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The 10 most innovative not-for-profit organizations of 2021

These best-in-class not-for-profits are inventing new ways to combat hunger, hate, and social injustice.

The 10 most innovative not-for-profit organizations of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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This year’s finalists in the not-for-profit category of Most Innovative Companies have persevered through the trials of 2020, finding original and effective ways to reach people in need, tackle the compound crises that emerged during the pandemic, and lift up voices that for too long haven’t been heard.

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1. Get Shift Done

For tackling both job loss and hunger by paying hospitality workers to fill food-bank shifts

Seeing food pantries and shelters struggle to meet the growing need of unemployed Americans during the pandemic, Patrick Brandt, president of Shiftsmart, and Anurag Jain, chairman emeritus of the North Texas Food Bank, had an idea: pay displaced hospitality workers to fill food-bank shifts. With private donations, they launched a local effort that was only supposed to run 12 weeks. It’s since grown to a dozen cities, including Washington, D.C., El Paso, and New Orleans, and has been activated at 110 nonprofit organizations. More than 20,000 people who have either been furloughed or laid off from their hospitality jobs are now registered on the Shiftsmart app, working for nonprofits to provide food to others in need while getting an income themselves. So far, workers have completed close to one million hours of shifts, serving more than 60 million relief meals. And they’ve been paid nearly $15 million for their work.

2. United Nations World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator

For using big data and artificial intelligence to reach those most vulnerable to food insecurity

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There are 690 million undernourished people across the world, and by 2030, 840 million people could be going hungry. But the World Food Programme (WFP) Innovation Accelerator wants a different reality for 2030: world hunger and food insecurity eliminated. To get there, it’s testing all sorts of solutions, from blockchain technology that delivers cash to virtual wallets, so refugees can buy food in remote locations, to an E-shop that allows vulnerable people in Tanzania to order food online. The latter started in March 2020, and by July it already reached $1.4 million monthly sales. Throughout the year, WFP scaled up 11 projects that directly reached more than 1.4 million people the year prior. WFP also unveiled HungerMap Live, a tool to monitor both COVID-19 outbreaks and food insecurity in real time, allowing for more efficient humanitarian response.

3. Color of Change

For pressuring Facebook to stop profiting from hate

In response to the hate speech and misinformation rampant on Facebook, Color of Change—with other civil rights groups including the NAACP and Anti-Defamation League—launched #StopHateForProfit, a campaign that pushed more than 1,000 major advertisers to stop spending money on Facebook ads in order to demand justice and accountability from the tech giant. Verizon, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks were among the companies that paused their Facebook advertising, meaning millions in lost profits. The effort may not have crippled the company, but it was a step toward holding Facebook accountable.

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4. UNICEF USA

For providing financial guarantees so low-income countries could get PPE 

When the pandemic began, low- and middle-income countries couldn’t front the sudden cost for supplies like PPE, which would be crucial to keeping their populations safe. UNICEF stepped in, creating a Fast Fund to help its supply division secure PPE and other COVID-19 supplies at scale. The Fast Fund provided guarantees for any upfront payments needed for such deliveries, so more than 90 low- and middle-income countries wouldn’t have to wait to get what they needed. By taking on that financial risk, UNICEF could deliver PPE straight from manufacturers to frontline workers in the most vulnerable communities without any delay.

5. Tiltify

For bringing the telethon to TikTok

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Since 2015, Tiltify has partnered with Twitch to allow content creators like gamers to raise money while streaming. In 2020, it expanded with an exclusive integration with TikTok, bringing its updated telethons to the fastest growing social media app. A sticker to donate to a TikTok user’s charity of choice can pop up either on their videos or live streams, letting viewers donate with the tap of an on-screen button, and without leaving the app. When entrepreneur and internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk live-streamed for Meals on Wheels, he raised $2.3 million ($1.15 million of which was matched by TikTok) in 12 hours.

6. Project Return

For helping the formerly incarcerated re-enter society during the pandemic

Project Return has long helped formerly incarcerated people find jobs when they’re released from prison. During the pandemic, though, jobs disappeared, making it harder for people to re-enter society. To create employment opportunities, the nonprofit expanded its property solutions company PROPS—which provided landscape and commercial cleaning services—into a COVID-19 cleaning business called PROPS Disinfecting. Those released from jail during the pandemic could get work cleaning the offices of other nonprofits and disinfecting apartments and businesses around Nashville. And with those jobs, they have a chance at full, and free, lives post-imprisonment.

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7. Pillars Fund

For amplifying the voices of Muslims in creating their own narrative

Muslim representation in media is still limited; viewers may only see Mulsim characters if they’re depicting a terrorist or are completely veiled. Pillars Fund is working to change this public perception of what is an extremely diverse community by empowering Muslims to tell their own stories. In 2020, the nonprofit launched two new initiatives: the Muslim Narrative Change Cohort, a group of 10 artists, academics and others working on changing the stories of Muslims in the public eye; and The Muslim List, a partnership with The Black List and Muslim Public Affairs Council to highlight Muslim screenwriters.

8. The Kind Foundation

For matching companies looking to donate goods with first responders

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In April, KIND wanted to donate snacks to essential workers, but quickly ran into roadblocks: Decision makers at hospitals and healthcare institutions were too overwhelmed to help facilitate such donations. KIND wasn’t the only company struggling to actually distribute its goods, so it decided to make the process of donating anything to nurses and doctors a bit easier with The Frontline Impact Project. On that platform, donors—from Saffron Road frozen meals to Zico coconut water—are matched with first responders, based on geography or other factors that make it easiest to give. Nurses, doctors, and EMTs can also use the site to request resources. The project has expanded from nourishment to include things like personal care items and even housing and transportation. As of March 2021, 80 brands had signed on, including Mary Kay, Glossier, and Sakara Life—and they’d donated more than six million products. And KIND Foundation has expanded beyond the pandemic, as well, to get donations to those on the front lines of natural disasters like wildfires and floods.

9. GiveDirectly

For scaling up its direct cash payments as global poverty is poised to increase

For years, GiveDirectly has been giving cash payments directly to those in need. In 2020, with global poverty expected to rise for the first time in 20 years due to the pandemic and its economic impact, that need skyrocketed—and GiveDirectly responded by delivering more cash than it ever had before. In 2019, the nonprofit had committed about $34 million in cash transfers. Before 2020 was even over, it delivered more than $132 million, reaching more than 256,000 people. In the absence of physical contact, some of that giving was made possible with new technologies: In Togo and Uganda, to find out where that money was needed most, GiveDirectly used satellite imagery, phone data, and machine learning to find the most vulnerable people and pay them remotely.

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10. New Story

For collecting data to understand who needs rent relief

When the pandemic forced New Story to pause its home building efforts, the nonprofit transitioned to focus on rent relief to continue its mission to end homelessness. The first step in helping people stay in their homes is finding which ones need rent support. With its data collection tool Felix, New Story surveyed communities quickly and safely, measuring income changes, emotional health, family size, rent rates, and whether they were eligible for any government assistance. With that data, New Story built the Neighborhood, a platform for people to donate toward a family’s rent.