The Bay Area Inspire Awards were the brainchild of a small group of San Francisco Bay Area residents wishing to support young social innovators with fresh ideas for improving their communities. The founders put some money behind the concept and partnered with the forward-thinking Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, or PVF, in Oakland to set up the Bay Area Inspire Awards Fund, which made its first awards in August, 2014.

Funding Method

Funding Individuals

Helping Young People Improve their Communities: The Bay Area Inspire Awards

How do you do your funding? Please describe the Bay Area Inspire Awards approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.

The application process is designed to be simple, allowing young people with good ideas to describe a specific problem they see in the community, the approach they have to the problem, how much money they might need and how they would spend it. Projects are to be completed in a year or less. For the initial 2014 round, participants applied online and their proposals were reviewed by an advisory board of five people. Board members came from divergent backgrounds and interests, but had wide experience and a shared passion to give young people a jumpstart in bringing their ideas to life.

The Program received 75 proposals between March and June, 2014, and ultimately about half were considered in great detail in several rounds of evaluation.

With the support of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, a creative and unconventional grantmaking organization, six projects were funded with $50,000.

How did your organization come to practice philanthropy in this way? 

A lot of people are facing real challenges in the Bay Area right now. In the midst of a technology boom, there’s a significant group of people who are not doing very well here. People are being forced out of their housing, and housing costs are the highest of any metro area in the country. San Francisco rents are now more expensive than Manhattan’s. Because of this, there’s been a lot of displacement and tension.

The idea for the Bay Area Inspire Awards was triggered by an October, 2013 article in the New Yorker about the tech boom and the young people who were doing well in the Bay Area. There was something about the article that pushed a button for one of the founders. What about all the young people who are dedicated to improving their communities for all residents, especially those not sharing the bounty of the tech boom? Where is the funding for those people who have good ideas?

With PVF on board with this project, the goal is to build this fund and expand it beyond San Francisco and Alameda counties, meeting the needs wherever they are in the greater Bay Area.

Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism to the specific style of funding we asked you about?

One comment was, ‘You should just fund the good non-profits already doing the work.’ But sometimes it’s really good for people to take a fresh look and take the initiative to do things in a new way. It didn’t take long to find a wonderful foundation partner in PVF, which agreed this was an idea worth trying .

You likely encountered challenges as you started implementing your strategy. What happened? Describe the challenge you feel has the most lessons for other funders, and what those lessons were.

The biggest challenge was whittling 75 proposals down to six awardees. There were many fine projects, but not enough funding for all of them.

In the beginning, however, the Program was concerned about getting enough proposals — especially enough proposals early on in the application period. However, using PVF’s extensive network along with those of the founders, largely through electronic and social media, the word spread fairly quickly after the application period was launched in March, 2014.

One of the challenges is that many people inevitably wait until the last minute to submit, producing a final onslaught of applications to review. There may be a rolling awards process in the future to address this.

The board did make and publicize one award early on, which demystified the process and showed other applicants that they too could put their ideas into proposals for the Bay Area Inspire Awards.

What can you achieve through Funding Individuals that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?

The Program is giving people with good ideas an accessible way to communicate their proposals and access funding in a way that’s very different from the traditional RFP process and foundations.

Risks are worth taking. The Program is supporting and believing in these people. At the same time, we know that not all ideas will work. Bottom line, that’s OK. In the long run there will be positives that come out of it whether they be in the short term or the long term.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a funder curious about doing something similar?

Let people take risks, trust them and show that trust. Encourage them to go ahead and try something worth doing.