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How can you create innovative solutions to address long-standing, embedded problems?

You flip your thinking. Turn a long-held belief on its head. Look at it from a new view. Import an approach from another field.

Though The Innovation Mission is new, fighting poverty with creative big ideas already is happening. Let these four examples provide inspiration.

Homes for the Homeless

Housing First changed the paradigm to solving chronic homelessness for single men and women. A joint initiative in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, it operates on the belief that a permanent, safe place to call home is a prerequisite to employment and recovery goals. It now operates 10 permanent supportive housing locations.

Housing First addresses the diverse challenges related to the homeless crisis – bringing together housing and human service providers, public-sector systems, the philanthropic community, and advocates for the homeless.

Prescriptions for Food

In 2001, Boston Medical Center implemented a new idea to solve the problem of nutrition-related illnesses and under-nutrition in low-income patients. Primary care providers write “prescriptions” for the BMC Preventive Food Pantry. Families can fill that prescription twice a month. They receive three to four days’ worth of food, featuring often costly perishable items (fruit, vegetables, and meat).

In a single year, the Preventive Food Pantry serves 80,500 patients and their household members. The Boston innovation has grown as hospitals around the country have implemented their own pharmacy-like food pantries.

High School in Jail

An innovative idea to reduce recidivism in San Francisco came from the sheriff’s department and the unified school district. In 2003, they launched a charter high school inside the county jail. Its mission is to foster learning in adult inmates who often were unsuccessful in traditional education environments.

The curriculum focuses on employment, education, recovery, family, and community (The Five Keys Schools and Programs). Students spend the day in integrated classes studying for their high school diplomas and discussing the consequences of crime. The model has reduced inmate violence, decreased recidivism, and interrupted cycles of intergenerational incarceration.

Today, Five Keys is a nationally recognized nonprofit operating accredited charter schools and programs at 70 locations in California and serving over 8,000 students. It remains unique – no other sheriff’s department operates its own charter school.

Building Credit

José A. Quiñonez had a big idea to solve the problem faced by the unbanked and underbanked community. Without bank accounts or credit histories, these communities find it almost impossible to obtain safe loans for vehicles, businesses, homes, or to rent an apartment.

To help individuals overcome these challenges, Quiñonez linked rotating credit associations or lending circles to the formal financial sector. He created Mission Asset Fund, a mechanism for reporting individuals’ repayment of small, zero-interest loans to credit bureaus and other financial institutions.

Participants establish a credit history and gain access to credit, bank loans, and other financial services. They also complete a financial training course and receive financial coaching and peer support. Since its 2008 inception, participants’ credit scores collectively increased an average of 168 points. Today, 53 nonprofits in 17 states now use this model in their communities.


Contact Christine Mitton, director, knowledge and learning at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, at 216-357-4468 or