As we review the grant applications that were received for the Lora M. and E. C. Robins, Sr. Community Innovation Grant, we are reminded of the African proverb: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.” We are looking for each proposal to demonstrate how the applicant is collaborating with others on their project.
Collaboration isn’t a new concept in grant making. In fact, it’s hard to find a funder who doesn’t ask a question about collaboration somewhere in their grant application. And while it isn’t new to the Robins Foundation either, collaboration has taken a more prominent role in our mission of strengthening this community through our goal areas.
In his blog essay “Building Collaborative Communities,” (ScottLondon.com; 2014) Scott London cites two definitions of collaboration which we find especially applicable. The first is from Barbara Gray’s 1989 book, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. She defines collaboration as “a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible.”
Additionally, London points to Collaborative Leadership, by David Chrislip and Carl Larson. They define collaboration as “a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties who work toward common goals by sharing responsibility, authority, and accountability for achieving results.” What is important is that the collaborating parties work together to develop and achieve their shared vision. This is very different from “coordination” in which the parties align their work, but are never connected by the ties of building the goals together. The result is something that neither could achieve had they pursued similar goals independently.
Collaboration is THE key element of innovation because it unites different perspectives around one goal. No one knows this better than Jason Roberts, the founder of the Better Block Project. In 2010, Roberts brought together a variety of individuals, non-profits, government officials, and for-profit businesses to transform a two block stretch of his Dallas, Texas neighborhood. Their goal is to act as “a living charrette so that communities can actively engage in the ‘complete streets’ build-out process and develop pop-up businesses to show the potential for revitalized economic activity in an area.” Their little experiment has grown with more than 50 Better Block weekends occurring. Richmond joined the list this past June to transform several blocks along the 25th Street corridor in North Church Hill. To make this happen, Capital One funded mini-grants for business owners to transform their storefronts. The Storefront for Community Design provided architectural services to help the grant winners execute their designs. SportsBackers organized a 5K race through the area. Artists filled the walls with color and imagery. A farmer’s market popped up in the heart of an area designated a “food desert” by the Mayor. Other event partners included Bon Secours, Bike Walk RVA, Habitat for Humanity, The Partnership for Smarter Growth, Project: Homes, Groundwork RVA, The City of Richmond, Richmond Association of Realtors, The National Association of Realtors, and Davita. Most importantly, the residents of the area took an active role building mini-parks, painting old buildings, creating pop up shops, and joining in the celebration.
This is not the first effort to revitalize the 25th street corridor. Many of the Better Block participants have been working on their own and in small groups for years to help this area return to the vibrant, dynamic community it once was. Residents and other participants experienced a vision which had only lived in artists’ architectural renderings until then. Innovative transformation doesn’t happen without a collaborative approach to community building, and innovation does not thrive without collaboration.
It is the interplay of diverse approaches that, in the end, yields truly unique, creative solutions. As we read through the grant applications for the Community Innovation grant, we look forward to seeing the same things come alive in the proposals.
One hundred ideas generated by one person will never be as rich and diverse as ten ideas generated by ten people working together…
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 nonprofit 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 nonprofits, 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. Nonprofits 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!