With a baby on the way and a 4-year-old son to care for, Stacy Morgan was resigned to a job serving pizza. She had loans to pay — loans she took to attend a beauty school that closed before she could earn a cosmetology license. But when she saw a flyer for Food for Life, a free nine-week program that teaches high-end culinary skills, Morgan saw a way out.
“When I was a kid I always dreamed of cooking for the president,” Morgan says.
In September 2013, Morgan arrived in the basement kitchen of a church in Washington, D.C., the center of operations for Food for Life. Twice a week, Morgan, 22, cooks alongside other students to prepare three-course meals sold in the shadow of the Capitol building, one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods (the preordered $20 dinner menu is for pickup only). On this day, there is curried cauliflower soup, tiger shrimp nestled in polenta and red pepper coulis and, for dessert, flourless chocolate cake with Chantilly cream. It’s the sort of experience that could get Morgan a job in a hotel kitchen. “We don’t make the usual stuff you’d see at IHOP,” Morgan says. “This is upscale food.”
That’s the kind of personal story Darius Graham likes to hear. Graham is the founder of another D.C.-based nonprofit, the DC Social Innovation Project, whose mission is to fund other fledgling nonprofits — like Food for Life — that have a hard time finding financing. When he first heard about Food for Life in 2011, he quickly realized that the nascent program, to help the city’s poorest people, was exactly the kind of initiative he was looking to back. Graham felt certain that chronically impoverished neighborhoods across the country could see lasting change if such small, grassroots programs got the help they needed to get off the ground. “There aren’t many places people can go to get funding and support to start a new idea,” Graham says.
A corporate lawyer at a Washington law firm, Graham felt haunted by the city’s income gaps. His office was in a well-to-do area just a few minutes’ walk from the White House. A short drive east, though, led to neighborhoods where unemployment topped 25 percent at the time. So, in 2011, he left his job to change that.
Over the last three years, the DC Social Innovation Project has awarded grants to eight new nonprofits, each focused on the city’s poorest areas. The grants range from $1,500 to $7,000, and come with pro bono legal help and business consulting. All told, every year Graham’s organization gives away cash and services valued at about $100,000, he says. Some of the cash comes from small foundations, but most of it is cobbled together from donations of less than $100, he says. That means the model can be replicated anywhere.
“What we are is a small community fund to help people launch new ideas to solve problems. That’s something that’s needed in many communities,” Graham says, adding that he plans to start similar funds in other cities.
Small nonprofits are often left out of the cash loop, says Kevin Laskowski, a senior research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington. According to recent studies, the top 1 percent of all grant recipients are awarded half of all grant dollars, he says. The problem is that most foundations that are giving out grants are looking for nonprofits that can prove past success and are in line with the foundation’s stated goals. “There may be incredible nonprofits working around educational issues, but they don’t describe themselves in terms foundations prefer, or they don’t have double-blind studies showing successes, or they’re just getting off the ground with a new idea,” Laskowski says. “Chances are, foundations aren’t going to help them.”
Established nonprofits do lots of good work, of course, but the sector as a whole would be much stronger if it diversified by supporting small organizations in the same way it supports large ones, he says.
The DC Social Innovation Project plays the role of a foundation for the small nonprofits it funds. It’s not clear yet how successful its efforts are, but there are anecdotes. Marisa Stubbs, the founder of Food for Life, says one of her former students now works in the kitchen of a Georgetown hotel. Another student has a job in a school cafeteria. But currently, Morgan, the young mother, is the only person who consistently shows up to learn and cook.
It could take Malcolm H. Woodland, the founder of Young Doctors DC and a recipient of a $7,000 grant from the DC Social Innovation Project, four years or more to prove that the money was well spent. With the grant from Graham and an additional $15,000 from other donors, Woodland started a four-year academic and practical program to help high school students prepare for medical school. The six participating students, all boys, live in the city’s poorest areas. On Saturdays, they crack open their textbooks. Come summertime, they bunk at Howard University and take psychology and medical courses. They’ve observed surgeries, visited stroke clinics, shadowed family-practice doctors — the works. When there are neighborhood health fairs, the boys show up armed with blood-pressure cuffs.
“When you see these young guys walking in with their white coats on and people lining up to get their blood pressures taken or get a medical interview, you see how important this is,” Woodland says.
He has spent years researching the challenges that young African-American boys and men face. Once the program can afford to hire someone with similar expertise in issues affecting black girls and young women, Woodland says, Young Doctors DC will expand.
Woodland plans to accept six more boys in 2015, and six more two years after that. But it won’t be until the first six boys enter college, then medical or graduate school, and begin careers that Woodland will have the sort of data he needs for future grant applications. To Woodland and Graham, however, Young Doctors DC is already a runaway success.
Often, outside health professionals struggle to connect with patients from poor neighborhoods. “But when you have the young docs engaged in this health work, with their own peers, their own families, in their own neighborhoods, there’s this interest that even traditional health-care professionals can’t garner,” Woodland says.
Graham and his team are always on the lookout for potential grant recipients. In February, a new crop of organizations — geared toward assisting female entrepreneurs, supporting urban agriculture and teaching financial literacy to middle-school children — received grants. Even if the DC Social Innovation Project is inundated with donations, Graham says he doesn’t plan to give any one organization a large grant. The small cash amount, paired with pro bono help, is what makes the project replicable, he says.
“Hopefully you’ll be seeing us in many different cities around the country,” Graham says.