New Grantees, Little Bets & Big Challenges

We were thrilled to celebrate the newest additions to the DC Social Innovation Project family last week at our new grantee reception. And by this, I most definitely mean an all-star new class of grantees. But I also mean one of the most impressive gatherings of up-and-coming probono consultants you will likely find in the DC metro area. And I include our supporters and a new circle of friends of DC Social Innovation into this growing family. Together, we are taking the first small bites to tackle some of the biggest challenges in poverty.

  • The Paper Project is supporting middle school engagement and empowerment by launching student-run newspapers in low-income schools. Wise Young Builders is using carpentry to build math skills and confidence among DC’s poorest children. These programs matter because DC’s high school dropout rates are the highest in the nation– 40% of all students don’t graduate and low-income middle school engagement is increasingly emerging among experts as a critical intervention opportunity to reverse this trend.
  • Street Sense’s Digital Hope project is creating new digital careers for DC’s homeless with a goal of doubling the income that its vendors currently make selling its paper. This is critically important to their mission because entry-level, minimum wage jobs are no longer enough to pull DC’s homeless population out of poverty. DC families would have to work 132 hours per week, 52 weeks a year at the minimum wage just to afford rent for standard 2-bedroom apartment in DC.

Our role at DC Social Innovation Project is to empower bootstrapped entrepreneurs that are working to strengthen communities. Our grantees provide tools to shift DC residents from survival mode to success mode with full embrace of their power and agency. Building up communities from the inside-out is a highly effective strategy to empower communities and foster long-term success that sticks. It is about dignity and hope.

We believe that ideas and creativity are the building blocks of social change. Block by block and program by program we are taking little bets to transform communities who struggle daily to find access to food, jobs, and housing. We are thrilled to continue the journey of innovation with these new grantees and look forward to sharing our discoveries with you!

In Partnership,

Melissa Ehrenreich, Executive Director

p.s. Help us give more grants of hope and transformation by signing up today as a Community Investor, your small, monthly donation can make a world of difference to DC residents!


ImageDC Social Innovation Project partnered with Taproot Foundation DC and IMPACT to host MLK Pro Bono Dream Lab in honor of the annual MLK Day of Service. We brought together 30 volunteers with 18 local organizations for a day of impact through pro bono service. During the five-hour event, volunteers worked with representatives from organizations on projects ranging from designing a new brochure to providing strategic advice on recruiting and engaging board members.

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All of this great work resulted in about $12,000 in free assistance for organizations making a difference in the lives of DC residents. One participant remarked, “The volunteers were so helpful, we did in a day what would have taken us about a year to figure out on our own.” To get a first-hand look at the event, check out some of our favorite tweets and pictures from the day.


MLK Pro Bono Dream Lab


This January 20, 2014 during the annual MLK Day of Service, the MLK Pro Bono Dream Lab will empower organizations and community members in Washington, DC to continue advancing Dr. King’s dream. Organized by DC Social Innovation Project, IMPACT, and Taproot Foundation DC, the MLK Pro Bono Dream Lab will bring together skilled volunteers, community members, and local organizations for a day of impact through pro bono service.

Taking place each year on the third Monday in January, the MLK Day of Service is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a “day on, not a day off”. The MLK Pro Bono Dream Lab will provide a meaningful opportunity for DC-area organizations and individuals to share skills and work together to advance Dr. King’s dream of opportunity for all.

ImageHow it will work…

Skilled volunteers will be matched with selected organizations to assist with a pre-defined pro bono project in the areas of design and marketing, human resources, IT, and strategy. Community members interested in launching or growing a community program will be matched with experts in the non-profit sector who will provide advice and guidance.

Community members can sign-up to meet for up to an hour with an expert. Organizations can sign-up for a specific need and work with a skilled volunteer during the event and during the days following the event. This event will take place at Meridian International Center (1624 Crescent Place NW, Washington, DC 20009). Click here for directions.

How can organizations and community members get involved?

Nonprofit organizations and community members interested in being matched with skilled volunteers or consultants must apply no later than Sunday, January 12, 2014. Organizations interested in participating must serve DC residents and operate programs that advance Dr. King’s dream of opportunity for all.

In addition to attending the event on January 20th (beginning tentatively at 10:00am), the organization must be available to continue working with the volunteer(s) during that week to complete the pro bono project. Pro bono projects must be in the areas of design and marketing, human resources, IT, or strategy consulting. Community members may either have an idea for a new program or be looking to improve an existing community program. To apply, complete this form:

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Individuals with skills in the areas of design and marketing, human resources, IT, and strategy consulting are encouraged to sign-up as volunteers. Your commitment will be to join us on January 20th (beginning tentatively at 10:00am), and be available during that week to complete the pro bono project as needed. Refreshments, gratitude, and a unique opportunity to make a difference will be provided.

To sign-up as a volunteer, complete this form:

Other Questions?

For questions about participating as an organization to receive pro bono assistance, contact For questions about volunteering, contact For all other questions, contact

Organized by:


DCSIP Goes International

DCSIP Goes International

Last week our founder, Darius, addressed a special group at the Meridian International Center. The group was comprised of 30 women business owners visiting from various African countries via the U.S. State Department’s African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program. Darius shared the vision and mission of DC Social Innovation Project and how our model could be used in their communities to help support the next generation of women entrepreneurs.

