The 10 most innovative not-for-profit organizations of 2022

In times of crisis, we tend to rely heavily on philanthropy, turning to nonprofits to fill in the gaps that go unaddressed or under-funded by other social safety nets. There’s been no shortage of tumult this past year: The pandemic continues on, seemingly unending; inflation and supply chain shortages have snagged all sorts of businesses and products, affecting our daily lives; Big Tech continues to meddle in many of our daily interactions, injecting bias into tasks like mortgage applications and proliferating misinformation that can have real-world harm. All the while, the climate crisis rages on in the background; our oceans are under threat—not only from plastic pollution, some 8 million tons of which enters our oceans every year, but also from increasing warming and acidification that bleaches coral reefs, threatens food security, and leads to bigger, stronger storms like hurricanes, which are just one of the many climate disasters that tend to hit already-disparaged communities the hardest.

Those problems seem overwhelming, but there are nonprofits and charities working on all sorts of solutions. This year’s honorees in the not-for-profit category have found innovative ways to reach those in need, adapting to the challenges of supply chain issues, taking advantage of the shift to remote work, tackling the climate crisis from multiple angles, and using data to hold all sorts of companies to account. In some cases, legacy charities showed how they can quickly adapt to current setbacks with fresh and inventive approaches, as Baby2Baby, which has been around for a decade, did when it began manufacturing its own diapers for the first time in order to keep providing for families during supply chain snags. Or when Communication Service for the Deaf, founded in 1975, began working with municipalities to help ensure COVID-19 vaccine information was accessible to Deaf residents. In others, newer charities address emerging issues in cutting-edge ways, like the Only One Collective’s approach to saving the ocean by building a community of donors that support all different projects at once, or the nonprofit newsroom the Markup for highlighting the ways that tech affects our daily lives with misinformation trackers and in-depth data reporting. In every case, these not-for-profits show that they’re working on the issues affecting people right now, and doing so in novel, often trailblazing ways.

1. Baby2Baby

For manufacturing its own diapers to provide for families during supply chain holdups

For years, Baby2Baby has provided children living in poverty with diapers, and in 2021, demanded hit an all-time high—the nonprofit received requests for 731 million diapers, a 505% increase compared with pre-pandemic times. Lost jobs and less income drove some of that demand, though even when women are working, the burden of buying diapers quickly adds up (in some cases, parents need to provide their own diapers to daycares). At the same time, supply chain issues, rising prices, and national shortages bedeveloped businesses across the country, diaper makers included. How do you donate diapers when there are no diapers to give? Or when rising prices mean a monetary donation doesn’t go as far as it used to? You start making your own. Baby2Baby became both a receiver and producer of diapers, manufacturing its own at 6 cents apiece (compared to 12 cents, what the nonprofit could get at wholesale). Over the next year, the nonprofit says it will manufacture more than 30 million diapers, reaching hundreds of thousands of families.

2. The Solutions Project

For empowering the communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis

When a climate disaster hits, the aid that comes can tend to follow a “white savior” model, with wealthy, white philanthropists and “disaster capitalists” swooping in to dictate where relief goes, or to price gouge and profit. The Solutions Project aims to be the antithesis of that approach, putting communities of color at the forefront of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. In 2021, the nonprofit provided more than $10,000,000 in grants to more than 125 grassroots organizations led predominantly by women of color and in the South. $1.53 million specifically went to disaster resilience grants to 53 grassroots organizations in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana to help prepare for and respond to the February freeze infrastructure failures and Hurricane Ida.

3. As You So

For putting data behind corporate racial justice pledges

Following 2020’s spate of corporate pledges to support racial justice, As You Sow is adding actual data on accountability. The nonprofit’s Racial Justice Scorecard—which began to donate as a ranking of the S&P 250 on 22 key performance indicators such as pay equity, promotional rates, racial justices, and hate speech accountability—expanded to the full S&P 500 and Russell1000, and included four new KPIs for environmental justice. The nonprofit then initiated shareholder activist campaigns to spur the most laggard of the bunch. It prepared racial justice resolutions for Monster and Footlocker—which it then withdrew after successfully receiving clear, public commitments on their plans to achieve racial justice—and has since filed more with others, including Dollar General, Entergy, and Uber.

4. Charity: water

For creating an easy way to make sure rural water systems keep flowing

In remote areas, rural water systems are difficult to monitor: site visits can be rare, and pump failures can persist for months. Charity:water, a nonprofit that provides drinking water to developing countries, is changing that with its water sensors. In 2021, it unveiled its India Mark II Handpump Sensor, which installs in about 15 minutes and uses cloud computing to analyze and email out relevant data—like liters pumped per hour, so the nonprofit can detect any water flow stops or shortages, and when necessary, dispatch a technician to make repairs. At just $250, and with the ability to last 10 years without a battery change, the sensor will allow the charity:water to monitor its more than 79,000 water projects remotely.

