A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Innovation Thrives in the Non-Profit World

If we are going to successfully end homelessness and fight poverty, we must come up with ideas to do more with less. 

If we are going to successfully end homelessness and fight poverty, we must come up with ideas to do more with less. To that end, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta recently co-sponsored the “Innovations Forum 2012,” which showcased innovative practices in ending homelessness from around the Southeast region. The forum served as a reminder that innovation is critical.

During the Forum, keynote speakers presented new perspectives on how to think creatively and innovatively. David Wertheimer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Funders Together shared his experience with successful innovations in non-profits using the housing first approach to domestic violence. Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, stressed the importance of innovative plans that are cost effective and efficient.

And more than 35 homelessness experts from 10 states participated in panel discussions on innovative programs from their communities. Here is a small sample:

  • Citrus Health Network in Miami, FL, and Adopt-A-Family in Palm Beach, FL, presented on a panel about rapid re-housing, which is a great example of how innovation starts on the edge and becomes mainstream. By helping homeless households return to permanent housing as soon as possible, communities have been able to reduce the length of time people remain in homeless shelters. This opens beds for others who need them and reduces the public and personal costs of homelessness.
  • HOPE Gardens in Chapel Hill, NC, has a transitional employment program for homeless individuals and an inclusive community garden that facilitates relationships and homelessness awareness among student, homeless, low-income, and the community.

  • United Way of Cape Fear, NC, shared its innovative practices around using SAMSHA’s SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) program to help eligible people experiencing or at-risk for homelessness access disability income benefits.

  • Quest 35, Inc. in Atlanta, GA, presented a shared housing model where individuals living on a limited income are able to afford permanent sustainable housing with a roommate.

  • Representatives from social enterprises had a lively discussion about how creative business can help to sustain non-profits as well as empower clients. For example, Thistle Farms in Nashville, TN, markets natural bath and body products made by women employed from the Magdalene House, a residential program for women who are survivors of prostitution, trafficking, and drug addiction.

There were other innovative ideas on reentry, veterans, youth, women & children, and the role of regional plans.

Anne Miskey, executive director of Funders Together and another keynote speaker, stressed that we cannot just be innovative for innovation’s sake. Sometimes all we need to do is look around and “borrow” ideas that are already successful. She said, “Innovation is not always going into a dark room and coming up with a new idea… innovation is also looking at ideas that work and then implementing them into the current system.”

There were words of caution from the speakers on the risks around innovation. Dr. Frances Carter of the Starfish Café in Savannah, GA, cautioned that their success did not happen not overnight. They tried many different things and had to adapt along the way. We must be willing to take our share of mistakes for the progress that innovation can bring to ending homelessness in our communities.

Innovation is not optional. In an environment with limited resources, it is a necessity for non-profits to keep generating and promoting innovation. It’s encouraging to see that innovation is alive in many non-profits, but we must do more.  How are you supporting innovation to help end homelessness in your community?

Protip Biswas is the Vice President of the Regional Commission on Homelessness at United Way of Greater Atlanta.


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We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation