The Best New Ideas in Washington, From an Unexpected Source

What often goes unrealized is that Washington, D.C. is so much more than a collection of government offices and historic buildings, it is also an urban city with all of the attendant challenges.
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Washington, D.C. is a town of many impressions. Given its status as our nation's capital, it is viewed by some as a place of politics and partisanship; where everyone is a lobbyist or an ambitious intern. A place of monuments and monumental egos. Where major decisions on issues such as defense, healthcare, and taxes are made -- or not. But what often goes unrealized is that Washington, D.C. is so much more than a collection of government offices and historic buildings, it is also an urban city with all of the attendant challenges. Challenges like neighborhoods with alarmingly high unemployment, and a public education system striving to close a "stubbornly large" achievement gap.

Residents of Washington, D.C. or visitors who venture beyond the monuments and up-and-coming neighborhoods may wonder how a city that is home to the leading thinkers and think tanks on many social issues could also be home to challenges like food access issues in low-income neighborhoods or a sizable population of homeless families with children.

DC. Social Innovation Project (DCSIP) aims to bridge this divide and empower local citizens to tackle issues in their own communities. DCSIP is a one-of-a-kind incubator and accelerator of the next generation of ideas that will transform our community. It works by (1) soliciting applications from community members and local organizations for new community programs that tackle pressing social issues in a bold and unique way, (2) selecting the four most promising organizations each year, and (3) providing funding and pro bono support to launch or expand the programs.

In just over two years, DCSIP has worked with community members to help launch and grow eight innovative programs addressing unemployment, educational inequality, and access to healthy food in Washington, D.C. These include:

  • Food For Life, a program that provides unemployed young adults with culinary training as both a career-building and life development tool, and sells gourmet meals prepared by the students to generate revenue for the training program;
  • Young Doctors Project, a program that recruits a cadre of high school students, puts them through a summer academy where they learn the basics of healthcare, and subsequently conducts supervised mobile health clinics back in their neighborhoods with the goal of addressing health disparities in low-income neighborhoods while also building a pipeline of underrepresented minorities for careers in medicine; and
  • Aya Community Markets, a program that re-imagines the farmers market experience by working in low-access neighborhoods to provide fresh produce, generate sustainable employment, and connect residents with community health resources. Notably, it equips residents with the knowledge and skills of how to incorporate healthy eating and exercise into their lives, while supporting emerging farmers and local vendors.

Each of these, and the others, were created and are led by regular citizens who saw a problem and decided to do something about it. They combined their passion for their community with their experience as a chef, doctor, teacher, yoga instructor, or journalist to make a difference. They used the funding and pro bono support from DCSIP to not only move from idea to implementation, but to begin building a sustainable and impactful organization.

This model of providing both funding and strategic assistance to early-stage non-profits is unique, and helps DCSIP set up new programs for future success since each program not only receives a check but also receives a suite of pro bono services including a team of volunteer consultants that help with strategic planning, organizational efficiency, or communications. These high-skilled volunteer consultants have careers as management consultants at firms including McKinsey & Company, international development specialists with the US Agency for International Development, or as a digital strategist for a major news organization. This world-class talent complements the passion and skills of each program's founders by accelerating and enhancing what they would be able to do on their own.

Just as entrepreneurs starting a small business need support and access to capital, social entrepreneurs - like those DCSIP supports - need access to resources and funding to help propel their work; especially considering that most philanthropic funding and grants are given to established organizations with a track record of success. DCSIP takes a different approach: it helps passionate people with real experience and knowledge of their community start something that has the potential to make a big impact. DCSIP believes that someone who sees a problem, has relevant expertise to offer, and wants to do something about it should have access to funding and resources to make an impact on that problem -- especially in a place like Washington, D.C.

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