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September 01, 2017

Creating Community Change in 12 Weeks

Prototype. Fail. Pivot. 

Prototype. Fail. Pivot.

That is the mantra by which corporate and community volunteers participating in the second iteration of United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s The Shift live by throughout the 12 weeks of the program. 

The Shift is a three-month idea incubator and social innovation challenge piloted in 2016 by United Way — to shift efforts to support creativity, collaboration and change in our community using a fast-paced, design-driven startup model.


Three teams of volunteers are each assigned a concept to work on throughout the program, with the goal of creating a tangible project that can be implemented in the community, with the help of United Way and its community partners. The three concepts selected are focused on issues important to United Way’s work to create opportunities for everyone to thrive and to support children, families, and individuals  experiencing poverty. 

“When we were looking at concepts for 2017, we really focused on things that instantly had some sort of tangible draw for the team members so they could understand the basic premise, and how they use that to prototype and do additional discovery of what might be needed and not needed for the people they’re designing for,” said Mike Baker, community impact director, United Way of Greater Cincinnati. 


The Concepts

Sidekick Co.

Sidekick Co. provides concierge-style service to low-wage workers to address the daily struggles that can lead to unemployment. Sidekick Co. assists customers with small tasks like finding reliable transportation or childcare or researching medical issues. These small hurdles can often snowball into unemployment. However,by providing direct support to employees, Sidekick Co. helps stabilize the workforce and reduce turnover.

Lights On

Lights On is a series of vibrant light installations to brighten the darkest corners of Walnut Hills. After Walnut Hills residents submit their illumination nominations, local artists will design and fabricate creative lighting installations. Together, artists and residents will install the lights to make a brighter, safer Walnut Hills.

Comfort Food

Cincinnati is home to immigrants from around the globe who come to the Queen City with their own stories, experiences and traditions. Comfort Food is a community gathering that brings immigrant families around the table to break through language barriers and connect people in a way that everyone understands through food.


The Perfect Match

Prior to the official launch event of The Shift on August 10, the volunteers did not know what the idea concepts were or which one they would be working on. Facilitators from United Way and social innovation firm Design Impact worked to ensure the three teams had a diversity of work styles and skill sets and when applicable, tried to place some people with the concept that made the most sense. For example, one of the team members on Lights Out grew up in Walnut Hills, so he knows the community and has a deep tie to the community. 

However, one volunteer was unintentionally matched to a concept which she has been incredibly passionate about for years.

“I am on Sidekick, which literally almost brought me to tears,” said Liz Figg, a volunteer with The Shift from USI Insurance Services. “A concierge service for everyday people – I had a vision about eight years ago that there are regular people out there who need people to come alongside them and help them with these day-to-day tasks, but I had to set it aside because I did not know what to do with it. When they were talking about that concept, I couldn’t believe it – my jaw dropped. I’m so excited, and I feel like this project has so much potential. It’s a perfect place for me.”


Each team is paired with a social innovation specialist from Design Impact, and throughout the 12 weeks the teams will work with various mentors and experts from the social sector, as well as potential users of their projects to test their ideas and gain valuable feedback to find out what works best, and equally as important, what does not work.


Next Steps 

This year, The Shift, United Way and Design Impact made some adjustments in the program based upon what they heard from participants last year.

“One of the biggest changes is that in the very first week last year we just handed them a concept and moved straight to prototyping. This year we’re giving them time and space to do their own discovery so they can take more ownership of their idea from the start,” said Michelle Sucher, social innovation specialist, Design Impact, and facilitator for The Shift. “We’re connecting them to their mentors earlier, so they can get that deep-rooted knowledge of their issue earlier in the process. There will still be that continuity of rapidly prototyping, but it will just be a little delayed to give them that really solid foundation.”

Another change to the program design, which last year was mostly based in behavioral economics, is trying to root that to the Metathemes and issues around equity. Earlier this year, Design Impact developed and United Way funded Metathemes: Designing for Equitable Social Change, which identified patterns from insights collected from the community from more than 30 projects directly related to poverty and inequity in Greater Cincinnati. 


The Shift will keep a more intentional lens on equity and incorporate the metathemes to build their ideas based off what United Way and Design Impact have heard from people we’re trying to help. 

Sidekick Co., Lights On and Comfort Food are just starting points – seeds of ideas – which United Way thinks have great potential. Through the process of prototyping, failing and pivoting, each team hopes to sow the seeds into a fully-fleshed out, tangible project that can be implemented directly into the community. The challenge is on!

“I’m super excited. Most of the work I do now is trying to help strengthen and connect artistic communities, so being able to work with the community in a more grounded, tangible sense is really exciting,” said Scott Holzman, executive director of literary art nonprofit Chase Public, and member of the Comfort Food team. “I’m excited to learn more about the various immigrant communities in Cincinnati, and see what I can do to help make things easy. I hope at the end of 12 weeks we have something we can put at the top of the flag pole pretty proudly.”