5. DreamSpring

For providing loans to underserved small- and micro-businesses

The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts sounded the death knell for many small businesses. For DreamSpring, a nonprofit community lender focused on underserved entrepreneurs, it was a moment to provide an “economic triage.” The nonprofit focused on micro-businesses, which often struggle to access credit or loans; Many mainstream lenders didn’t make the small-dollar Paycheck Protection Program loans these businesses needed. With its new proprietary online lending platform, DreamSpring was able to quickly customize loans, find fintech and bank partners to help the nonprofit access PPP applications, and scale its lending to reach those vulnerable micro-businesses. The nonprofit expanded its service area from five states to 19, and its lending rose from 1,567 loans issued in all of 2019 to 26,080 loans issued in just the first eight months of 2021.

6. The Markup

For putting tangible data behind the ways tech affects our lives

Home sales had a banner year in 2021, but who, exactly, was buying? The Markup, a data-centric journalistic startup, analyzed more than 2 million mortgage applications and found 89 urban areas where racial disparities were present in loan denials. Mortgage lender algorithms were 40% to 80% more likely to reject an applicant of color than a white with a similar financial profile, per the nonprofit newsroom’s reporting. Advocates are now pointing to this work to demand change. It’s just one example of how the Markup’s reporting is not only revealing, but potentially changing, how technology shapes our world. The company has also developed tools like Blacklight, which uncovers third-party tracking technologies on websites and was used to show how many state COVID-19 vaccine sites were tracking their users, as well as Citizen Browser, a Facebook misinformation tracker that revealed how Facebook failed to stop pushing users towards partisan political groups after the January 6 insurrection, despite claiming it had ended that practice.

7. The Only One Collective

For building a community of donors supporting projects to save the ocean

There’s no silver bullet for saving the ocean, so The Only One Collective is trying more of a buckshot approach, getting lots of people to donate a small amount of money each month that gets spread out to fund a variety of solutions working to rebuild ocean life . Called the Tide, this network of donors has grown to more than 8,500, and in 2021 they are supported leaders like Pascoal Nhamussua of Love the Ocean, who is working on kayak-powered sustainable fishing projects in Mozambique, and Nikita Shiel-Rolle, a scientist and advocate helping train locals to become certified marine community scientists in the Bahamas.

8. Truth Initiative

For showing young people how they can quit vaping

Victoria Annunziato, aka King Victober, has more than 6 million followers on TikTok, and when she quit e-cigarettes in 2021, she invited all of them along for the journey. She was one of three influencers (along with Tosha and Jerry Purpdrank) who were part of the Truth Initiative’s Quit Together campaign, meant to pull back the curtain on the struggles and successes of quitting vaping. As they shared their experiences, all three influencers also invited their combined 11.3 million followers to “quit together” with them using Truth Initiatives’s free text-based resource, This is Quitting. In the campaign’s first few weeks, daily enrollment in This is Quitting nearly tripled; more than 400,000 youth and young adults are now enrolled.

9. George Kaiser Family Foundation

For revitalizing Tulsa as an enticing home for remote workers

In 1921, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma changed forever when white mobs destroyed 35 blocks of the once-thriving Greenwood district, killing as many as 300 people and decimating hundreds of businesses along a stretch known as Black Wall Street. A century later, the George Kaiser Family Foundation still believes that Tulsa can be a land of opportunity and has focused on making it “the best city for children to be born, grow, and succeed” by supporting everything from early childhood education to ways to improve maternal health disparities. To the foundation, part of the equation also lies in attracting more people to the city, and so it began funding a program called Tulsa Remote in 2018 that would give remote workers $10,000 if they relocated to Tulsa for at least a year. In what was arguably the year of remote work, the initiative had its best year ever: 937 new remote workers moved to Tulsa in 2021 (there are more than 1,300 members in total). More than 88% of the program’s members have decided to stay past that one year requirement, and the city has felt their impact: Tulsa Remote added $62 million to Tulsa County’s GDP in 2021 alone.

10. Communication Service for the Deaf

For making COVID-19 vaccine information easily accessible to deaf residents

Just like someone can “press two” to speak in Spanish when making a phone call, Connect Direct, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Communication Service for the Deaf, allows deaf callers to directly reach deaf call-center agents, so they can communicate in ASL over video rather than go through expensive or inefficient third-party interpreters. As the COVID-19 vaccine rolled out across the country, the commonwealth of Virginia used Connect Direct to join deaf residents with signing representatives who knew about local rules and recommendations. It was the first state to provide real-time ASL support for COVID-19 and vaccine info. CSD is working to expand this service to other states, and also plans to soon launch its own deaf telehealth platform, which will help deaf and signing patients communicate with doctors, nurses and care providers directly, no middlemen needed.

Leave a Comment