“Imagine a world,” says Suzanne Muchin, “in which children were cared for by a community that understood their basic needs.” While you’re at it, imagine a nonprofit that’s not only educating the public about early-childhood development but also reinventing the business of being a nonprofit. That’s Muchin’s mission as CEO of Civitas, a Chicago-based organization that was founded in 1993 by Jeff Jacobs, president of Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Entertainment Group.
Initially, Jacobs created Civitas as a foundation designed to give grants to students of law, medicine, and social work who were focusing on abused and neglected children. Nine years later, under Muchin’s leadership, Civitas — Latin for “community” — has evolved into an innovative, even radical, nonprofit with ambitious social goals and bold business practices. By creating front-end products that address the needs of children and forming partnerships with such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Allstate Life Insurance to market those products, Muchin and her full-time staff of six are rewriting the rules about what being a nonprofit means.
Muchin’s ambitions for Civitas are fueled by her belief that the time has arrived for an aggressive agenda on behalf of America’s children. There is more information than ever available on brain development and the critical importance of children’s earliest years. At the same time, Muchin says, there’s more confusion than ever. New mothers leave the hospital so soon after giving birth that they often don’t learn real caretaking skills, and they rarely live in multigenerational families in which older relatives can dispense advice — as was more often the case in the past. As a result, many new parents lack the most basic facts and skills about child-rearing, from how to give a bath to how much sleep a toddler needs. To get at that need, Civitas produces informational products that new parents can rely on. “If people have better information, they make better decisions — period,” Muchin says.
Another part of Muchin’s ambition for Civitas involves her belief that the organization can have widespread impact because it has found a way to scale — much like a business. In the past few years, Muchin has led Civitas through a transition, from being a foundation that gave away money to being a for-profit/not-for-profit hybrid that challenges basic ideas about philanthropy.
For Muchin, the epiphany about Civitas’s direction occurred in June 2001, during a board-meeting audit review. In the previous fiscal year, Civitas had raised $4.2 million to create a video and to pay Parenting Group (the publisher of Parenting magazine) to distribute the video in the promotional bags it gives to new mothers at hospitals. A board member remarked that it was ironic that Civitas had not only raised the money for the project, but also had been required to list that money as a liability rather than as an asset because of its status as a nonprofit.
“All of a sudden, I woke up out of a cloudy mess,” recalls Muchin. “I said, ‘This is an asset. Why are we paying other people to distribute a product that enhances their bottom line?’ “
Soon afterward, Civitas partnered with iVillage to distribute the video to new mothers — and this time, the deal gave Civitas a cut of the sponsorship dollars that iVillage raised to pay for the video. Since then, Civitas has earned revenue by distributing another video — this one for grandparents — with sponsorship from Allstate, and a book, Understanding Children, with sponsorship from Johnson & Johnson. Civitas’s next major initiative: Spotlight Projects, a nationwide contest that will give organizations and individuals the chance to submit ideas for information campaigns on different topics of parenting.
“There are lots of not-for-profit organizations that sell goods and services,” Muchin explains. “At Civitas, we design our product for the end result. Our program is product, the product is information, and the information is packaged for a distribution system that’s central to our mission.”
Civitas uses the money it earns in sales to distribute free information to people in low-income communities. This capitalism-with-a-twist approach has changed the organization at every level. “You’re not trying to attract money in a traditional way,” Muchin says. “You’re actually pitching product. And you’re going into meetings with a different attitude. Sitting across the table from the CEO of any company, you’re not trying to tell this guy why by partnering with us he’s doing something that’s philanthropically good, with a halo effect for him. No, it’s a good business decision.”
Once a transaction is about business rather than pure philanthropy, Muchin has noticed, the company on the other side of the table is far more willing to invest both more money and more energy. “Now they’re going to work to promote your product,” Muchin says, “because it’s valuable to them as well.”