Empowerment and Redefining Social Good

Liz Powers, Founder of ArtLifting
March 23, 2016

ArtLifting, a Boston-based startup, has created a platform that sells homeless and disabled artists’ artwork which in turn positively impacts them in several ways. It helps them find jobs, housing and gives them a sense of purpose, and an opportunity to feel independent and empowered.

Liz Powers has worked with homeless and disabled individuals in Boston since she was eighteen. After creating and running art groups in local women’s shelters, Liz was amazed by the talent around her, but noticed that much of the art would end up in the trash can or lost in the shelters’ closets. After observing the same problem at other local art programs, Liz and her brother, Spencer, created ArtLifting.

Giving feels good. And it's good for you. Over the past few years there have been numerous studies on the physical and mental benefits of generosity: it promotes a stronger immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety and increases happiness. Generosity is to be commended, especially when it concerns outright financial support of disadvantaged populations. But what happens after the check has been written?

This is a question that most social entrepreneurs have asked themselves. Innovation in tackling stubborn, challenging social issues is one of their main goals. For-profit social enterprise was born out of a need to maximize impact and financial growth and create a business model that promotes sustainable change.

In many ways it comes down to the old "give a man a fish" proverb. Donations are a temporary solution, but building connections and training could empower a way out. If the goal is to promote self-sufficiency, job creation naturally becomes part of the conversation. Job creation leads to empowerment, which leads to self-sufficiency.

So in many ways, the best thing to give to a disadvantaged population is opportunity to earn an income. This, however, is easier said than done, especially given the barriers in certain industries - for example, in the world of fine art.

Even the words "art world" evoke images of exclusivity: the auctioneer with his hammer at a gilded podium, pristine white walls and polished concrete floors, Damien Hirst's taxidermy shark. It's intimidating. But there are more opportunities to gain entry than there used to be. The art world is slightly less impenetrable with the advent of the online art market, which grew 68 percent from 2014 to 2015 and continues to grow rapidly.

The growth of the online art market has brought fine art to a much wider audience, which has led to its democratization. Now, a much larger portion of the population can play a role in defining what art is and determining what art is salable. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the wider the audience, the more "beautiful" art there will be.

Noticing changes in certain industries is tantamount to recognizing opportunities within them. In the case of the art world, its online progress means that artists now have the ability to connect with far more potential customers. ArtLifting, an online marketplace that empowers homeless and disabled artists through the sale and celebration of their artwork, began as a response to the opportunity to connect disadvantaged artists to potential clients.

These artists are treated the same way that all artists are treated by their dealers. They earn 55 percent of the profit from each sale and invest $0 to initiate the sales. They have the chance to earn their proceeds as professionals. ArtLifting is the vehicle that connects them with the countless customers who love their work.

It’s easy to identify populations that need help, but when it comes to sustainable change, it’s much more challenging to identify solutions. On the other hand, solutions often present themselves when there is a focus on individuals’ strengths and potential. Everyone can contribute to society under the right circumstances. Social entrepreneurs seek to construct circumstances that promote positive output and emphasize people’s strengths, which leads to a sense of dignity and pride that is motivating.

And it works. Five artists have gained housing since selling their artwork through ArtLifting, or more accurately, since connecting to customers. These artists were given an opportunity, but their skill and talent manifested the positive results. That's empowerment. Yes, these artists are earning an income, but they also gain confidence because they are contributing to society in a real way, based on their hard work, skill and talent. And it leads to sustainable social good, because if giving feels good, giving that leads to empowerment feels better for everyone.

The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of First Republic Bank.