by Jonathan Jones, senior director of social innovation, United Way of Central Indiana

There’s a way to do it better. Find it.

That’s a quote from Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors in American history. Even with minimal schooling and a hearing impairment, Edison found a way to channel his imagination and curiosity into innovations that have made all our lives better.

Innovation is never easy, especially in the human services sector. With nearly a quarter of a million households in Central Indiana in poverty or economically unstable, community organizations are working tirelessly – even more so during the pandemic – to address so many challenges facing our Hoosier families.

At the end of the day, there are few hours remaining and resources left for agencies to even consider Edison’s statement. So, in 2018, United Way of Central Indiana offered an innovative solution by creating a new strategy, a significant investment and solid commitment to promoting and funding social innovation initiatives in our region.

Since unveiling the Social Innovation Fund three years ago, United Way has granted $2.95 million to 35 United Way accredited and non-accredited community organizations to “find a way to do it better.” In the spirit of Edison, we’re happy to report that the light bulb is working.

For example, the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society has used its Social Innovation Fund grant to hire a full-time social worker to collaborate with attorneys assisting individuals who are struggling to stabilize their lives. The innovative idea here is the partnership between social and legal services: While the lawyer might be helping a client on an eviction notice or reinstatement of a driver’s license, the social worker can focus on helping the client overcome other social impediments to success like financial and transportation assistance.

In another example, grant recipient Growing Places Indy has used its social innovation funding to expand its Urban Farm Incubator program, the first of its kind in Indiana. Growing Places Indy began its work by supporting new and underrepresented farmers of color in urban areas by providing access to land, mentoring, equipment, job training and business development assistance. Now, the program will expand to include training in farming technologies, and a combination food hub for individuals in need a co-op for local farmers who seek additional support. The innovative concept here is lifting up agriculture as a way to address food insecurity and workforce development – together.

Recently, United Way selected 14 organizations that will receive Social Innovation Fund grants totaling $1.2 million for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. With these funds, organizations will use innovative approaches to combat homelessness, expand nutrition programs for Black individuals living with HIV, and support people affected by addiction and substance use disorder, just to name a few. Just think, roughly 5,000 people in total will benefit from innovation in human services in 2022. By successfully seeding innovation in human services now, we hope to expand these initiatives to serve more people throughout our community.

United Way is proud to be a leader in accelerating new ideas that could ultimately lead to better outcomes for Hoosiers. Thanks to community organizations for their ingenuity and donors for their generosity, innovation will be the key to our community’s success and a brighter future.

The light bulb is on. There is a way to do it better. Together, we are finding it.

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