Altruism often requires a dose of pragmatism. You can’t help those in need without a revenue stream or solid business plan. Erinn McGurn, AIA, wanted to pursue pro bono work after she graduated from architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin in 1998, but first she needed to build her portfolio and resources. She followed the normal course of interning, working for established firms, and moving up the ladder. Then in 2007, when the timing and finances made sense, she founded the New York–based nonprofit SCALEAfrica, dedicated to building schools in rural sub-Saharan Africa. Three years later, she quit her job at Robert Frear Architects in New York to run SCALEAfrica full-time. That same year, she also launched her own firm, SCALEStudio, to supplement her nonprofit work with for-profit projects.
“We’re trying to create a model for working so that pro bono work doesn’t become a total drain on your practice,” McGurn, 39, says. “Sometimes, there’s an expectation that you’ll give away your services. So we think of SCALEAfrica and SCALEStudio as a hybrid organization that is more like a social enterprise than a strictly for-profit or pro bono practice.”
The firms currently share an office, one full-time staff member besides McGurn, and two interns who work for SCALEStudio about 10 hours a week. To date, SCALEAfrica has built a school building, library, and teacher housing for Chiutika Basic School in Zambia. Buildings for another Zambian school complex are in the works, as are projects in Tanzania and Uganda. “I spent 15 years catering to wants, only to realize my skills are best spent on needs,” she says. talked to McGurn to find out how she developed her philanthropic business plan.
Why did you focus your nonprofit on Africa?
My husband [Guy Baron] was born in Zimbabwe, and we visited schools and villages in Zambia in 2006 to have a deeper understanding of southern Africa—not with the intention to act, but just to experience things. After going to Africa a lot, it’s hard to be shocked by the things that you see, but we went to this school that had 1,000 children. … [It was] this dark building with holes in the roof, and the children were sitting on the floor or on bricks. The teacher was writing with chalk on a stucco wall.
What struck me was how eager the kids were to learn. There was a disconnect between where they were learning and what they were excited about. I asked the head teacher if there was anything that we could do to help. He said, “We really need a library.” I thought he was asking us to build a building, but he was asking us to get him a dictionary. So I starting sending them books.
How did books turn into a building?
In early 2007, there was flooding in Africa, and the roof on that old school building peeled off in one piece. Once we made the mental leap that we were going to do something physical, we thought, “Let’s set this up properly, and raise money.” Then we got government approval in August to build a new four-classroom block. I was working in New York, doing a lot of expensive projects, and I mustered the courage to leave my job.
What was the process for getting Zambia’s OK to build?
When we came to them with the idea to put up a building, we had to go to the local government official—but also to the chief. His word is final. These [the Zambians] are educated people, and they have really good intentions for their communities. The chief begrudgingly said that we could work in his area. But when we went back [after the project], we were greeted as friends.
How do you continue to ensure that the buildings are being used as intended, from so far away?
Like any good client relationship, you respect your clients because you’re building for them. The implied deal we struck [with the government officials] is that as we put up more classrooms, they will fill those classrooms with dedicated teachers. At Chiutika, there were four classrooms, nine teachers, and 1,000 students. Now there are 13 classrooms, 13 teachers, and 1,600 students. They’ve met our agreement.
A nonprofit came out of that experience. Where does it get its funding today?
For SCALEAfrica, we raise all of our money from private donors—no grants. We’ve chosen that path because then you’re developing personal relationships with people. In a few years, we’ve seen some nice growth. People who gave us $50 are now giving $500 because they see buildings. That’s the great thing about buildings; they’re tangible.
And how does the relationship between the nonprofit and the for-profit work financially?
SCALEStudio is a revenue-generating model, although we offer our design service at a reduced rate to nonprofit institutions. Ten percent of our time is spent on pro bono projects for nonprofits. Private clients are billed at market rate. A significant portion of SCALEStudio profits, not revenue, are donated to SCALEAfrica. In the future, some SCALEStudio profits will be invested in social-investment funds that support technologies we use, like water filtration, solar collection, alternative-energy technologies, etc., to provide small returns to benefit SCALEAfrica. Each [firm] is dependent upon the other in either a financial or shared knowledge and experience sense. What we make from SCALEStudio benefits SCALEAfrica. What we learn from our SCALEAfrica building projects and community engagements informs how we approach the design of SCALEStudio projects. It’s qualitative and quantitative.
Many firms donate 1 percent of their time. You donate 10. How do you make a living?
It doesn’t bankrupt me for a few reasons: There is so much overlap of knowledge, research, design detail in what each entity does that it’s not twice as much work. The extra work comes in the different forms of taxation and the separation that must remain between the two. I roughly split my time between the two, but what I pay myself through SCALEStudio is well, well below what I was making in my last position.
Compensation and traditional benefits in the office are below market rate, but certainly livable. SCALEStudio is not even two years old; it’s a toddler. The longer-term goal is to be able to pay employees market-rate salaries by scaling [up] and having a higher volume of projects, so that these public-interest design projects can generate both real and social capital in a sustainable way for everybody involved. Taking on this kind of practice shouldn’t mean low compensation. It’s a growing pain, part of starting small.
Why is it important to you to create a new prototype?
There’s a whole generation of architects interested in this kind of work; they’re starting out their careers looking for this, as opposed to me starting backwards. We need to figure out a way that we can do work that has social value and doesn’t bankrupt us. There’s a groundswell for doing pro bono work; it’s altruistic, but in the long term, we need to be smarter business people. I think we owe it to all of the students to help them find a sustainable living.
There’s a sector of the population that needs design services more than they ever have. And there are also more architects than ever who want to do this kind of work. We need to find a way to organize ourselves.
Where is SCALEAfrica going next? How big will it get?
We’d like to shift our funding model to include grants and philanthropic dollars from foundations. We’re also going to place a design fellow from Harvard on the ground, to search out the need [for architectural services] in the broader area. We want to scale up immensely, but slowly, so as to not go charging around Zambia.
We’re constantly trying to learn and absorb info. Our five-year plan is to begin to work in other communites in Zambia. And then—hoping that [my husband’s home country of] Zimbabwe changes politically—we’d love to do these types of projects there.
How do the recipients of the new buildings thank you?
The best part is seeing how much happier the kids are. Students that we saw four years ago tell us how much they like being in the new building, and how much easier it is to read: They can see their books and it’s not hot [inside the school] anymore. It’s the best thing that you can hear because then you know the building actually works.
This article has been amended since first publication to indicate that SCALEStudio offers design services at a reduced rate to nonprofit institutions, and to add that SCALEStudio is working in Tanzania and Uganda.