Why Innovation Grants Matter

Innovation isn’t always a smooth process. It requires a willingness to step away from the day-to-day work to think bigger, and to think differently. Innovation requires risk. Funding and implementing innovation requires a tolerance for failure in the pursuit of a goal. For us, the goal is community building.

When Robins Foundation offered the Lora M. and E. C. Robins, Sr. Community Innovation Grant last month we committed ourselves to these two principles. We encouraged the non-profit community to do the same. Sixty-two organizations from the Greater Richmond community took a chance and submitted proposals for the inaugural grant. We start the reading and review process this week!

With both the philanthropy community and the non-profit community becoming aligned around community needs, a window could be opened for new solutions and approaches to addressing those needs. For some funders, this is rethinking the way grants and grantees are evaluated. Rather than looking at past performance of a program, the future potential impact becomes more important to measure. Required audited financials are replaced with deeper questions about financial health and business models. Opening up an innovation grant to the community suggests that funders consider organizations outside of the usual suspects. Since the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created its Grand Challenges Explorations grant in 2008, it has seen an average of 6,000 applications each year from more than 57 countries. The sheer quantity obliged the foundation to examine the entire application review process. Similarly, it compelled staff to stretch their own subject matter expertise.

For non-profits, thinking differently often means simply taking time to think. Innovation grants encourage staff to pause and contemplate the opportunity to solve community issues in another manner. In 2010, the Rural Health Group in North Carolina looked for better health treatment options for individuals from emerging neighborhoods. A grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust funded a proposal to integrate mental health services into community clinics. Onsite mental health and substance abuse specialists holistically treated all aspects of a patient health instead of only addressing symptoms. Without the encouragement from the Reynolds Trust to think differently about the problem, RHG staff might have only continued to do what they had been doing. The grant enabled them to move from incremental improvements in their work to truly revolutionary changes.

The same outcome happened across the country. In late 2013, Salt Lake City, Utah became one of the first communities in the country to collaborate and create a “housing first” initiative- addressing chronic homelessness by providing homes to homeless neighbors instead of shelter placement first.  Placing people in housing immediately changed not only the order of services provided but the access. The program is the brainchild of a team based approach to community building. Team members include city government, faith based agencies and corporate and private philanthropy. Significant funding to non- profit, direct service organizations was collectively raised by team members.

Innovation grants encourage both funders and non-profits to take risks. For funders, reputation and limited giving budgets and yearly allocations are on the line.  An organization that is truly pushing the boundaries will occasionally make some bad bets. Of the 850 grants of $100,000 that the Gates Foundation made in its first round of the Grand Challenges Explorations program, only 51 projects received a second round of funding to further explore their work. When this happens, funding organizations are sometimes open to criticism for diverting funds away from more traditional and proven programs. At Robins Foundation, we see these “failures” as data points and believe grants are calculated risks and as such, are a key part of the innovation process.

Innovation grants encourage non-profits to take risks too. Failure of a traditional grant funded program isn’t usually an option. No one wants to write the grant report about a tried and true education program that didn’t succeed. The traditional grant process often constrains the applicant to ask for funding for programs which will meet the goals outlined in the application. Non-profits need the latitude to propose untested ideas. Success is not measured so much in comparisons to the previous year’s benchmarks as it is measured in the broader question of “Did we fundamentally change how we approach this issue?” Everyone hopes the new idea works, but they also recognize that it might not. Innovation grants provide the opportunity to operate in this ambiguous space. Partnership with funders can protect and buffer future funding opportunities – increasing the comfort level of both sides.

There is dignity in risk— and providing stimulating calls to action through unique funding opportunities can be one method of spurring innovative solutions to age-old community issues. An innovation grant can attract funders and grantees alike to take a step back from those issues, reframe them, and take a chance on trying something new.

We are looking forward to sharing the best proposals for innovation and change with you over the coming months. We’ll announce our winner December 4, 2014. Stay tuned!


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