#NCVS Panel on Social Entrepreneurship


At last week’s opening of the National Conference on Volunteering and Service (NCVS), our founder participated on a panel that offered some unique insights on social entrepreneurship. The conference – which is an annual convening of nonprofit and business leaders and is the world’s largest gathering on the topic of volunteerism and community service – kicked off Wednesday with this panel, “Community Revitalization Through Social Entrepreneurship”. The session began with a keynote by Bill Shore, the founder and CEO of Share Our Strength. Bill shared how SOS began in 1984 with a small cash advance from a credit card and today works directly with governors and other leaders across the country to end youth hunger by 2015 through their No Kid Hungry campaign. He emphasized that for any social sector organization to be successful, it must make investments in its people and infrastructure as well as pursue big goals.

Following the keynote, Lisa Hall, CEO of Calvert Foundation, introduced panelists and began the discussion. Joining our founder Darius Graham, on the panel were Nick Vilelle, founder of Cause, and Ross Baird, founder of Village Capital. Here are some key takeaways and insights from Darius:

Q: How do you define social entrepreneurship?

Darius: DC Social Innovation Project defines social entrepreneurship as tackling a social problem in an organized, structured way. This may mean creating a for-profit company with a significant social mission, or creating a non-profit organization. In either case it involves combining one’s passion and expertise, and building an organization to channel resources toward solving a social problem. Clara Barton is a great example of a social entrepreneur because she didn’t stop at doing the great work of being a nurse and humanitarian, but she built the American Red Cross as an organization that would enable her work to scale and continue for generations to come.

Q: Why do you think there’s such a growing interest in social entrepreneurship, especially from the Millennial generation?

Darius: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that our world is much more connected now and we are a bit more aware of the suffering and challenges that others face. Further, Millennials have come of age at a time where newer organizations like tech start-ups have changed the way we live, and so we have an interest in applying that innovative mindset to problems our society has faced for a long time but that traditional organizations may not have been able to solve.

Q: Is social entrepreneurship/innovation just a fad or is there something meaningful there?

Darius: I think we will continue to see people thinking creatively about how to address social issues. Given limited resources – especially from traditional funding sources such as grants – individuals, communities, and governments will all have to think about how to create programs and use sources to tackle our problems in a smarter and more efficient way.

Q: What does social innovation look like in your work? What is the standard for something to be innovative?

Darius: For DC Social Innovation Project, we don’t have a bright line rule as to what is innovative or any specific criteria that an applicant would have to meet in order to be considered innovative. We do, however, specifically state that we are looking for projects that are bold, unusual, and have the potential to disrupt the problem it seeks to address. We further state that we are not looking for traditional projects like health fairs and community gardens (even though those projects can have an impact). In practice, we most often see social innovation as combining different methods of addressing a problem and consolidating them into one program. For example, our grantee Aya Community Markets is a social innovation in our view because it is not only a community market bringing fresh produce to low-income communities, but it also engages youth so they learn about entrepreneurship and business skills, AND it provides an opportunity for residents to vend their own homemade items – giving them a platform to start or grow a small business. So this layered approach is what we see most often and how we broadly identify social innovation.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

Darius: When we talk about social entrepreneurship we almost always focus on the individual entrepreneur. But for each entrepreneur, there are many people in a variety of roles working with him/her to make great things happen. So it’s important for people to remember that even if they aren’t the social entrepreneur, there is a role they can play in this sector, whether as a volunteer, donor/investor, board member, etc. We need people in all of these roles to make this important work possible. Find a cause or organization you care about, reach out, and get involved.

Let’s make something great

At DC Social Innovation Project, we’re committed to helping community members launch innovative projects that tackle pressing social issues in Washington, DC. For the eight projects we’ve selected so far, this support has taken the form of seed funding along with pro bono management consulting. Like any new organization, small non-profits like the ones we support rely a lot on pro bono assistance to fill in the gaps where they need a service (like legal or accounting help), but don’t necessarily have the funding to pay for it.

While the pro bono consulting we provide goes a long way in helping these organizations create a strong strategic plan or become financially sustainable, one big need is in the area of marketing and design. When you’re dealing with big goals, limited budgets and attempting to address some of our region’s most challenging social issues, sometimes honing your brand message or designing a stunning website gets pushed aside. But focusing on branding can help increase awareness of your work and engage potential volunteers and donors.

We’re planning fill this gap with by hosting a “makeathon” next month. Similar to a hackathon, this event will take place over several hours on a Saturday and will match our grantees with designers, developers, and brand strategists to work on specific projects such as infographic design or brand messaging.

To help make this event a success we need some talented and passionate folks eager to help their community. If you’ve got the skills and want to use your talent for good, sign up to join us. You’ll get a great opportunity to use your skills to improve your community (plus a great breakfast and lunch!).

Click here to sign up.

Shining A Spotlight

On Wednesday, August 10th, we hosted the first installment of our Social Innovation Spotlight Series. Close to 100 folks registered and we were delighted that so many people joined us for this first event. Of course, we’re also very excited about this series and the information sharing and new connections that will result for those that attend. DC Social Innovation Project was created to provide funding and resources to help small or early-stage non-profits and social enterprises in DC innovate. Social Innovation Spotlight Series highlights some of the projects we are supporting along with other non-profits and socially beneficial businesses in DC. We’re shining a spotlight on the social innovation that’s happening right here in DC.

Our goal with the Spotlight Series is two-part. First, we’re bringing together individuals in DC from different backgrounds who care about community improvement and social innovation. Second, we’re highlighting some of the great work happening locally around social good and innovation. DC is a unique place with many people passionate about social change and taking an active role in making the world a better place. Connecting individuals across interests (education and technology, for example) and from different backgrounds (native Washingtonian and recent transplant, for example) is a challenge. We hope to bridge both of these gaps, all while shining a spotlight on some of the great socially innovative work happening right here in our own neighborhoods.

Join us for our upcoming Spotlight Series event on Wednesday, September 28th and also let us know who you’d like to hear from at a future event!