2018 Annual Report

As chaos swirls at the national level, I remain hopeful knowing there are thoughtful, hardworking people who partner with Isles to tackle tough challenges, build community, and make a difference. Your support makes this possible. This year’s Annual Report shows our work in action.

Take, for example, the over 300 gardeners who make up Isles Garden Support Network. This year, these neighbors and friends will develop and maintain 70+ community and school gardens. Together, they grow healthy food for their families, cool the hot streets with green oases, reduce blight and vacancy (and related crime), and beautify neighborhood landscapes.

Last week, I met with a group of new Isles Youth Institute students. Though they previously struggled in school, they are optimistic about the future. These students aren’t just getting a high school diploma – they are learning vocations and becoming the next generation of leaders in their communities.

To make Trenton lead-safe within 10 years, community health workers, Princeton University students, IYI students, and local contractors are joining forces with Isles. The impact of removing lead from homes and backyards will be healthier kids and families, better students, reduced costs for criminal justice, lower health care costs, reduced energy bills, and more.

As Isles moves into the Social Profit Center at Mill One, we’ll join the growing family of organizations, social businesses, and artists who share affordable spaces and technology in fun, energy efficient office, studio, meeting, and assembly spaces.

These examples are made possible by small groups of committed, optimistic people organizing to achieve powerful results. In fact, this month, 37 years ago, three of us started Isles with no funds, no track record, and limited life experiences. We didn’t wait for Washington or a growing economy to solve our challenges. We thought we could make a difference, and we did. Of course, our work continues to evolve.

Enjoy the 2017 Annual Report and the impactful stories you’ve made possible. On behalf of all of those we serve, thank you.

Once more, we can’t do this work without you. Please give generously today.

In community,


Why Does Isles Do this Work, this Way?

Dear Friends,

People ask, “Why does Isles do this work, this way?”

Well, over 37(!) years ago, we wanted to find better ways to strengthen communities and restore the environment at the local, “isles” level. Since then, we’ve searched and tested the best, affordable pathways to our mission: self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.

After nearly 4 decades of trial, error, learning, and shifting political and financial trends (especially this past year), today’s Isles provides a unique toolbox for families and communities. In four ways, we foster self-reliance. We plan and develop healthy places, build financial wealth, clean up environmental hazards, and educate and train students and workers.

Our staff, board, and volunteers are social entrepreneurs that work with communities to blend local wisdom with the best thinking and evidence-based data across the country. At times that’s a messy process. But it’s the best way we know to succeed. The results are highlighted in this year’s Annual Report.

This year, I expanded my teaching load at the Keller Center at Princeton University, and the Isles leadership team of John Hart, Julia Taylor, Shenette Gray, and Peter Rose stepped up to lead on numerous fronts. We expanded our work on the ground. We shared lessons with others across the state and country. We developed webinars, case studies for the classroom, op-eds, and the first draft of Isles’ history.

This doing and thinking are possible because of organized people and diverse funds. That includes our volunteer board under Michele Minter’s leadership, our awesome staff, and supporters like you, who provide critical flexible funding.

This work is more important than ever, and we can’t do it without you.

Thanks for being there! Check out this year’s annual report, and let us know what you think.

In community,

Book Review: Building on Bedrock

Today, my Princeton colleague Derek Lidow’s book on entrepreneurship, Building on Bedrock, was released. It’s worth the read! Here’s my review:

“Finally, the truth about entrepreneurship.

Derek Lidow methodically and entertainingly debunks the popular myths and magical thinking around successful entrepreneurs. If you think they need to take big risks, raise large amounts of money, innovate, be tech-savvy and “disrupt” industries, think again. Blending honest startup stories and current research, he exposes a vital but perhaps un-sexy reality: the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs ‘start small and grow as they gain confidence.’

His rare access to Sam Walton’s earliest hunches about Walmart is a fascinating tale of that iterative process.

Building On Bedrock is a book that challenges how entrepreneurs are taught, supported and mythologized. We need this more than ever, because our future depends on them.”

Letter to the Editor: The challenge of lead in NJ

A recent cover article on NJBIZ highlights the challenge of lead in our water in NJ.

The problem is, 80% of the lead in kids’ bloodstreams comes from lead in dust, not water. My letter to the editor in response:

“Too many people think that the lead problem was solved decades ago, but a 2015 NJ Health Department study of lead poisoning revealed that in 13 places, mostly cities across NJ, a higher percentage of children had elevated levels of lead in their blood than children in Flint, Mich. Here in Trenton, the percentage was twice as high.

While lead in our water is an important threat, by far the most significant cause of lead poisoning in New Jersey comes from the dust of homes where lead from old paint makes its way into our kids’ bloodstreams. Of course, those in older neighborhoods carry the highest burden.

