Funding Community Innovation in Richmond, Virginia

As the Robins Foundation looks back on over $100 million in giving, we realize that our legacy of innovative funding harkens back to the philanthropic spirit of the Robins family itself. E. Claiborne Robins, Sr.’s transformational $50 million personal gift to the University of Richmond in 1969 was at the time, an unprecedented donation by an individual to a university. Now in the foundation’s 60th year, this legacy of giving has continued to inspire the foundation’s goal to catalyze change in the Richmond community. Our most exciting and newest example of transformative giving is the Lora M. and E. Claiborne Robins, Sr. Community Innovation Grant (CIG), which awards $500,000 to the next great, big idea. The Robins board honored the commitment and vision of our founders E. Claiborne Robins Sr. and his wife Lora, by recognizing the need for new, innovative solutions to the city’s most pressing challenges.

Thinking Big:  The Community Innovation Grant

In 2014 we announced the CIG as a new funding category designed to inspire collaborative, out-of-the-box ideas to address the Richmond region’s most complex social issues – inter-generational poverty, homelessness, foster care, and the lack of equity in public education, among them. We asked for collaboration to encourage partnerships among different organizations that tackle problems from different viewpoints. We challenged the nonprofit community to think creatively and to take risks. We asked them to take a comprehensive, enduring approach – not a quick fix, but a long-term plan for effective and transformative change.

The CIG is the largest, private, human services-focused grant in Central Virginia, and we hope that making such a large commitment to a single project will help seed investment from other funders. Over the past three years, the selection of the winning idea has not been easy, and in fact, the quality of the grant applications has been so impressive that more than one project has received funding each year. Our 2016 $500,000 CIG process culminated in awarding a total of $1.2 million to the Top Five finalists! We are thrilled to see that the community is responding with more thoughtful and considered proposals and collaboration than ever before.

How is the CIG Winner Selected?

Information sessions and application process

We kick off the annual process by hosting multiple in-person sessions at our office in July. The sessions inform interested nonprofits about the grant criteria and process. Previous CIG finalists participate in the sessions to give candid feedback on the process, especially about how time-intensive the selection rounds process is. The process requires candidates to be reactive, creative and to think critically about the audience, often resulting in the need to incorporate new materials and individuals to communicate effectively the project and its desired outcomes.

The grant application period is open for the month of August.

Vetting projects and establishing a Top 10

As we comb through the applications to make the first of a series of tough decisions, our focus is on finding the answers to the following questions:

  • Is this truly innovative?
  • Does it meet an unmet need?
  • Does it serve emerging communities?
  • What types of partnerships do they have?
  • Does this project have the potential to transform the community?

For Round 1, we select roughly 20 organizations for in-person presentations, which include a rigorous question-and-answer session. These presentations offer the first chance for many of these organizations to articulate their idea to a live audience. The foundation staff subsequently narrows the field to our top 10 by considering each organizations’ board involvement, management, financial health, partnerships and of course the proposed project.

The top 10 organizations (Round 2) have two weeks to prepare a 75-minute site visit to bring their idea to life at a location of their choosing. Often, finalists bring partners, community beneficiaries and other stakeholders to demonstrate aspects of the proposal. Following this timed presentation, we ask the organizations to clarify key aspects of the proposal.

To educate the community on these social issues and potential solutions, after selecting the top 10, we constantly share information about their organizations and projects on social media.  We add an exciting component of the application during Round 3- a 2-3 minute video about their project. We require this because of the huge educational benefit sharing them provides to our followers as well as our board members.

Round 3 is the Top 5.  This is no easy task! This round starts with one on one meetings between Robins staff and grantees. Robins staff fervently advocates for each proposal and provides important coaching and critical feedback. Our goal is to refine and improve the projects to ensure their success before the board committee, which is tasked with selecting the final 2 proposals.

Foundation board members make the final decision

The Top Five organizations each present their 2-3 minute video and make a 30-minute presentation followed by Q&A with the board Program Committee. This is the first time applicants interact directly with foundation board members. We also invite media outlets to these presentations to hear about the projects, giving them valuable context for reporting on the grant winner, the process as a whole and the conversation around new ways of approaching current community issues. After hearing all presentations, the Program Committee then selects two finalists to present to the full board that same week.

These board presentations produce a palpable sense of excitement for our community. After the board picks the recipient of the $500,000 award, we celebrate the winner through a press release and a pop-up announcement. As mentioned, the runner-up often receives partial funding. Robins Foundation board Vice President, Program Committee Chair and our founders’ eldest grandchild, Juliet Shield-Taylor explains that this year, “The quality of the Top 5 proposals required our response. The foundation could not deny the impact each of the initiatives would have on the future of the Richmond community.  With the efforts proposed by each, the children win and the transformation begins.”

The Impact of CIG

In just three years, the CIG has succeeded in directing more than $2.5 million toward making lasting improvements in our community. More importantly, it has imbued the nonprofit community with an unprecedented sense of energy and creativity, extracting new ideas, compelling partnerships and giving nonprofits a tangible path for dreaming big. Addressing some of our most intractable problems cannot rely on routine grantmaking– otherwise, we would have produced solutions long ago. We need new ways of thinking and a sustained stream of financial support to bring about enduring change. We designed the CIG to reward those who understand the underlying conditions of many problems and are willing to challenge the status quo with new ideas. While we recognize one winner each year with a substantial grant, the true winner is the entire Richmond community.