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Transformative Action center honored for innovation

Anke Wessels

Cornell University and the Center for Transformative Action (CTA) will receive a 2016 Ashoka U-Cordes Innovation Award in recognition of the innovation, adaptability and maturity of CTA’s model of social entrepreneurship.

A nonprofit university affiliate focused on social change, CTA offers educational programs that help create socially just, ecologically sound communities, and serves as an incubator and fiscal sponsor for startup nonprofit social entrepreneurs at Cornell, in the surrounding area, and across the state. CTA provides fiscal support for 23 projects that reach a diverse set of communities around the world. Current ventures include a student-run grocery store that helps combat food insecurity on the Cornell campus, a platform to inspire international collaboration in green building research and practice, an incubator for new farmers from marginalized groups, and a national coalition for human-rights educators.

“Our model offers a leadership pathway for social innovation and social entrepreneurship education at Cornell,” said Anke Wessels, executive director of CTA. “By providing coursework, training, mentorship and fiscal sponsorship, we support students in developing their social-change ideas from inspiration through ideation to implementation. Our model provides a safe learning environment in which students can test and actualize their ideas, learning from their mistakes, successes and even failures.”

In some ways, CTA operates like other on-campus incubators of student for-profit business ventures, offering services, advice and mentorship. But CTA brings fledging nonprofit social ventures under its legal structure, where they benefit from CTA’s tax-exempt status. This model lessens the time, cost and confusion it takes for startups to become tax-exempt organizations, a status they need to receive funding from donors and grantors. In CTA’s supportive infrastructure, project leaders focus on testing innovative approaches to difficult social problems, establishing viable financial models, and building organizational and programmatic capacity.

“The unique partnership between Cornell and CTA is highly replicable,” explained Wessels. “As more universities across the country explore meaningful and effective ways to bridge campus and communities, they will likely look to Cornell, an Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, as a leader in this field.”

Cornell and CTA will be recognized as award recipients at the Ashoka U Exchange at Tulane University, Feb. 25-27. Wessels will give a keynote presentation about CTA’s innovative model as a university-based incubator of nonprofit social entrepreneurs. Matthew Stefanko ’16 and Emma Johnston ’16 – leaders of Anabel’s Grocery, a new CTA project – will co-present with Wessels. The exchange will bring together more than 700 university faculty, staff and administrators from 120 colleges and universities and 30 countries to share best practices for social innovation in higher education.

Ashlee McGandy is a content strategist at Cornell.

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Melissa Osgood