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

Speak Up for Innovation among Nonprofits

In this challenging economy, funders may find it difficult to support an innovative idea when so many established programs are struggling under shrinking budgets. 

In this challenging economy, funders may find it difficult to support an innovative idea when so many established programs are struggling under shrinking budgets. I see this in my role as lead staff with the United Way Regional Commission on Homelessness. As funders, we must grapple with supporting those innovations that show promise and, in the process, embrace a certain risk in our commitments.

It is important that a small portion of our portfolios support innovations in our field despite the possibility of failure. As Robert Kotick of Activision Blizzard said in a recent Forbes magazine article: “The most important thing we do to encourage innovation is give people the freedom to fail…” In a tight resource environment with so many well-established programs facing cutbacks, this is a bold proposition but one worth tackling.

Funder Support Leads to Creative Solutions

Without support from funders, our nonprofit agencies are unable to try new things and possibly improve efficiency or effectiveness. Conversely, with support from foundations, innovative ideas abound. One great example is the recently completed initiative of The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, which provided multi-year funding and support to several programs that creatively addressed the critical connections between health and homelessness. It inspired, among other examples, a new partnership between the Grady Health System and two nonprofits (Gateway and St. Joseph’s Mercy Care) that provides homeless patients being discharged with a safe, supported place to recuperate.

Other innovative ideas to address homelessness and supported by our local foundations have also paid off. Programs such as Street to Home, which is based on the “Housing First” approach (we learned about it from Pathways to Housing in New York), are changing the way homelessness can be addressed. The program offers apartment-based housing and intensive case management to people identified as chronically homeless―and it works! Street to Home has a 75% success rate in getting people off the streets and working toward independence.

Another example is the innovative work by First Step Staffing in the area of successfully obtaining social security and disability benefits. By taking a team approach to creatively modifying the application process, they have seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of time it takes to obtain benefits. This enables people who are homeless to access healthcare and housing more effectively.

Without support from funders, none of these examples of innovation would have taken off. Funders and agencies in our sector must be more proactive in supporting innovative approaches that promise more effective solutions-even when there are no guarantees of success.

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

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