Focus on Small Tweaks as Well as Major Game Changers, Say Experts
Set innovation goals and be
accountable. Consider hiring
employees whose focus
full time is innovation.
The YMCA Diabetes Prevention
Program helps prevent the onset of
diabetes in people who are at high
risk of developing the disease.
recruitment. The one that made a difference was shortening its application
from 20 questions to four.
Redesigning a form isn’t front-page
news, but it had a big impact on Taproot’s ability to fulfill its mission, says
Mr. Hurst. The organization recruited
one-third more volunteers in the year
after making the change.
“We tend to want to celebrate the big,
fancy innovations,” he says. “But there’s
so much amazing, sustaining innova-
tion that’s going on all the time that
doesn’t get celebrated.”
Innovation is an active process that
involves people with different perspec-
tives thinking about ways to do things
better, gathering information, testing
small ideas, and putting together dis-
parate thoughts, says Gerald Cherta-
vian, head of Year Up, a Boston char-
ity that helps low-income young adults
gain skills and entry-level jobs.
“There is a danger in seeing innovation as the inspiration of one person sitting in a dark room with a towel
on their head thinking about the next
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great idea,” he says. “Great innovation
is a culmination of a lot of thought and
the synthesis of diverse opinion.”
Fear of Failure
Paying for innovation is a big challenge, because most groups struggle
just to cover their annual program
needs. Even for groups that have a surplus, restrictions on funds are an impediment to innovation. The use of government money is highly restricted, and
individuals generally want their gifts to
go toward programs.
Unfortunately, even foundations are
not a likely source of money for innovation, say some nonprofit leaders.
Foundations are willing to pay for
program costs and, to a lesser extent,
operating expenses, but it’s very difficult to win grants for high-risk experimentation, says Andrew Zolli, executive
director of Pop Tech, a New York charity that supports efforts to use emerging technology to solve global problems.
“Funders don’t want to fund failures,”
The projects with the biggest potential
A Washington Group Gives Budding Innovators Support to Develop Their Ideas
CULTIVATING NEW IDEAS to help low- income workers build wealth has always been central to the Corporation for Enterprise Development’s
mission. Several years ago the Washington group started the innovation@
cfed program to give structure to that
“Otherwise, we were just relying on
luck,” says Andrea Levere, the organization’s president.
The centerpiece is the Innovators
in Residence program. The Corporation for Enterprise Development has
identified five people who have tested
wealth-building ideas in their communities and given them each a stipend of
up to $50,000 over 12 to 24 months to
help them refine their ideas and their
projects. In addition to the money, the
Washington group also provided assistance from its own program and policy
experts as well as access to its network
of outside contacts.
After just two years, several of the
projects have begun to bear fruit.
One of the first innovators was Min-
dy Hernandez, a researcher at ideas42,
a group of academics and other profes-
sionals who seek to use behavioral psy-
chology and economics to solve social
problems. Her project was to see wheth-
er tweaking antipoverty programs
could influence the choices clients make
to improve their lives. It worked.
When another Innovator in Residence, Stacey Epperson, was chief executive of Frontier Housing, in Moore-head, Ky., she started to experiment
with prefabricated homes as a source of
energy-efficient low-cost shelter, especially to replace aging, sometimes dangerous mobile homes.
The new homes made a real difference in residents’ lives. One elderly
woman living on $800 a month saw her
monthly utility bills fall from as much
as $350 a month to roughly $100. The
drop was so significant that the power
company sent an investigator to make
sure she was OK.
During her residency, Ms. Epperson
negotiated a deal with Clayton Homes,
a large manufactured-housing company, to help design new home models
with the needs of low-income homeown-ers in mind.
She also developed the business plan
for Next Step, a national network of
nonprofit housing groups committed
to using energy-efficient prefabricated
homes in their work. The network currently has 10 members, a number Ms.
Epperson hopes will increase to 22 by
the end of the year.
The stipend provided by the Innovator in Residence program allowed Ms.
Epperson to focus three-quarters of her
time on the project. She resigned from
her position at Frontier last year and
now works full-time as Next Step’s chief
Ms. Epperson doubts the organization would be as far along as it is now
without the time the residency afforded
“Would we be here? Maybe, maybe
not,” she speculates. “But definitely not
this fast. It really catapulted us so we
could get the work done.”
Separate out innovation
projects so day-to-day
tasks don’t overwhelm
Next Step is a new coalition
of nonprofits dedicated to the
use of prefabricated homes as
energy-efficient low-cost housing.
Stacey Epperson started Next
Step while she was an Innovator
in Residence at the Corporation
for Enterprise Development.
New Ways of Thinking
Raising money specifically for the innovation program has been difficult,
says Ms. Levere, of the Corporation for
The group is in the midst of a stra-tegic-planning process, and one of the
questions the organization is considering is whether to continue running in-novation@cfed as a stand-alone project
or to incorporate efforts to foster innovation into its existing programs.
No matter which option the organization chooses, finding new and better
ways to fight poverty will continue to be
a key part of its agenda, says Ms. Levere.
“Tough economic times influence how
you think about innovation,” she says.
“It changes the questions, and it changes the challenges around innovation.
But in tough times, innovation is more
essential than ever.”