Last year, Smart Start of Mecklenburg County launched its inaugural set of Innovation Grants. We attempted to reach deeper and differently into the community, outside of our traditional funding cycle, to affect change in early childhood. We were encouraged enough by the results that we decided to come back for year two.
We learned that there were amazing ideas that needed time and funding to get off the ground. We also developed a hypothesis that we don’t know what we don’t know and that there were probably many organizations on the ground doing excellent work that had not found their way to us. There are many reasons why, but a glaring one is that large institutional funders make it difficult for grassroots efforts to get off the ground and sustain themselves. We at Smart Start are not an exception. Our application process, monitoring, reporting, etc., can be onerous, especially for organizations that do not have the internal capacity or time to meet those requirements.
As an organization, we were fortunate to spend the last six months as part of a racial equity funding collaborative convened by United Way of Central Carolinas. This allowed us to take a deep dive into the concepts of equity and power. Building, sharing, and wielding power should be the goals of any organization that invests in the community. The good news is that most of us in the funding community recognize the problem and want to adapt, but systems take time to change.
The other good news is that systems are made up of people. The more we learn, the more we can adapt, as long as we dare to do so. With that, we were thrilled to see the results of our second round of innovation grants. We did it differently. We simplified the application process and have attempted to signal partnership vs. compliance with community organizations. We pushed our networks and expanded our reach. The results are in, and we are proud of where we are heading:
- The number of applicants increased from 15 to 27
- The number of funded organizations increased from 5 to 13
- Total funding awarded nearly tripled year over year
- Formed an independent review team made up of community members not affiliated with Smart Start. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the following people for a tremendous amount of time and diligence: Lindsay Broyhill, Moses Fox III, Helen Hope Kimbrough, Patricia Johnson-Aguilar, and Joanna Smith
- Two private funders joined forces with Smart Start to expand the pool of available funding. Thank you, Vanguard and Winer Family Foundation.
We cannot wait to see how these investments permeate our early childhood community today, tomorrow, and into the future.