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Ranking Nonprofit Innovation

A new award program, the Arago Honors, seeks to celebrate and inspire nonprofit innovation. Created by the Meridian Foundation, the Arago Honors recognized eight nonprofits as the 2021 inaugural recipients of a $10,000 unrestricted award. I am proud to serve as an advisor to the Arago Honors and invited Donna Oklak, Co-Founder of The Meridian Foundation, to write this blog to share her thoughts on ranking social innovation.  — Angela White

Ranking Social Innovation in Nonprofits, Donna Oklak, Co-Founder, The Meridian Foundation

Is it possible to rank nonprofit innovation as good, great, or phenomenal? 

Because our concept of recognizing program innovation is new, we found many of the 65 nonprofits that applied for the honor may not have understood we were looking for public value solutions. Nonprofits also struggled with the often-over-used term “innovation.”

A useful starting point is a clear definition. “Innovation is a break from practice, large or small, leading to significant social change.” We credit this definition to Stanford Social Innovation Review and agree when they say the word innovation is more than a “catchall slogan—it’s an urgent imperative to advance a nonprofit’s mission and impact.” We also agree when Stanford Social Innovation says nonprofits must come up with new solutions to solve vexing social challenges.

Last year, the leaders of the eight Arago Honor recipient organizations were very intentional problem solvers engaged in a wide assortment of missions, and their work showcases how to solve multiple problems simultaneously. These inaugural recipients are listed below in subjective order, with nonprofits with stronger outcomes nearer the top.

  • The Society of St. Andrew (SoSA) is relieving food insecurity by creating a new resource for food crop harvesting at its new Indianapolis satellite office.
  • The Milk Bank built a partnership with Versiti to provide mother’s milk for new babies. The two nonprofits have similar missions and found a way to collaborate.
  • CICOA, a 49-year-old community-based nonprofit, supports health and aging assistance at a new venture studio, building scalable revenue-generating enterprises.
  • Early Learning Indiana provides classroom support to assistant teachers working in preschool education by blending less expensive online and in-person learning.
  • PATTERN assists with building career portfolios for young interns in fashion, photography, graphic design, digital and social media, art, and music, enabling Indiana talent to stay in the state, while simultaneously growing the local creative economy.
  • Launch HOPE (Hope, Opportunity, and Prosperity through Entrepreneurship) Foundation created a new business acceleration program for at-risk women to receive support from interns at Butler University’s Lacy School of Business. Interns write business plans and proof of concept papers for the incarcerated women.
  • Spirit and Place developed Facilitating Powerful Conversations on Race (PCR), which is using a civic reflection dialogue facilitation method that employs artwork, texts, and media for public reflection and dialogue on this difficult topic. The organization is building an income-generating social entrepreneurship strategy around PCR at its location at IUPUI’s School of Liberal Arts.
  • GANGGANG, a start-up nonprofit, is building equity in the arts and creative community with its first fine art fair called BUTTER. Black artists in the fair pay no fees to participate, and 100% of profits from sold works go to the artists.

The leaders of the eight nonprofits receiving an Arago Honor in 2021 are each forging new paths to find critical solutions using innovation. But can we also rank them on an innovation scale? 

In the first year of the Arago Honors, a panel of volunteer readers and Meridian Foundation members identified innovative programs and qualifying impact in applications. We relied on the definition of innovation to make winnowing decisions, but we realized we would benefit from other reliable tools.

We found a ranking grid to help scale the types of innovation and impact in Why Nonprofits Must Innovate, published by BCG (The Boston Consulting Group) Perspectives. Authors Amy Hsuan, Adam Katz, Mark Freedman, and Brenda Thickett share this useful chart for ranking innovation:

  • Disruptive, when a nonprofit establishes significant long-term advantage.
  • Incremental, to create a moderate advantage.
  • Sustaining, to maintain current position.
  • Catch-up, to reduce disadvantage.

To their list, we would add:

  • Start-up, early concept for change.

Using the chart above we can rank the eight Arago Honor recipients as good, great, or phenomenal in colloquial language, or disruptive, incremental, sustaining, catch-up, and start-up, in academic terms.

As one of the stronger examples, CICOA is a potential disruptive innovator that intends to use its venture studio for longer-term advantage, both nationally, regionally, and locally. Early Learning Indiana and PATTERN qualify as sustaining for creating a moderate advantage in their sectors, and the more prevalent ranking of incremental innovation fits Society of St. Andrew, The Milk Bank, and Spirit and Place. GANGGANG can claim both the catch-up innovation rank and start-up, and Launch HOPE Foundation also fits the start-up innovation group.

In addition to launching the Arago Honors, The Meridian Foundation also sought guidance from other community leaders to better understand the landscape of local innovation we are assessing.

  • Kelli Jones of Sixty8 Capital and Be Nimble Foundation was recognized by TechPoint with a Mira Award in 2022 for Investor of the Year. Kelli has set up both for-profit and not-for-profit entities and says innovation in Indianapolis is “extremely incremental.”  
  • Jonathan Jones, leading the Innovation Fund at United Way of Central Indiana, says he wants to encourage disruptive innovation. He regularly hosts cohort meetings on Zoom with United Way grantees to share best practices. Since 2019, the United Way Innovation Fund has awarded almost $3 million to seed innovation in 36 local nonprofits.
  • Jonathan Haag, Vice President of Innovation at CICOA says, “Nonprofits that want to move from incremental to the disruptive stage of innovation require a dramatic shift in thinking, support, and practice.”  Jonathan is also advising nonprofits on innovation best practices.

The Meridian Foundation and everyone encouraging nonprofits to be innovative will benefit from this growing network. Specific conversations, funding, new frameworks, and assessments will raise the status quo and create greater impact in our communities.


The Meridian Foundation will select its second round of Arago Honor recipients in 2022. Interested central Indiana nonprofits can apply on or before August 15, 2022, at