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Top Ten Most Intriguing Social Innovations

An intriguing social innovation has a unique approach, but it may be a fresh take on an old idea. Such innovation sparks curiosity from the innovator’s peers, as well as from people outside his or her field. Perhaps the concept is completely new, the results of the innovation are outstanding, or the idea—once put in action—has allowed the organization to accomplish great results with limited resources. Here are Community Wealth Partners’ picks for the top ten most intriguing recent social innovations:

1. The Pittsburgh Promise

The Pittsburgh Promise is an initiative led by the city’s mayor and school superintendent to provide scholarships to Pennsylvania schools for all graduates of Pittsburgh public high schools. The program was launched in 2007 with a $100 million commitment by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. This commitment includes an initial $10 million; the remaining $90 million is a challenge grant to spur a community-wide campaign to raise an additional $135 million ($15 million per year over nine years). The Pittsburgh Promise is self-sustaining, so that through wise investment it can generate funds to support the effort in future years. The initiative, which is a supporting organization of the Pittsburgh Foundation, also serves to attract people to the region.


For nearly 40 years, Texas-based nonprofit AVANCE (a-vahn-ceh) has been committed to the success of vulnerable young children and families. The organization serves nearly 30,000 individuals annually through a variety of programs, including its signature Parent-Child Education Program. In recognition of AVANCE’s effective two-generational early childhood parenting education model, W.K. Kellogg Foundation has granted the nonprofit a five-year, $12.6 million grant. AVANCE will apply this grant to creating partnerships to assist in making curriculum modifications to serve new racially and ethnically diverse communities, in particular Native American, African American, and non-Mexican origin Hispanic groups. The grant will also allow AVANCE to provide leadership and technical support to a national network of peers, so they can share best practices and knowledge in family support and education.

3. AngelWorks

Holy Angels, a residential training facility in Shreveport, Louisiana, has brought together community, educational programming, and developmentally disabled individuals to launch AngelWorks. A new service, AngelWorks uniquely integrates pre-vocation, vocation, and life skills training with targeted employment opportunities to address workers’ full range of mental, physical, and social needs. Enterprises—including private enterprise shredding and collating and public industry jewelry, horticulture, and baking products—offer program participants a full range of opportunities through which they can work and progress. These positions provide real-world employment for on-site and community residents. AngelWorks also innovatively cultivates artistic talent to produce market-facing business and consumer products, which are sold through multiple distribution channels.

4. Latino Economic Development Corporation’s Retail Financial Services

In March, the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) launched its community-based social enterprise, Community First Financial Center LLC, to help secure the short- and long-term financial goals of families in the Washington metropolitan area. Offering quality remittance, check-cashing, phone card, and bill-paying services, Community First is designed to meet the financial liquidity needs of its low- and moderate-income customers through:

  • fair and transparent prices
  • one-on-one financial literacy counseling for repeat customers, and
  • reinvestment of profits in LEDC’s wealth-building services for the community.

LEDC’s vision values more than just the bottom line, as it meets the increasing demand for alternative financial services among the region’s unbanked and under-banked populations.

5. Shepherds College

All over the country, parents of children with intellectual disabilities are asking, “What is out there for my child after high school? How will they learn to make it on their own once they leave home?” Shepherds Ministries of Union Grove, Wisconsin, established a three-year post-secondary program for young adults with intellectual disabilities to answer this call. Shepherds College is the first faith-based, residential college experience in the country for these students. By nurturing the whole student—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually—through life skills development, in-depth training in a specialty vocation, and supported independent living on campus, Shepherds College prepares young adults with intellectual disabilities to lead fulfilling lives of Appropriate Independence™ (AI). The college defines AI as “supported self-sufficiency that is aligned with the strengths of each individual and guided by Christian values.”

6. The Extraordinaries

The Extraordinaries delivers skills-based volunteer tasks to people whenever and wherever they are available by mobile phone. Over 80 percent of the adult population in the United States carries a mobile phone in his or her pocket. The higher-end versions of these diminutive devices, so-called smartphones, are as capable as any laptop computer. In fact, nearly anything that can be performed on a personal computer can be done on a smartphone. The Extraordinaries’ model dramatically reduces barriers to giving back, enabling people to volunteer to complete micro-tasks for organizations, causes, or people they’re passionate about, on-the-spot and on-demand through a web browser or an iPhone app.

7. GlobalGiving

GlobalGiving is an online marketplace that channels donations directly designated by donors to preapproved recipient organizations around the world. Created in 1998 as part of a World Bank experiment to find innovative solutions to combat poverty, GlobalGiving has since become an independent organization that has funneled $28 million in donations to 2,600 projects in over 100 countries. GlobalGiving has connected over 100,000 donors directly to grassroots projects, ranging from humanitarian assistance (supporting aid worker salaries in Haiti) to education facilities (helping to build a library for indigenous Guatemalan children). In addition, GlobalGiving outsources its platform to corporations interested in supporting causes through direct donations and offers specialized services to help nonprofits listed on its site manage their donor and customer relationships so that they become more sustainable.

8. LifeShare Core Blood Bank

LifeShare Blood Centers, Louisiana’s oldest blood center, recently founded the state’s first public cord blood banking operation. LifeShare Core Blood Bank (LCBB) collects, processes, tests, and stores umbilical cord blood voluntarily donated by mothers of Louisiana. As the sole public cord blood bank in the state, its mission is to supply cord blood units that represent Louisiana’s racial and ethnic diversity to the National Cord Blood Inventory. By increasing the national inventory, LCBB will provide more opportunities for cures through cord blood stem cell transplants, especially for minority patients, who often have difficulty finding suitable matches.

9. Second Line Recycled Paint Program

The Green Project, strategically located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, recently expanded its mission via its Second Line Recycled Paint program. The program serves individuals and businesses that need to dispose of their paint, while providing affordable paint for sale to the community. Second Line seeks to reduce the amount of pollutants in the storm water system by collecting paint before it gets dumped and then flows into landfills and storm drains. With a social mission and prices lower than any retailer, Second Line is the city’s only high-quality affordable paint source. Monies generated by paint sales increase the project’s positive environmental impact by expanding the program to more individuals, thereby keeping more paint out of the water supply.


KOMAZA works to unlock the economic potential of tree farming to generate life-changing income for rural families living in absolute poverty. Millions of African families struggle to survive by farming traditional food crops that don’t thrive in their semi-arid environments. With inadequate food yields and no cash income, these rural families are unable to attain the most basic assets and opportunities required for a secure and prosperous life.

KOMAZA (Swahili for “promote development; encourage growth”) generates unprecedented income for rural African families by planting eucalyptus—a high-value cash crop. Eucalyptus farming is a low-risk, high-profit investment, ideally suited to semi-arid environments. The organization extends the tree farming value chain to the poorest families by providing:

  • farm inputs on credit
  • education for tree planting and maintenance, and
  • complete value capture services (tree harvesting, value-adding processing, and output marketing).

By providing fallow land and simple labor, families will receive increasing installments of life-changing income, enabling diverse investments in comprehensive and catalytic life improvements.

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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