The good news is that we and others are working to understand the source of the toxic threat and low cost ways to make our homes and backyards safe. (This past year, we tested nearly 400 Trenton homes, and found that more than 70% have lead-based paint, while fewer than 10% had high lead levels in their water.) As a result, we believe that Trenton can become “Lead-Safe by 2027”.

This ambitious goal requires a consistent approach that combines public and private players, applying forward thinking policies that other cities across the country have proven effective, in addition to investments in testing and getting the lead out.

Thanks to NJBIZ for highlighting the lead threat, and we encourage you and your member businesses to join us and others who are tackling the source of 80% of the threat. Dust may not be as sexy as water, but its far more dangerous, especially to those that can least afford it, like kids and the elderly in older communities.

Experts tell us that a dollar invested now in lead safe home repairs will return at least $17, just down the road. We can help NJ’s budget problems by lowering the cost for special education, incarceration, health and social services and other public assistance simply by protecting children’s brains from lead’s damage.”

Interested in making a gift of appreciated stock?

Interested in making a gift of appreciated stock?

Thank you for supporting Isles in our mission to strengthen families and build healthy, sustainable communities. Your generous contribution enables us to help families throughout our region build the lives they want for themselves and their families.

Why give appreciated stock?

Making a gift of appreciated stock is a beneficial way to provide a year end charitable donation.  The gift of appreciated stock can provide tax savings by allowing you to avoid capital gains tax that might be due if you sold the stock. It also entitles you to a charitable deduction based on the stock’s current value.

Giving appreciated stock is simple!   Our preferred method of receiving stocks is via direct transfer to RBC Wealth Management. To make a transfer you will need the following information:

Transfer to: RBC Capital Markets LLC

DTC # 0235
For Credit to: Isles
Account Number: 302-49394
Tax ID #: 22-2350832

If you have any questions, please call Isles’ account advisor, Jonathan Zoll at  609-936-6425 or 888-688-2373. 

Please note: According to IRS tax code [Regulation 1.170A-1(b)], gifts of securities received via DTC will be acknowledged using the mean value of the stock on the date it is transferred into Isle’s RBC account.

Thank you for supporting Isles’ work!

December 2017

It’s the holidays, and we strive to maintain our gratitude and deep appreciation for the season. But in the face of this mean-spirited Tax Bill, we could use a little help in planning for the year-end and New Year. Many expect it to bring far-reaching impacts that we still don’t understand, including $20B in reduced donations nationally in 2018 (because up to 30% fewer people will itemize deductions).

Without that financial incentive, will people donate less? Will they be more targeted with their donations? Should we do what universities and others are doing, and encourage people to give more by year end?

About 18% of Isles’ funding comes from individuals, and it is the most valuable, unrestricted revenues that we receive. It makes innovation, self-help and community-building work possible.

We are not your typical charity – we are an anchor institution that provides services and products (not “programs”) that families and individuals choose to use to move towards self-reliance. See the real impact on lives of those we serve in this 6 minute video. In addition, our 2017 highlights summarizes important work and why your unrestricted gift remains our lifeblood. It makes our work possible.  

These are unsettling times, but we greatly appreciate so many friends for your support and friendship. If you can, consider giving today at isles.org/donate. Thanks for being there. During these times, we need you more than ever!


2017 End of Year Update

These are crazy times. I could start by detailing the threats to our communities and the impact of proposed federal funding cuts on our work, but that’s not my message today.  Isles’ mission of fostering self-reliant families and healthy communities matters deeply, in good and challenging times. The way we achieve that mission – by working with thoughtful, courageous people, across boundaries of party, ethnicity, religion, or zip code – matters now more than ever. You make our work and our approach possible. 

Take, for example, the evolution of the new Social Profit Center at Mill One.  Some years ago, Isles started to run out of office and training space. Instead of simply looking for a bigger place, we asked deeper questions about our next move – the type of “what if” questions that define Isles’ efforts.

What if we could save an old historic building in danger of being demolished and land-filled?  What if we could design the project with leading energy and environmental technology and revitalize a community in need of reinvestment?  What if Isles and other social profit, environmental and arts organizations could co-locate, share affordable spaces, services and resources and find new ways to collaborate – far into the future? 

Could we bring all those benefits to one move?  The answer was yes.

Through a low-cost sale, we acquired the mostly empty, massive old Atlantic Products Mill.  It was audacious, risky and Isles’ largest project to date, requiring a multi-year capital campaign.  And that was just before the Recession of 2008. 

