United Way of Central Indiana has been putting a different lens on fighting poverty with its Social Innovation Fund for a few years now, bringing new solutions to old challenges across the human services sector. What stands out to me most about “social innovation” is how effective the approach is at shifting my own thinking from a negative space to a hopeful perspective. 

Just like in the tech world where VCs seek out and steer their capital toward startups with great founders and management teams that are innovating and problem solving in business, United Way is investing in organizations that are tackling problems in new or different ways and alleviating suffering in our community. 

Accelerating and Improving Anti-Poverty Services

Grants from the Social Innovation Fund are meant to help these organizations accelerate efficiencies and improve the effectiveness of their solutions and other anti-poverty services. Growth capital invested in startups does the same thing, and to me it reframes the fight against poverty as a modern concern that’s not only part of my world, but part of my own responsibility. 

“We believe it’s important to invest in the solutions, approaches and initiatives of tomorrow,” said Jonathan Jones, United Way’s senior director of social innovation. “As a community, we need to have the foresight to envision what different approaches to areas like transportation and workforce development could be. Then we need to support those approaches and organizations that have bold, measurable and well thought out initiatives.” 

“Innovation and the solutions of tomorrow will not happen if we do not seed the ground with risk taking, creativity and thoughtfulness,” Jones said. “Our hope is that we can accelerate these ideas and approaches to expand services for better outcomes for our neighbors. “ 

Two of Social Innovation Fund grantees that are using technology to advance their solutions may be familiar to TechPoint Index subscribers because we’ve written about them before and they are highly visible organizations that produce fun and educational events that tie in with their missions — Be Nimble Foundation and Growing Places Indy.  

Both organizations have received Social Innovation Fund grants, not just once but twice. Be Nimble Foundation was awarded $193,000 and Growing Places Indy was awarded $170,000. 

Social Innovation Fund in Action for Central Indiana

Be Nimble Foundation takes a qualitative and quantitative approach to creating diverse and inclusive tech ecosystems, with the goal of closing the wealth gap for Black and Latinx communities through technology.  

With its first round of Social Innovation Fund funding, the foundation created The Nile’s Melon Ghost Kitchen & Food Entrepreneurship Accelerator, which helps chefs and restaurant owners develop pandemic- and recession-proof take-out and delivery versions of their businesses using advanced technologies. This approach pulls them out of traditional food and restaurant industries by giving them an innovative, tech-first model to create sustainable food businesses.  

The mission of Growing Places Indy is to empower people to cultivate individual, family and community wellness through urban agriculture, access to fresh local food and mind-body education.  

The tech connection comes in where the organization’s urban farm incubator program, Grow Getters, supports new and underrepresented farmers of color in urban areas with training in emerging farming technologies, such as hydroponics, as well as providing access to land, mentoring, equipment and business development assistance. The overall goal is to build a robust ecosystem of trained farmers, agricultural leaders, distribution channels and substantial business resources. The program reduces barriers for new, beginning and underrepresented farmers by providing them with the necessary preparation and resources to build a sustainable and prosperous urban farm business. 

United Way’s Social Innovation Fund grants aren’t necessarily large by tech or Silicon Valley standards. (Indiana saw four of its own raise $90 million or more last year, one of which raised $425 million.) But that doesn’t mean they are any less significant to the recipients and to the people whose lives are changed by these innovative programs that approach helping people out of poverty with education, training and targeted assistance. Over the course of the fund so far, United Way  has invested  about $3 million in human services startups. 

Scaling Up Anti-Poverty Solutions to Eliminate Suffering

“The support from United Way is life-changing for me personally and for the organization,” said Victoria Beaty, executive director of Growing Places Indy. “We had never received funding from United Way before I became executive director. Through the grant, we’ve been able to scale our programs to reach more people in our community who have the power to change our local food system. The food system issue is a community issue, and it will take the community as a whole to change it. United Way is committed to ensuring that happens. As a small organization, we value partnerships like the one we have with United Way. Without their support, we would not be able to do our important work.” 

According to Jones, there were 114 organizations that submitted letters of interest to the Social Innovation Fund in 2021, and United Way was able to financially invest in just 14 of them. With 100 organizations out there working to solve problems in our community, there is clearly much more work to be done, and innovation in our community is not going to come from one agency or one initiative.  

“As an organization, United Way is committed to doing its part to provide vital resources to empower Central Indiana’s great community organizations to think differently about our toughest challenges,” said Jones. “The power to create and build a community with new, equitable and cutting-edge solutions come from all of us finding ways to support those initiatives and organizations however we can.”