The Innovation Mission Fellows spent the last three days of February immersed in their second fellowship workshop, taking time to develop their projects and learn from an innovation expert and foundation partners.
The five fellows last convened in December 2017. In the months since that meeting, they took initial steps in shaping their big ideas to improve the lives of individuals living in poverty. This included additional research to better understand the problems the fellows intend to address, what efforts may already be underway to address them, and the target population impacted by them. The fellows arrived for the February workshop with a clearer understanding of the issues they will address and the scope of their projects to address them.
The workshops are led by Dennis Beatrice, an independent consultant and senior adviser at SRI International. Drawing from his experience in advising the development of social innovations, Dennis structures workshops by an iterative process of presenting to the group, receiving feedback, and refining the idea. Beatrice’s philosophy is that innovation is learnable. With a great idea, a disciplined process and a lot of passion, anyone can be an innovator, he says.
“I always thought innovation was something you were either born with, or you won’t,” said Julie Cortes, a fellow pursuing solutions for potential entrepreneurs living in poverty. “I’m learning that innovation can be taught, and it’s opening my perspective to what’s really possible in our communities.”
Innovation, Beatrice says, follows a series of processes that can raise the right questions for people with a big idea. Beatrice asks the fellows to think about their problems and ideas through a Need, Approach, Benefit and Competition (NABC) framework. This NABC framing helps to organize thinking, identify gaps and most importantly, serve as the project’s value proposition and case for action.
“We expect to raise new questions as we address the original ones,” said Beatrice. “Innovation is all about evolving over time to meet the appropriate needs, and having a flexible perspective to find new ways to tackle issues.”
“It’s rare in the social sector to have the opportunity to sit with a problem and not have to immediately jump to a solution,” said Dabney Conwell, a fellow developing a prescription meal delivery program to reduce food insecurity and isolation among low-income seniors. “The fellowship is offering this time and space, and it’s challenging me to think differently about problem-solving.”
Fellows are also learning how to form elevator pitches, which they will continue to practice and tweak over the course of the fellowship. This is another important tool the fellows will take from the fellowship to garner support in the community for their projects.
Classroom time was complemented by discussions with practitioners and researchers. Representatives from foundation partner organizations and grantees FrontLine, Enterprise Community Partners and Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc. joined the fellows to talk about what it has taken for each of them to move from an idea to a successful program and the challenges that they overcame to do so. They encouraged the fellows to build strong partnerships, listen closely to and include the individuals served throughout the development process, set audacious goals and not to give up despite setbacks. These local examples offered helpful insights and real examples that the fellows could relate to and learn from as they continue their work toward program implementation.
Sisters of Charity Foundation Board member Dionissi Aliprantis, a research economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, invited the fellows to the Fed for lunch with a group of colleagues who research social issues and policies, many of which are related to the fellows’ projects.
“We had the opportunity to speak with economists about our projects, as well as the research happening in our field,” said Penny Smith, a fellow focused on workforce development programs for noncustodial parents. “I never realized what a valuable resource – and beautiful building – we had right here in Cleveland with the Fed.”
Over the next few months, fellows will continue developing their projects through research and partnership building with support from Beatrice and SOCF program officer Margaret Eigsti. They will reconvene in June for their next workshop, where they will present their progress, discuss how to refine their approaches, and learn how to develop an implementation plan for their projects.
“It is exciting to listen to the fellows thinking about these challenging issues in new ways and honing in on the innovations to address them,” said Margaret Eigsti, SOCF program officer. “It’s been a privilege to work with this group of passionate and committed individuals, and I can’t wait to see where the fellowship leads them.”
To learn more about the fellows and their projects, check out the Fellows Perspectives blog.