Our years of ambition and perseverance are paying off, as Isles prepares to move into the Center in early 2018, and we welcome organizations and artists to the new state-of-the-art historic mill. It will support Isles and 25+ other groups and help connect Trenton to the region for decades to come. 

What’s most important is this: Isles applies the same kind of holistic thinking that conceived of the Social Profit Center to all our work. Urban agriculture combines the benefits of fresh food, health, civic connections, beautification. Healthy housing makes homes energy efficient and less expensive, and improves the health, intelligence and behavior of children. Community planning and development strengthens social and physical assets in neighborhoods. Isles Youth Institute provides education, job training, life skills and local service projects. Isles Financial Solutions helps where employees take control over their financial lives, benefitting employers as well. These are all core ways that we meet our mission – to foster self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.

As we learn, we increasingly help others – community leaders, policymakers, and educators – invest in communities.  We teach, broaden our impact, and maximize your investment in Isles.  

You make it possible for us to stay hopeful and plan for a healthier future.  Your unrestricted donation makes the biggest difference.  It is our life-blood – by far our most valuable funding.  

This holiday season, give a gift that will keep on giving. From our new Social Profit Center to so much more, we are not a typical organization, and we are only here because of like-minded people like you. 

We need you more than ever.

In community,


PS – Take a look at our 2017 Highlights!

A Message for our Supporters

Dear Friends,

Greetings! I’m pleased to share some good news about an upcoming residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy.

As you know, I currently split my time between Trenton and Princeton, where I teach social entrepreneurship in the Keller Center of the Engineering School.
As I work to bridge the divide between sustainable development practitioners and academics, I was asked to apply for a unique five week residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. I will be joined by 11 residents from around the world, including practitioners, artists, and academics, that work on sustainable development efforts.

While there, I will assemble case studies about Isles’ work for the classroom, and write the history of Isles. I look forward to this rate chance to spread the lessons learned over 36 years of Isles.

I leave on Oct. 23rd, after the upcoming Fall Fest, and I return early December. John, Julia and the rest of the management team at Isles will do a great job in my absence!

Feel free to reach out with questions or feedback before I go. You can get info on the residency here: https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/bellagio-center/residency-program/

In common + unity,


Sponsor a Tree

Become a part of Isles’ history by sponsoring a fruit tree at Isles’ Tucker Street Urban Orchard.

Isles is pleased to announce that more than 60 fruit trees have been planted at our Tucker Street Garden for community members to harvest and enjoy for decades to come. These trees will provide fresh fruit and shade, improve air quality, and lower temperatures, especially during hot city summers.

A variety of trees ensures a bountiful harvest for much of the year: from cherries to peaches to apples, each in their own season. You can choose the kind of tree you’d like to sponsor and complete your donation by filling out the form below. All trees will be accompanied by a plaque, honoring you, your family, or a loved one. 

Watch your $500 gift grow into fresh fruit for our neighbors, a cooler climate for our city, healthier families, and a more sustainable, self-reliant community. 

Thank you to the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation and Vita Fusion for making this orchard possible. 

May 2017

Dear Friend, 

A few days ago, I sat down with an old friend who had just read Isles’ 2016 Annual Report.  “This is very impressive work,” he said, “but as a donor, I’m inundated by political fundraisers, organizations being threatened by political crises, and, oh yeah, big institutions like my college. “
In effect, he was asking, “What’s a caring person to do – invest in meeting ‘urgent’ needs, deeper systemic change, or ‘safer’ institutions?” 
You shouldn’t have to choose.
At Isles, we meet critical basic needs – like food, shelter, jobs, family financial health, toxin-free homes for kids, and education for high school students who had dropped out.  But we do it in ways that foster long-term, systemic change and self-reliance.
How?  We foster community and school gardens (75 sites this year, growing tens of thousands of pounds of food!); develop permanent homes and help families buy their first one or keep them from foreclosure; plan community revitalization alongside residents; test and remediate homes that poison kids, educate and train high school dropouts; and much more.
Beyond services that build self-reliance at the local level, we work upstream to change unhealthy systems. We work to improve regional food systems, promote regulations and approaches that streamline and simplify lead remediation work, and push for commonsense legislation to protect our children from environmental hazards, like requiring a lead-safe certificate upon sale of a home. And we’ve been doing this for 36 years, so we’ve developed the systems and technology to continually improve and measure our impacts, track multiple funding sources, collaborate with others, and learn.
As I told my friend, caring people should demand a lot from their donations and investments. As we navigate these shifting political winds, I trust that thoughtful people like you will continue to stand with us and change the world for the better. We can’t do this without you.

In community,

P.S. Check out our May e-newsletter highlighting recent and upcoming events here.