What was it that wise person once said about expecting different results from doing the same thing over and over again? Well, what would happen by coming at a particularly challenging issue like poverty from another angle? What would happen if you took a page from the handbook on entrepreneurship, injected the spirit of innovation and mixed it up with funding and coaching support for smart folks who bring new ideas?
The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland did just that with the launch of the Innovation Mission: Fighting Poverty with Big Ideas. Foundation President Susanna Krey talked with me about what they, the social entrepreneurs and the community are learning.
Q: The Foundation made a crucial strategic decision with its Innovation Mission. How did you land on this approach?
A: We have spent the last two decades deeply immersed in seeking ways to break the cycle of poverty here in Cleveland. We’ve seen some really incredible results, like a forecasted end to chronic homelessness by 2020, but when all is said and done, a full one-third of Clevelanders still live in poverty. A fellowship was merely the vehicle we used to develop more impactful ideas that could address the issue of poverty in Cleveland.
We believed that innovation can be learned and wanted to begin to develop this capacity in our partners. We know that innovative approaches can provide depth in understanding the problem. We hope these individuals will help their organizations incorporate these ideas into everyday practice.
Q: What have been some of the most significant moments in the process you launched?
A: We kicked off The Innovation Mission in December 2017 with an opening reception. It was such a memorable evening, and we were inspired by the fellows’ presentations and passion for the issues they chose to address. It felt like a very exciting moment, for all of the stakeholders who had been involved in the fellowship’s development to see the program come to fruition with such energy.
The beginning of the design process was also a milestone. During the beginning months of the fellowship, the fellows faced various challenges and obstacles that seemed insurmountable at different times. Some of these required the fellows to pivot or refocus their projects. But, at 10-12 months into the fellowship, all of the fellows seemed to hit their stride; they had adjusted their projects and were moving confidently in a direction that held opportunity for success.
And our first big result from one of the fellowship projects came from the work of Hazel Remesch, a supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. Hazel’s work led directly to a new rule in the Cleveland Housing Court that will make it easier for residents to seal their eviction records, eliminating a major barrier to safe and stable housing.
Q: What would you say have been the key learnings thus far from the people which the Innovation Mission is supporting?
A: Each of the fellows has made significant progress on their initiatives through research and partnerships, and all have credited The Innovation Mission with helping them think differently about their approach to work in their professional careers. The fellows have learned that true innovation is not just a bright idea; it involves constant iteration, some failure and plenty of learning. When they began the fellowship, the fellows thought they were going to spend 18 months designing a solution, and many were surprised to find that the key to their success was spending most of their time focused on the problem they were trying to solve. By studying the issues, fellows were better able to identify gaps where they could step in to help, and they found it easier to establish partnerships with people and organizations already focused on the same issues.
Q: What advice would you share with other foundations based on your experience with this strategy?
A: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you want to make a big change, be as thoughtful as you can – make plans, anticipate questions, identify and plan for barriers to success and then pilot your approach. We have shifted plans a few times throughout this process, but ultimately, it’s been to the benefit of both the fellowship projects and the foundation. It is important to gather input and feedback in a systematic way and make course corrections as indicated by timely learning; not afterwards.
Our purpose was to support the development of new ideas/approaches that would be impactful in fighting conditions or issues that often drive people deeper into poverty, such as unstable housing due to evictions, barriers to employment, etc.
Our purpose for launching the initiative and mission serve as important guides to keep the work on task. Seeing the benefit of investing in innovation, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland has since established a new innovative goal as part of our 2020 strategic plan, to continue investing in courageous approaches to breaking the cycle of poverty here in Cleveland.