group chuckles, but with a hint of uncertainty. The woman goes on to explain that the man whom she has been buying cheese from every Sunday realized that she works for the children's choir he had seen on television the week before. Coincidentally, he's a musician too, and now he wants to look into organizing a concert appearance with the group. The group nods in understanding and starts chattering about the opportunities for a performance in a new neighborhood.

This is business as usual for Nancy Carstedt, president and CEO of the Chicago Children's Choir -- a 45-year-old Chicago institution and the nation's largest organization devoted to young people's musical education. More than that, the choir is often the only contact children have with kids of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, and it's frequently a safe haven for all of its members from the dangers of city streets.

In the 11 years since she signed on as the choir's leader, Carstedt has grown it from a single Hyde Park - based group of 300 members to a citywide enterprise enveloping 3,000 children in 73 neighborhood- and school-based choirs. She is currently developing the group in a number of ways, including launching a charter school this fall with 150 children in grades four through six that will be based on the model of the Boys Choir of Harlem, in New York. The school's goal is to offer a world-class curriculum that uses music as the lens through which each subject is taught, with special emphasis on the choral program. Students will also take time out for tours and performances throughout the year.

And that is just one of Carstedt's initiatives. Others include providing music instruction on a contract basis for more than 44 Chicago public schools that, due to budget cuts, can no longer provide in-house instruction. She also initiated a cataloging of the choir's extensive music collection -- which includes many original pieces -- and the preparation for its licensing and sale to other performance groups.

Carstedt has also promoted corporate partnerships that leverage the Choir's intellectual capital. A few years ago, when British Airways was looking for a way to teach its executives about the value of coaching and knowledge sharing within its corporate ranks, the company sent 300 sales executives to Chicago to attend a conference on coaching. During the event, each executive was teamed with a child from the choir, and the pairs exchanged stories about all of the ways that different coaches had changed their lives. The experience was so meaningful to the British Airways executives that many of them have kept in touch with their choir coaches over the years. Some have even funded the college educations of their young friends.

Why the business-style innovation? Unlike most nonprofit organizations, which live year to year on budgets that depend upon grants and the kindness of strangers, Carstedt's goal is to create a self-sustaining organization. "There is so much more flexibility in what you can do with the money when you've earned it yourself," she says. To that end, she has traveled the country over the past few years on a series of fellowships, studying other successful nonprofit groups. She has tried to gain information and expertise that will help move the Children's Choir even closer to its goal of self-sustainability.

She is succeeding in leaps and bounds. When Carstedt arrived at the choir in 1990, nearly 90% of its income was contributed by public and foundation grants and by individual sponsors. Now, 11 years later, the programs and partnerships that she has developed have brought contributed income down to 46% of the choir's annual revenue. Carstedt's goal is to lower this percentage even further, to 30%.

What drives her to continue expanding the horizons of the choir? It isn't just music. "It's powerful to bring all races and creeds together to create something beautiful. It's a metaphor that we as a society -- as a world -- should latch on to." Carstedt pauses for a moment. "This organization shows kids how to rise above the challenges in their lives simply by providing a safe place for them to express themselves."

Back in the staff meeting, Carstedt taps her pencil on the table to bring the conversation back to plans for the upcoming performance season and the opening of the charter school. She commends a staffer for the idea of gathering names of concert attendees and contributors into a mailing-list database. "We've never collected names for lists like this, but this is something we should be looking into," she says. "Like I said, word spreads through interesting networks." She taps on one name from the VIP list of contributors to the choir. "See this woman? She was a client of the extermination company I used to work for. I used to call her every three months for an appointment. And now look what we talk to her about." The staff laughs. Someone calls out, "And that's why Nancy's Nancy!"

With that, the meeting is adjourned.

Alison Overholt (aoverholt@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer based in Silicon Valley. Contact Nancy Carstedt by email (ncarstedt@ccchoir.org).

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