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Northside Economic Opportunity Network

Photo (L-R): Lynn Farmer, NEON Board Chair; Tracey Burton, Target; Marcus Owens, NEON President & CEO

Creating a Pipeline of Entrepreneurs

When your goal is to help entrepreneurs, it helps when you’re an entrepreneur yourself. The Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON) is in good hands. Both its president and CEO, Marcus Owens, and several of its board members, including board chair Lynn Farmer, have that entrepreneurial spirit – and experience. Since Marcus started in 2014, the organization has been on an upward growth trajectory toward its mission of spurring more businesses in Northeast Minneapolis. Last year alone, NEON nearly doubled its operating budget. In addition, NEON added 2,800 square feet to its business incubator space in 2017, allowing more northeast small business owners, entrepreneurs, and consultants to come together.

Board of Directors Keeping Pace

By being really clear on who we are, what kind of board and organization we want to be, and who we want to add, it helps us to maintain our identity, not lose it.

Anytime an organization goes through that kind of growth, it puts pressure on the board to keep up. As a leader, Marcus had a strong vision for where he wanted the organization to go to build wealth and strengthen the entrepreneurial pipeline in Northeast Minneapolis and the surrounding communities. To executive his vision, he knew he’d need to lean even more heavily on his board to get there.

Marcus asked board member Lynn Farmer to steer the board through that growth curve. “Since the organization has been at a point of really high growth and part of my expertise is providing stability and structure to organizations, I think I was a good fit for the position,” said Lynn.

The board had initiated a strategic plan and were on the same page strategically, but they knew that as they sought to add more board members, it would be important to offer more clarity around roles, expectations, and responsibilities. “I think when people hear the work ‘governance’ they think in legal terminology and the process is somehow going to take away the secret sauce of an organization,” said Lynn. “For me, it’s the exact opposite. By being really clear on who we are, what kind of board and organization we want to be, and who we want to add, it helps us to maintain our identity, not lose it.”

Marcus and the NEON board reached out to Propel Nonprofits to help gain more clarity so the board could better help NEON to ultimately support even more low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs in Northeast Minneapolis. “After talking with the board, we created a workplan that hit on NEON’s top priorities: the development of board basics (manuals, roles, committees) and activating a governance committee so the board could be more engaged in NEON’s growth,” said Jennifer Kramm, a strategic services consultant at Propel Nonprofits.

The Power of an Internal Champion

We knew [working with Propel Nonprofits] would get us further faster toward our mission. It’s an investment that’s going to pay off, honestly, in the near-term, not even the long-term.

Jennifer was also quick to acknowledge the critical importance of an engaged board chair, especially when an organization is at an inflection point and needs an internal champion for board development. “Lynn is truly a rockstar,” said Jennifer. “Marcus has been an incredible leader for NEON, and Lynn has been making sure the board is there to support where the organization is going.”

For Lynn, volunteering as a board member is not a passive job. She’s deeply invested in the vision of NEON. “This is my way to support the kind of community I want to live in,” she said. “Board service is my way of volunteering to support my community using the skills that I have.”

NEON is a great example of how Propel Nonprofits’ services can be used a various points of an organization’s lifecycle (it helps when the president is on your board): a loan to help with the business incubator expansion, strategic services to support board development, and NEON recently signed a contract for Propel Nonprofits’ ongoing accounting services. “We all have full-time jobs. There’s no way we could have done some of these pieces on our own,” said Lynn, particularly for board governance work. Plus, as an entrepreneur, she’s all about that ROI. “NEON, even with a great leader like Marcus, was willing to invest in working with Propel Nonprofits. We knew it would get us further faster toward our mission. It’s an investment that’s going to pay off, honestly, in the near-term, not even the long term.”

To learn more about NEON, visit their website at www.neon-mn.org.

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