WANTED: Creative thinker, problem solver. Must be independent-minded and willing to live in the nation’s tiniest state.
That’s the latest sales pitch by some community philanthropists seeking to improve the life of residents flattened by the recession.
A Rhode Island community philanthropy today will announce that it’s offering $100,000 each to two people with original ideas that might "dramatically improve" life in the New England state. Winners of the Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship can come from anywhere—that is, as long as they are willing to live and work in the coastal state for up to three years.
Community leaders are open to startling, fresh ideas, says Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, which will administer the fellowships. "It could be technology. It could be the arts, the environment or architecture,’" he said. "We’re not putting any box around it. But it has to address an opportunity, a challenge or an issue in Rhode Island."
The fellowships may be renewed for up to three years. Winners will be notified in April.
He emphasized that the idea must be new. "It’s not an award for something someone’s already done," he says. "It’s the seed capital to tap into something unconventional."
Help can’t come too soon. Despite its small size, Rhode Island faces huge economic problems, some that festered before the most recent recession. In the last two years, the state has faced one of the highest levels of unemployment in the nation. (That remains the case. The current jobless rate is 10.6 percent, higher than the national level of 9.1 percent.) Nonprofits have seen their donations drop. Many towns are drastically cutting services, and homeowners have slid into default.
Community foundations elsewhere in the country have tried similar tactics to transform the fortunes of residents, says Heather Scott, managing director of community foundation services for the Council on Foundations, a trade group for charities. A San Diego foundation offered a prize for the most innovative way to improve the environment, she says. Earlier this year a community foundation in Birmingham, Ala., offered prizes for ideas that might transform the Southern town into "a cooler, more vibrant city." Many of the finalists focused on rebuilding physical spaces, such as a combination computer lab and theater space. Another proposed erecting a giant Ferris wheel.
Steinberg says the Rhode Island fellowships aren’t patterned on other contests. There’s not one problem that convinced the foundation it needed to seek new perspectives. Rather, the idea and the money for the fellowships came from John and Letitia Carter, a prominent industrialist and his wife who have been generous philanthropists. John Carter started and led EFD Inc., in East Providence, R.I., which made industrial dispensing valves used in electronics and medical products. He sold the company to Nordson Corp. of Westlake, Ohio, in 2000.
"They think there are people around who have ideas that have not been tapped," Steinberg says.
Winners of the new fellowships will be chosen by a group of prominent Rhode Islanders, including Charlie Kroll, founder and president of Andera—a data provider for financial firms—and John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design.
Just as there are no broad lines outlining what topics the foundation is seeking, there are few rules to the competition. The foundation is seeking letters of intent by Dec. 23. Finalists will be invited to submit full applications a month later.
"The people we want to attract are the ones that are attracted to the blank piece of paper," Steinberg says. "We’re looking for people who say, 'that’s cool!' The ones who ask the 45 questions, this is probably not for them."