COVINGTON, Ky. -- In the business world, "startup" is synonymous with creativity, bold ideas and the willingness to take big risks to reap bigger rewards.
The United Way of Greater Cincinnati is hoping a 12-week experiment called The Shift can channel those same qualities to address some of the region's thorniest social problems.
Since mid-September, three teams of seven professionals have been meeting every couple of weeks at Braxton Brewing Co. in Covington to volunteer their time as part of The Shift, working to put meat on the bones of these three ideas:
• Community Grandparents. This volunteer program would match retirees with families in need, providing a trusted adult who could provide childcare and other last-minute help during emergencies.
• RWD FFWD (Rewind Fast Forward). The idea here is to create job opportunities for people returning from the criminal justice system with a particular focus on careers in information technology or the tech sector generally.
• Rolling Meals (Beats N' Eats). This would be a food truck called Beats N' Eats that serves meals and travels to different low-income neighborhoods. The group is especially interested in reaching low-income kids and teenagers during the summer months when they aren't getting the free lunches that schools provide.
The idea for The Shift came out of a theory within United Way "that there are potentially transformational ideas that haven't had the chance to be implemented," said Mike Baker, United Way's community impact director.
The United Way already has Studio C, a 12-week initiative that helps local nonprofit organizations find new solutions to especially difficult problems.
But United Way discovered that after that program was over, many nonprofits weren't sure how to go about making their innovative ideas a reality.
"That got us thinking, what can we do that kind of fills that gap in the nonprofit space or the social sector of really bringing a startup mentality -- to bring startup talent to some of these high-potential ideas that accelerates the pace at which the ideas are developed and tested in the community?" Baker said. "The Shift was an answer to that question."
Listening to the customer
The Downtown-based nonprofit design firm Design Impact facilitates both Studio C and The Shift. Each time the three teams have met, they have heard from an expert to help them hone their ideas.
The volunteers also met with people from the community who might be able to benefit from each of the ideas to get a better sense of what would work best.
The Community Grandparents team quickly learned that -- if their idea becomes a reality -- it would have to be implemented differently in different neighborhoods, said Sarah Rieger, a volunteer for that team who works as the development and volunteer liaison for Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
"We discovered that where the 'grandparents' should come from is different in different neighborhoods," she said.
Parents in Lower Price Hill told the team they wanted the community grandparents to come from their neighborhood, for example. But parents in Over-the-Rhine who spoke to the group said they preferred the idea of grandparents who came from outside the neighborhood -- both for the sake of privacy and because they felt people from outside Over-the-Rhine could give their kids a different perspective, Rieger said.
"There's going to be nuances based on what fits those communities' needs," she said.
For that reason, Rieger said her team has been talking with "community partners" in various parts of the city to find out if they want to operate the project in the neighborhoods they serve.
"It could be a different partner in each neighborhood," she said.
Beats N' Eats could end up working with more than one local nonprofit organization, too, said Bruce Hager, a volunteer on the team. He serves as chairman of his family's Owensboro-based foundation.
"What we know is that only 9 percent of the children are getting to the food sites during the summer. So something that's mobile can get to some of the neighborhoods to try to move that needle from 9 percent to more," Hager said.
For RWD FFWD, the idea aimed at people looking to rebuild their lives after serving time in prison, the strategy probably would be different, said Britt Elam, a designer at Ahalogy and a volunteer for that team.
Elam's group hopes that an existing local nonprofit will be interested enough in the idea to make it part of its mission.
"There's so many programs out there right now that are sort of doing the same thing, and we're trying to put a unique twist on finding jobs for people with criminal backgrounds," she said.
The thinking behind the IT focus is that technology jobs would be more likely to pay a living wage, Elam said.
"Often they end up landing in lower-income positions," she said.
For the next steps in The Shift, the three teams are finalizing their proposals and will rehearse how they plan to pitch their ideas.
United Way has scheduled Dec. 13 as a "demo day," where the three groups will present their ideas to an audience of corporate professionals, United Way volunteers and nonprofit leaders.
Of course, making any of them happen will take time, energy and -- perhaps most importantly -- money.
Because of that, each group also has researched the best strategies for funding their ideas. And United Way itself could invest as much as $70,000 in seed funding across the three projects, Baker said.
Rieger said her group is hoping to get enough of that money to make it possible for a local nonprofit to boost its staff and launch Community Grandparents.
And she and one of her teammates from The Shift feel so passionately about the idea that they want to keep working on it even after Dec. 13.
"We will be able to say, 'we'll help you. We're going to support you,'" she said.
That seems like a win no matter what happens next.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.