Nearly a decade ago, friends Kristina Lowenstein and Catherine Tannen were both moms of young children. They found themselves brainstorming about restarting the volunteer work that had been important to them before they had kids — and involving their families in volunteering at the same time. In 2011, the pair founded the Honeycomb Project, a nonprofit that hosts hands-on volunteer opportunities to help families learn about and address social challenges facing Chicago.
The response was overwhelming ... literally. Two years after launching Honeycomb, the co-founders were on the verge of burnout. “It was just the two of us creating and leading all of these high-touch volunteer opportunities with multiple partner organizations,” Lowenstein remembers. “We felt incredible pressure to meet the growing demand, so we were putting all of our time and energy into scaling our programs in a small way, but that wasn’t sustainable. All of our programs are so different: On a single morning, we might be facilitating a cleanup with eighty people at Rainbow Beach and hosting an intimate breakfast for guests at Sarah’s Circle shelter for women.”
At just the right moment, Lowenstein says, she met Christina Hachikian, then executive director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Hachikian teaches the Social Impact Lab course, which matches teams of students and faculty coaches from Booth, the Harris School of Public Policy, and the School of Social Service Administration with community nonprofits to provide free consulting services.
Lab students get a deep understanding of the day-to-day operations of social ventures, and the nonprofits benefit from students’ input on how to solve real-life operational challenges. Since 2009, the lab has helped more than seventy Chicago-area nonprofits and social ventures scale their work, improve their efficiency, and plan for long-term sustainability.
Lowenstein says the partnership with the lab team was game-changing for Honeycomb. “They understood that we wanted to grow without losing sight of what makes Honeycomb so unique —providing meaningful opportunities for children to volunteer alongside their parents and develop a lifelong love of service.” The founders and their lab team worked on creating a strategic plan that included a fundraising strategy, a road map for staffing, benchmarks for the future, and recommendations for building the right board of directors to support Honeycomb’s growth.
“When you’re on the inside, it’s hard to see your organization’s challenges clearly — or the solutions. Our team from the lab helped us find the confidence to make bold decisions that balanced building quality programs with long-term scale and growth.”
—Kristina Lowenstein, Honeycomb co-founder and executive director
Today, Honeycomb operates with a full-time staff of four, plus twenty-five freelancers who lead hundreds of projects each year in communities across the city. More than 25,000 children and families from 92 percent of Chicago’s ZIP codes have participated in volunteer projects, with 75 percent of Honeycomb volunteers coming from low-to-moderate-income communities.
“Our work with the lab put us on the path to sustainability and scale,” Lowenstein says. “Without them, I don’t know that we’d be on the path we are today. We’re more excited about our work than ever; it’s clear that engaging the next generation is critical to building a brighter future for our city and our world.”