Competition spurs collaborative ideas to fix local problems

At stake was one $25,000 grant from Triangle Community Foundation.

Competing for the funds were five groups of partners, selected from more than 50 partnerships that had submitted proposals in response to a request for ideas for innovative, collaborative solutions to community problems.

Each group had 10 minutes to pitch its proposal to a panel of five judges, and another five minutes to answer questions from the panel.

The groups said they would use the grant dollars to develop:

  • A storefront in downtown Siler City to serve as “Idea Centro” and engage residents, particularly Hispanics, develop them as leaders, and produce new thinking and economic growth.
  • A pre-K class for four-year-olds at a year-round center for children and youth in an impoverished Raleigh neighborhood, combined with services for their parents, to help families break the cycle of poverty.
  • A center to process and distribute food at a new food hub in Durham that aims to provide a market for local farmers and a source of food for agencies that serve people in need.
  • A 200-square-foot home to serve as a model dwelling for people with mental-health challenges living at a Chatham County farm that aims to help them become self-sufficient.
  • A food trailer to employ men and women in Durham who get out of prison, and help them develop the skills they need to survive in the workplace.

The competition marked the fourth year Triangle Community Foundation had hosted its Innovation Award, an effort to stimulate new ideas and collaborations to address community problems.

The award aims “to seed an innovative idea and gives nonprofits involved an opportunity to think outside the box, to move the needle on a community issue,” Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, told several dozen guests who attended the event.

The five finalists, she said, all were “winners that think innovatively and collaboratively.”

Claiming victory at the close of the event was the Bull City Cool Food Hub Collaboration.

The Competition

The Innovation Award event was held March 20 at HQ Raleigh, a shared workspace in the warehouse district of downtown Raleigh designed to boost entrepreneurialism.

With competitors waiting and watching from adjacent space, each finalist group had five minutes to set up any visual presentation it had prepared. Then, standing in front of the five judges and the audience of guests, each group made its pitch.

To prepare for the competition, the finalists had participated in a “pitch workshop” in February led by BCDC Ideas, a Raleigh consulting firm that works with nonprofits.

Judges at the final event included its chair, Easter Maynard, director of community investment for Investors Management Corporation and a member of the Foundation’s board of directors; Scott Crawford, chef and co-owner of Standard Foods; David Dodson, president of MDC, a Durham think-tank; Aaron Houghton, co-founder and CEO of BoostSuite, a website firm in Durham; Donovan Moxey, CEO of Interactive Multimedia Solutions and IBS International; and Steven Pearson, manager of corporate citizens and corporate affairs at IBM.

Boosting growth in Siler City

The Latino community in Siler City has grown to nearly half the rural county’s population of 8,100 residents from less than one percent in 1980. Yet despite the loss of 1,700 jobs between 2007 and 2012 with the closing of furniture, textile and food-processing plants, Hispanics have stayed in Siler City.

Now, a collaboration known as Siler City Unidos is working to transform a storefront in downtown Siler City into “pop-up community center” known as “Idea Centro” that will engage partner agencies, foster civic participation and leadership among all residents, particularly, Hispanic, and generate ideas for developing the downtown area.

The collaboration includes Chatham Economic Development Corporation, Siler City Development Organization, Communities in Schools of Chatham County, the town of Siler City, and other groups.

The group told the judges at the competition that the challenges facing Siler city “have led to a willingness to try things that haven’t been tried before.”

Breaking poverty cycle in Raleigh

In Raleigh, where the number of residents living in poverty nearly doubled from 2000 to 2012, the poverty rate is 16 percent. In the 27610 zip-code area in southeast Raleigh, the poverty rate is 22.7 percent, nearly one in three households with children under age 18 lives in poverty, and the number of children living in poverty has grown 46 percent since 2008.

To find a way to help break the local cycle of poverty between generations, the executive directors of seven nonprofits have been meeting for the past year. Known as the Wake Collaborative, the partners include Community Partnerships, Council for Entrepreneurial Development, The Daniel Center for Math and Science, SouthLight Healthcare, StepUp Ministries, Triangle Family Services, and Wake County SmartStart.

Their solution is to create a class for 18 four-year-olds at The Daniel Center, an after-school and summer program for children and teens, and to provide support services for their parents.

