Blog: Amplify

Rhode Island Community Foundation breaks the mold with Innovation Fellowships

Lessons Learned

Jessica David, vice president of Strategy and Community Investments for the Rhode Island Foundation says the Innovation Fellowship been an ongoing learning process in a range of ways. Among her key takeaways for managing an initiative that is a departure from traditional approaches:

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good: New approaches are certain to be a bit messy and unpredictable. David recommends spending time upfront to create strong processes, and then go for it. “We tried to create a sense of momentum and opportunity and keep it moving forward. It wasn’t always perfect, but we ended up with solid results.”

Be open to experimentation: New ideas require new thinking – even if it feels uncomfortable. “For this to work required us to sit back at times and say we don’t have all the answers and we want to hear from you in the community. If it’s a different way of working, don’t let that scare you off.”

Put a good team in place: The Innovation Fellowship owes much of its success to an actively engaged selection committee panel that was carefully selected for diversity of thought, experience and background. “The people on our panel have been very involved. If it wasn’t for them, this would have been more staff-driven and probably would have led to a more traditional selection process.”

By Scott Westcott

If you want to encourage break-through approaches to community challenges, the first step just might just to be to devise an innovative grant-making program.

That was the thinking behind creation of the Innovative Fellowship, a unique program managed by the Rhode Island Foundation that provides seed funding for ideas that are aimed at making a social and economic impact in the Ocean State. Annually, two fellows receive up to $300,000 spread over three years to develop, test and implement innovative ideas aimed at dramatically improving any area of life in Rhode Island.

The effort is the brainchild of Letitia and John Carter, successful entrepreneurs who approached the Rhode Island Foundation with the vision of establishing a program that did not follow the traditional grant application process and would encourage cutting-edge thinking and risk-taking to see if innovative ideas were viable and sustainable.

“It’s truly an amazing approach,” says Soren Ryherd, a 2012 recipient of the Fellowship. “The projects that have been funded all have a real opportunity to make a dramatic impact, but I don’t think any of them would have fit any traditional path of non-profit or even for-profit funding.”

‘Smart, creative people out there’

For Jessica David, vice president of Strategy and Community Investments for the Rhode Island Foundation, the Innovation Fellowship marked a departure from the business-as-usual approach to advising and managing philanthropic programs.

“The Carters came us knowing that there are smart, creative people out there who have good ideas, but who never had the opportunity to try them out,” David says. “We were very uncertain how it might play out, but the great thing about the Carters is that they came at it with a mindset of, ‘Let’s try this out and see what happens.’ They were very open to experimentation, which gave us a comfort level to experiment ourselves and put the best process in place to make this successful.”

The framework aimed at one clear goal: Devise an approach simple and unique enough that people -- who may not have the time, resources or expertise to go through a lengthy application process -- would step up and pitch innovative ideas about solving a community problem or driving economic growth. In addition to the low-barrier-to-entry motivator, the program has an enticing carrot -- the prospect of $300,000 to two annual recipients promised to attract interest from serious applicants with big ideas about addressing community challenges.

A panel was assembled of community leaders from the business, education and non-profit sectors to review applications and ultimately choose the winners. Then the streamlined three-step application finalized. Most notable is the first phase in which applicants simply frame up their idea on a single page and e-mail it to the Foundation.

“The Carters were clear they didn’t want a typical grant application process where you have to assemble and submit a huge amount of information up front,” David says. “They didn’t want people to have to hire a grant-writer to get in the game.”

‘We were blown away’

That simplicity was a key driver to motivate Ryherd to submit his one-pager for The Retail Project, an idea that had been rattling around in his head for years. The Retail Project aims to “flip traditional retail incubation on its head” by launching ventures with on online presence first and then only establishing bricks-and-mortar storefront after the concept proves economically viable.

“My idea was something that maybe never would have been realized had it not been for the Fellowship,” Ryherd says. “Putting your idea on a single piece of paper doesn’t require a huge effort, but it does make the idea concrete. It forced me to define it, but because it only took a couple hours, I didn’t feel a lot of pressure.”

Ryherd wasn’t alone. In the first year, the Foundation received a stunning 438 applications. “We were blown away,” David says. “The ideas came from a wide range of people, many of whom had never had contact with the Foundation.”

This post is part of the #CF100 Series of blog posts. The Council on Foundations is marking the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, by highlighting the roles of community foundations with this series.

Working with the Foundation, the panel reviews the initial applications and identifies a group of semi-finalists, all of whom are required to submit more detailed information, including a two-minute video. 12 finalists are then selected who go through a live interview with the selection panel. There are now six active Innovation Fellowship projects under way. This year’s recipients are also focused on economic development, with one aiming to create a state-of-the-art research and manufacturing pilot facility for digitally printed textiles and the other planning a centralized culinary hub that integrates a wide range of uses such as a public market and commercial production facilities.

The Foundation manages the funding and helps the recipients make connections or directs them toward useful resources. The donors meet with the participants annually as well. Yet, for the most part, both the Foundation and donors have taken a hands-off approach that allows the recipients to use the funding as they see fit.

Unexpected benefits

The effort has created significant spin-off benefits that extend well beyond the funding recipients. David says the Innovation Fellowship has served to re-energize the entrepreneurial and philanthropic community in Rhode Island, a state that has struggled with high unemployment. For instance, some applicants who don’t make the final cut are still pursuing their ideas on their own, often leveraging contacts that have been made through the high visibility of the Innovation Fellowship.

“We always hoped that this would inspire others to step up and take action on their own and we are seeing that happen,” David says.

From the Foundation’s perspective, being involved in the effort has proven to be “a real game-changer,” David says.

“It’s been huge for us,” she says. “It has caused us to re-think how we approach a lot of problems in the community. We are more open to donors sharing ideas on what they want to do. It has definitely inspired new thinking and new approaches to solving problems and even identifying what the problems are.”

Ryherd is confident that Innovation Fellowship has provided the stability for his Retail Project to be sustainable after the annual funding ends. He hopes to open his first bricks-and-mortar location associated with the project soon. In his view, the Innovation Fellowship has helped bolster the Foundation’s standing among entrepreneurs and social activists in Rhode Island.

“I think this has taken the Rhode Island Foundation to a completely different place, which is remarkable for an old institution with such an established reputation,” Ryherd says. “They are aligning their mission around what the community wants to be in the future and that has gained them a lot of respect and credibility."

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