Tackling an increase in specific challenges to the community is a daunting task for one or even a handful of nonprofit organizations, so United Way of Tarrant County sent out a call this summer to local nonprofits, businesses, civic organizations and entrepreneurs to find creative new ways to solve community problems.

The agency recently launched KERNEL, a social innovation fund created to take on social needs related to education, income and health in Tarrant County. The fund’s primary purpose is to bring new approaches and strategies to find solutions for 14 key community issues identified by United Way.

“KERNEL represents a new way for the United Way of Tarrant County to support our community – through social innovation,” said TD Smyers, United Way of Tarrant County executive vice president and chief operations and development officer. “The goal of our inaugural year is to plant seed money out there that will help new social innovation grow.”

Several dozen problem-solvers answered United Way’s summons to pitch their innovative ideas to serious investors for funding of at least $10,000. United Way of Tarrant County will work with the grant recipient(s) to help them execute their plans and provide measurable results.

A Shark Tank-like pitch event is scheduled for Nov. 2. During the event investors will hear presentations from applicants and reward one or more social innovations with funding.

TechFW and IDEA Works FW are partnering with United Way to provide investment processes to start the fund. Both partners bring years of expertise running entrepreneurial programs.

“With our Cowtown Angels program we’ve been able to connect angel investors with early-stage companies to provide them the funding they need to accelerate growth,” said TechFW Director Jorge Varela. “KERNEL fills a void – the investment in startups where the capital gains is measured by the positive impact the startups make in addressing social needs. We are challenging traditional business investors and donors to take a different approach to helping startups by choosing which social causes they want to directly influence, or fund.”

United Way’s Smyers sat down with the Business Press to explain more about the new innovation fund.

How did KERNEL come about?

KERNEL is part of a larger strategic vision. In preparation of a new strategic plan here at United Way of Tarrant County, we’ve been challenging concepts, rolling around ideas, bouncing concepts off each other to see essentially who we are and why we are. We’re starting with why – why does United Way of Tarrant County exist? What’s its value proposition? Why does Tarrant County need a United Way? When we started with that we find ourselves in a much different place than if we start with what we do and how we do it. That’s where most people go. We started with why, why are we even here?

How has it helped to first ask why the organization exists?

That’s refreshingly focused all our attention on Tarrant County, not our organization. In doing so, we started challenging some concepts about United Way. The funny thing is the more transformational this sounds the more getting back to the roots of who we really are it is.

KERNEL is one element of a few that are operational-level elements of an overarching strategy. This overarching strategy essentially does three things. We serve as resourcer, connecting donors and volunteers with their passion. That’s important because many of the organizations that are United Way partner agencies, they don’t have access to the public philanthropy that you get through employee-giving campaigns. They can approach certain high-level donors and foundations to get support but when it comes down to Tarrant County citizens and residents supporting Tarrant County social needs, that’s where United Way really kicks in.

When we serve as that resourcer that connects through our campaigns those causes with donors and volunteers, that becomes a huge gift. We need to maximize that. That’s a major thing we do in bringing millions of dollars to nonprofits in Tarrant County. How do we grow that and make it even bigger and better? That’s point one.

What’s the second point?

Point two is we need to be a convener of systemic cross-sector social change in Tarrant County. As a nonprofit we can fill part of that but the convening piece brings in government and the private sector so that we can start coming up with holistic solutions to our county’s social problems. When we look at it that way we fill another key role. The agency partners are out there doing amazing work, whether they’re doing work in Alzheimer’s caregiver support or work in school readiness. Whatever the area is they’re doing work in, they’re experts at it. They have passionate people who’ve been doing it a long time. Their donors support them to do that. Their board governs them to do that.

When you start talking about looking broader across the spectrum, not one of them has that in their charter, to create a systemic community-wide solution for a problem. It’s nobody’s effort to solve it all. That’s in our charter, to look at systemic community-wide solutions. Rather than expecting somebody to grow to cover that, we help through collective impact. We bring everybody together to do what they do great and do it together so we can solve problems.

And the third point?

We generate programs and program support in areas where there is an identified gap in capability or capacity. If there’s something that needs to get done out there for a certain cause like employee support for homeless veterans, if there’s a gap in service for that, we see it as a chance for us to generate something that covers that capability. If somebody’s doing it out there already but they don’t have the capacity to cover the whole problem, we want to grow capacity. Basically, we’re filling gaps with our program work.

When you look at United Way as those three things, it’s absolutely crucial that we get this right for the county, again not for United Way. That’s changed our focus completely. That’s when KERNEL was born.

Explain what KERNEL is.

It’s a social innovation fund. It’s a grassroots program so it can be Tarrant County taking care of Tarrant County. It’s meant to take organizations or individuals that have amazing ideas that could potentially move the needle on social issues in the county and get them resourced, not just financial resources but sustainable resources. They’ll start up and continue to grow and sustain. We’re hoping KERNEL will be a seed for ideas to get generated and grow in Tarrant County.

What’s been the response to KERNEL?

When we came up with the idea we weren’t really sure what kind of response we’d get from the community. Was there a need for that kind of thing out there? Now we have over 40 entities that have submitted an intent to apply. These are all broad-scoped ideas that can help bring change in the 14 areas that we’ve found have gaps. So we think we hit something here.

What’s the next step in the process?

The organizations and individuals who have already submitted an intent to apply now have an opportunity to get a mentor, if they need one, as they prepare their application and prepare for the pitch competition in November. We have a partnership with Texas Wesleyan University for this initial phase. Members of their business faculty are serving as mentors to help people get their business plans together and develop their pitch. Everybody won’t need that but we want to enable these ideas.

Between now and early November the proposals will be turned in and will be screened and we’ll select the finalists. We expect about half a dozen finalists. Those finalists will be invited to the pitch event to a panel of judges.

Are you the first United Way to do this?

There have been a lot of Shark Tank events like this for private companies but we believe we’re the first in Tarrant County that’s focused on nonprofits. A lot of what we’re doing is patterned after successes in Atlanta and Dallas. Dallas’ is called Ground Floor and Atlanta’s is called Spark. We saw the need for this here. All of this for KERNEL was homegrown – the idea, the logo, the name – all was generated here.

One of the things I like about United Way is that this is truly a Tarrant County organization. We have the national brand but we have the autonomy to do what Tarrant County needs to do. Through KERNEL and other strategic vision, we believe we can significantly grow the amount of money for nonprofits in Tarrant County through public philanthropy. We’re pretty jazzed about it.

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