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United Way Blog

True Innovation Often Involves Failing

Amy Weber, Director of Community Change, transforms the traditional grant-grantee relationship where failure is often punitive.

Eight years ago, Amy started at United Way of Greater Cincinnati in an associate role. As she grew into the role, she learned more about grant management and data systems. Thanks to a grant from Kellogg’s, a United Way Worldwide partner, she discovered the power of learning communities and their ability to foster innovation. In her current role, she leads collective learning and evaluation strategies.

In 2016, Amy led the shift to reframe the traditional grant-grantee relationship towards a shared learning environment in which social innovation and failure coexist. Building on an innovation initiative called Studio C, United Way launched the Family-Centered Innovation Network, to provide partner agencies opportunities to innovate and connect. Agencies took part in capacity-building workshops, panel discussions, information-sharing webinars and “design sprints.” Leveraging innovation practices builds the skills among community agencies to drive solutions addressing poverty through a “whole family” approach.

Design sprints are hosted when the leaders involved want to co-create solutions to shared challenges. The sprint, a condensed version of human-centered design training, takes eight hours. Walking through discovery, ideation and prototyping, small groups explore overlooked nuisances, map out challenges to ideation and form connections. The process embraces collective responsibility to achieve better outcomes and think beyond program interventions. Following the sprints, prototypes are tested in small workgroups. While every design sprint doesn’t produce prototypes, Amy says the process matters more than the result. Design sprints activate teams to explore challenges, surface assumptions, bring the family voice to the table and accelerate action.

Amy recalls an instance where a behavioral health agency wanted to address gaps in services. They held empathetic interviews with residents to uncover bias towards mental health services and prototyped meetings through a community-based organization. They decided to put staff at the community organization a couple times a week to better reach the community. However, too few clients showed up, making the undertaking a financial challenge.  Instead of feeling shame in this “failure” (or facing punitive actions by United Way), the process led them to connecting with a different agency partner with more consistent client flow. Ultimately, “failing fast” minimized the use of agency resources for an unsustainable solution and helped establish partner criteria necessary to replicate services in more neighborhoods.

It’s critical to continue to iterate and explore new solutions that meet the ever-changing needs of our communities and build upon the ever-changing assets of communities. What does success look like in the next decade? No need for the Family-Centered Innovation network. Instead of relying on United Way to facilitate, Cincinnati community agencies will have integrated networking thinking into their everyday practices and services, and be in the habit of proactively reaching out to each other to learn, innovate and accelerate impact.

*This is part of the “United Way Most’s Innovative Minds” List, celebrating individuals who embrace innovative methods to reshape the future of social impact. Learn more here

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