The pilot program, which would include an outdoor area for play and fitness, would remove a big barrier for parents to find jobs, while also creating jobs at the Center, the group told the panel of judges.

The pilot class would be expanded over time to eventually provide support for a broad “pipeline” of constituents, from pregnant mothers to children and teens, along with families. The goal is provide support for the same children and their families as the children move into young adulthood.

Linking local farmers, hungry people

One in four children in North Carolina is at risk of hunger, yet small and mid-sized farmers in the state lack access to local markets.

In North Carolina, which lacks big food-processing facilities, bigger farms typically ship their produce to industrial food processors outside the state, but smaller farms in the state often must sell unprocessed produce directly to consumers.

The missing piece for small farms is to add a food-processing center to a food hub that houses businesses that buy food from small farmers and sell it to agencies that serve people in need.

Known as the Bull City Cool Food Hub Collaboration, partners include Farmer Foodshare, Reinvestment Partners, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Durham County County Soil and Conservation.

The food hub, which buys produce from small and mid-sized farms, will process and store food, and distribute it to agencies that serve hungry people.

The Collaboration already has secured $50,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was seeking $25,000 from Triangle Community Foundation so it could develop the processing center at the hub.

The processing center would have a “multiplier” effect on the Foundation’s investment by generating more income for farmers, more food for people in need, and an economic boost for the area of downtown Durham that is home to the hub, the group told the judges.

Housing people with mental illness

In the U.S., 2.2 million people with mental illness get no treatment. And in North Carolina, 40 percent of homeless people have chronic mental illness.

Providing treatment and a place to live for people facing mental-health challenges is the focus of a partnership that includes The Farm at Penny Lane, a farm in Chatham County that grows and produces food for people living with mental illness; Habitat for Humanity of Chatham County; XDS, a nonprofit that works with people with mental illness and owns the property the farm operates on; and the Center for Excellence in Community Health in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Known as the Tiny Home Pilot, the partnership wants to build a 200-square-foot home on the farm that would serve as a kind of model home for mentally-ill individuals.

Based on stays of a week or two to get feedback from temporary occupants, the partnership then would work with Habitat Chatham to build an initial cluster of three tiny homes for individuals in Chatham County, including some who also could receive support from the Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health at UNC.

The occupants would apply for no-interest loans from Habitat and would own the homes.

The effort, which could grow to include additional clusters of three tiny homes each and eventually become a small community on the farm, aims to help people with mental illness avoid homelessness, become more self-sufficient, and improve the quality of their lives, the group told the judges.

Jobs for ex-prisoners

Eighty percent of men and women who return home to Durham from prison have no education credentials and no real work experience, and 60 percent still are unemployed after a year.

A partnership of three Durham groups aims to create a food trailer to provide people getting out of prison with jobs and support services to equip them to make the transition to civilian life.

Known as Second Helpings, the partnership includes the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, Core Catering Company, and Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center, a county agency.

The idea, modeled on nonprofit Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, will employ ex-prisoners and provide them with case management and “wraparound” support services.

The skills that inmates must master in prison are not the skills they need to master to survive in the workplace after they leave prison, the group told the judges.

At Second Helpings, they said, a criminal conviction will not be a barrier to employment but a requirement.

When fully operating, the food trailer aims to employ eight people each working 20 hours a week.

Innovation matters

Key to the winning proposal was the “crucial nature of the collaboration between the organizations, and the innovative way they were going to have a multiple impact,” says Maynard, who chaired the panel of judges.

“They would not be able to achieve their goal if they were not working in collaboration,” she says. “We were looking for authentic collaboration.”

The winning proposal will provide a market for farmers, and food for agencies that serve hungry people while giving an economic boost to the neighborhood, she says.

Overall, the Innovation Award competition “was a real awakening to the Foundation about the quality of thought leadership in the nonprofit sector, and clear evidence of the innovative activity that’s happening out there all the time,” Maynard says.

“It also gives us an opportunity, through just one award, to celebrate several organizations and help build skills and not just write a check,” she says.

In addition to a grant to the winning proposal, all finalists received training in pitching their proposals, and then got an opportunity to make their pitches before judges and an audience, and to connect with one another, she says.

“The public nature of it,” she says, “fostered a lot more conversation and dialogue and interest.”