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Staff Note: Spreading big ideas through Community Innovation

October 17, 2023

By Tony LookingElk, grantmaking director

One of the ways we work to be radically open in our grantmaking is through our Community Innovation program. These grants fund the most promising ideas — across any issue area and at any stage of development — that have the greatest potential for transformative impact in the region. 

We believe that great ideas can come from anyone and anywhere and Community Innovation grants provide an opportunity for communities, organizations, and leaders to develop, test and spread great ideas to redefine what they know and how they work to achieve a significant and better outcome impacting their community.

When we say “great ideas” we mean ideas that can make the biggest difference in making the region better for everyone. They can be ideas that start small, but their impact will reach far and wide and have long-lasting implications. These ideas inspire, equip and connect people to lead change more effectively. They fix the ways systems fail people and establish new and different ways of ensuring truly equitable outcomes.

We are a region made up of many different geographic and cultural communities and the best chance for transformative impact across communities comes when ideas are fueled by community belief and commitment. Because of this, we make big investments through our Community Innovation grants in any issue area if there is true community energy and ownership of an idea that could have transformative impact.  

If communities and leaders can access innovative knowledge, practice and/or policy, we believe behaviors and actions will change, leading to fundamentally different outcomes and greater change in place and people. 

Our Community Innovation grantees are doing some amazing work to solve complex and long-standing problems. Here are some examples of strong community innovation that we’ve recently funded:

Akiptan is transforming agriculture lending in South Dakota as the nation’s first Native American CDFI dedicated exclusively to Indian agriculture. They are testing a model unlike anything else in the country — where Native ranchers own and operate more aspects of the food system.

Hope Community is working with community residents to support first-time homebuyers to purchase multi-unit housing to build wealth for themselves while creating affordable housing for their tenants. Their model is now being scaled by the Family Housing Fund.

North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives is helping rural communities with limited access to groceries by testing a new cooperative purchasing and distribution model that lowers food costs and waste. This model is now supported throughout the state.

Makoce Agriculture is establishing food sovereignty by recreating food systems developed by and for the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation that will support good health and create new economic opportunities.

We want to support organizations, like these, to dream and act big. We’ve got many more examples of how we support this work through our Community Innovation program. The initial application is short and simple. We look for the potential and momentum of an idea based on our criteria, and then move quickly to conversation to understand the people and the work. Applications are welcome at any time throughout the year.