Innovation Ecosystem

Finding fresh new solutions for existing problems

United Way of Rhode Island, Social Enterprise Greenhouse collaborate on new Nonprofit Innovation Lab

Photo courtesy of Sandi Connors

A gathering of the first class of fellows of the Nonprofit Innovation Lab at Oliver Hazard Perry Inc. in Newport.

By Sandi Connors
Posted 1/27/20
A new collaboration between United Way of Rhode Island and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse seeks to help nonprofits learn how to tackle and to solve existing problems – through a newly created Nonprofit Innovation Lab.
How difficult will it be for nonprofits to find points of collaboration in a universe where competition for scarce funding is often intense? How much of the work will be informed by existing research on place-based models of community? Will there be any coordination with existing Health Equity Zones in developing community-based solutions? What kinds of data analysis and evaluation will be created to capture the outcomes of the ideas and the investments?
In education, in health and now with nonprofit innovation, the model for future success is being built upon the methodology of making pitches for funding, as if nonprofits were expected to perform as start-up business enterprises. The process of innovation, however, often does not travel in a straight line, requiring nimbleness and an ability to pivot, to use the business vernacular, in rapid fashion when the best of ideas may not work out. Underlying the difficulties encountered in much of the work of nonprofit agencies is the changing nature of relationships with community, with neighborhoods, and with families – and redefining “engagement” in the digital world we live in.
Defining the changing needs of the clients and customers served, and not the need to perpetuate programs, becomes the key lever.

PROVIDENCE – While many leaders began 2020 with strong resolutions to make this the year for creating bold, new solutions, 10 local nonprofit leaders sealed their promises when they showed up to an “innovation boot camp” that began on Jan. 13.

All were selected in 2019 as fellows in the new Nonprofit Innovation Lab — a collaborative initiative of United Way of Rhode Island and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse. The program lasts 23 weeks and ends with a Shark Tank-like presentation in June, where five finalists compete for seed funding to launch their new ideas.

The concept
The Nonprofit Innovation Lab provides fellows with training, mentorship, peer feedback, and networking opportunities to help them create new solutions to hard-to-solve problems encountered by their agencies.

For example, ideas range from finding new ways to house our homeless population and helping low-income workers launch new businesses, to promoting greater civic engagement and environmental stewardship.

Benefits to selected fellows include: the opportunities of working with a network of experienced mentors; increasing their organization’s visibility; and developing winning proposals.

“As an ‘intrapreneurship’ accelerator, our program provides some of the state’s top social impact leaders with resources to innovate within their organizations,” said program partner Kelly Ramirez, the CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse. “The ultimate goal is to ensure the best opportunities and services to Rhode Islanders, who depend on these organizations.”

How it works
The first phase of the Nonprofit Innovation Lab is “boot camp.” For six weeks, fellows receive intensive classroom instruction, including two, four-hour sessions every week.

The second phase is a “milestone accelerator.” During the next 16 weeks, each fellow will work with a team of three-four coaches/advisors in preparation for the final pitch event.

The pitch event: In June, five fellows present their plans, competing for $90,000 in a presentation format similar to ABC’S reality television show, “Shark Tank.”

Making the pitch
The final pitch event in June will mark the culmination of the first year of the Nonprofit Innovation Lab. It follows six months of rigorous instruction and expert mentorship.

While each nonprofit leader develops a solid plan that they can take to future investors and collaborators, only five of the first class of 10 fellows will be selected to pitch their final plan. The top three will receive a total of $90,000 in prize money [first place, $50,000; second place, $25,000; and third place, $15,000], thanks to funding from corporate sponsors, including BankNewport.

Everyone in Rhode Island can participate by voting via social media.

The opportunity to win funding at the final pitch is not where the story ends for any of the fellows. After completing the intensive training, every one of the leaders will have created, tested and packaged new proposals that are ready for presentation to multiple new partners and funders.

The first class
The Nonprofit Innovation Lab recruited senior leaders from nonprofit organizations serving Rhode Islanders, with budgets of more than $500,000. Applications sought compelling ideas, characterized as “game-changing” in their ability to deliver effective, efficient, sustainable solutions.

“We’re very impressed with the innovation and quality of the proposals; there are some incredible [ideas] coming out of our state’s nonprofit community,” said Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island. “We’re eager to help them hone their ideas to strengthen Rhode Island, and we are proud to support the nonprofit community in new ways.”

The 10 fellows in the first class were chosen from two-dozen applicants during an elevator pitch event in December. They include:

• Mario Bueno, Progreso Latino. To explore ways to expand its Job Club initiative and remove barriers to employment for greater numbers of individuals through generating services revenue.

• Mike Chea, Dorcas International Institute of RI. To transform the agency’s onsite Community Interpreting Training into a digital model to support the growing demand for qualified and certified interpreters.

• Kate Corwin, Smith Hill CDC. To pilot the impact of combining affordable housing and social services for survivors of adverse experiences to provide a more beneficial residency.

• Janice Falconer, Impact Rhode Island. To create self-sufficiency and increased economic impact in local neighborhoods through development of revenue-bearing education classes that fund beneficent programs.

• Raul Figueroa, Fuerza Laboral. To create a pathway for low-income workers to create their own successful and socially responsible businesses.

• Dana Ginestet, College Crusade of Rhode Island. To address the major challenge facing participating students that is the elimination of a robust scholarship program.

• Laura Jaworski, House of Hope CDC. To establish a ‘tiny house village’ as an innovative way to combat Rhode Island’s affordable housing crisis and address social determinants of health for those who are homeless.

• Jonathan Kabak, Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island. To provide empowering education programs at sea and ashore that promotes civic engagement and lead to economic sustainability and environmental stewardship.

• Rhonda Price, Man Up, Inc. To establish an indoor hydroponic vegetable business that provides organizational financial sustainability and economic development opportunities to adult men of color.

• Joshua Riazi, Genesis Center. To develop a food enterprise that redesigns the culinary arts training program model to one that better meets the needs of unemployed and underemployed individuals.

Sandi Connors is the executive vice president and director of strategic marketing and communications at United Way of Rhode Island. This is the first of several articles planned for ConvergenceRI, following the initial class of the Nonprofit Innovation Lab.


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