(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Everybody wants to fund innovation.
Funders want to use innovative funding models that will support innovative programming and innovative tools created by innovators. All of that sounds really great, but what on earth does any of it mean?
“When people say ‘innovation,’ they need to broaden their idea of what innovation is,” said Amanda Cameron, leaning back in her chair at Franny Lou’s Porch in Fishtown. Cameron is the development and marketing manager at Norris Square Neighborhood Project, a West Kensington arts and gardening nonprofit largely serving the neighborhood’s Latino population. “I think the [vocabulary] of social movements or community advocacy work can be really alienating to people who don’t speak the jargon.”
Cameron, also NSNP’s grant writer, wants to scratch “innovation” from the social impact vocabulary (along with fellow buzz word “sustainability”). And while funders might say they want to fund innovation in their messaging, Cameron begs to differ.
“If you’re not traditional, it can be relatively hard to get funding,”she said. “Funders need to open up to models they don’t think of as ‘innovation.'”
Innovation nowadays, Cameron said, seems to be tied to technology and data analysis — how organizations are tracking metrics and evaluating impact, what software or tools they’re using to improve operations or programming, the fancy stuff.
But that fancy stuff costs coin. For small grassroots and community-based organizations, the price tag on that specific kind of “innovation” can be a bit too steep. The way those organizations find the funding they need to exist, Cameron argues, can also be seen as innovation.
"There’s a real chance to make organizations stronger through really talking to people in the community and asking, 'What do you actually want from us?'"
“Something people don’t think about is looking to their immediate community for support,” Cameron said. “I feel like there’s a real chance to make organizations stronger through really talking to people in the community and asking, ‘What do you actually want from us?'”
That’s why Cameron said NSNP is working on building out its individual donor base inside the community it serves.
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“Girls Rock Philly has built their funding around individual giving for the most part. In the very beginning they worked to get as many people as they possibly could as sustaining donors,” Cameron said. “That’s what I’m trying to grow right now in Norris Square.”
Cameron said what NSNP does need is to create more inclusive programming within its own neighborhood — to find out what the community wants, deliver on it and then rely on them for sustaining support. That’s partially why NSNP is building its own eight-by-eight-foot Earthship-inspired greenhouse, where they’ll grow types of produce folks in the nearby senior center might use.
Right now, Cameron is concerned about the nonprofit’s constituency in a neighborhood rapidly becoming gentrified. What happens to a community-based nonprofit when the members of the community they’re serving are being pushed out?
“I see the erasure starting to happen and it’s sad,” she said. “A lot of folks are moving to Olney or Fairhill. I worry that West Kensington will start to lose its unique and beautiful cultural identity because people don’t [see the value in preserving] mixed-income neighborhoods.”
NSNP may not have as many art supplies as larger institutions, Cameron said, but they do what they have to to get by — without what funders might consider innovation.
“We have a staff that deeply cares about the people we serve and isn’t looking to have a white savior complex about it,” she said. “I think that’s how good community building happens — when you’re listening to what people have to say and be willing to be wrong.”-30-
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