Workers Lab Announces Innovation Fund $150K Winners

From March to April 2020, The Workers Lab issued an open call for applications to the Innovation Fund, a program co-sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Innovation Fund is designed to grant $150,000 to three winners per investment cycle, awarding these highly sought-after prizes to organizations and individuals with the best ideas for improving the lives of workers.

Image Credit: The Workers Lab

“Our hope in this application cycle was to better understand what innovations are out there reimagining the kinds of support workers lean on to make it all work,” said Tiffany Ferguson, program director at The Workers Lab. “That could mean services, tools, or programs – any range of ideas that, with an investment from The Innovation Fund, could make it easier for workers to access and use their full potential.”

On July 7, the Innovation Fund announced its next round of grantees: The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), FreeFrom, and Leap Fund.

“Using their investment of $150,000 from this cycle of The Innovation Fund, each winning idea is poised to shed light on new tools and approaches to supporting workers who have long been left to fend for themselves and navigate confusing systems and processes,” announced The Workers Lab. “We are thrilled to partner with these Innovators who are helping to create the conditions workers need to thrive at work and beyond.”

All three grantees represent impressive and exciting opportunities for workers. The Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), based in California, seeks to improve the post-incarceration job prospects of California inmates. Given that 30 to 40 percent of California’s firefighters are part of a crew operated by the Department of Corrections, FFRP seeks to “create a pathway from incarceration to full-time employment as California firefighters.”

Leap Fund, meanwhile, offers a possible workaround to the “benefits cliff” that threatens many low-wage workers. The “benefits cliff” exists when low-wage workers rely on benefits to make ends meet, but accepting a pay increase or promotion pushes them out of the qualification criteria for accepting those benefits. In the end, that promotion or raise actually ends up costing the worker more. Leap Fund seeks to conquer this problem by funding research into financial solutions for the “benefits cliff”: answering the questions, “What if workers could predict when a benefits cliff would occur? And what if there was a financial product for deferring workers’ pay raises until they ‘clear’ that cliff?”

Perhaps most exciting to our readers, however, is the third grantee for the Innovation Fund: FreeFrom, an organization committed to fighting domestic violence against women and transgender people.

Based in Los Angeles, FreeFrom aims to bridge the gap between survivors of domestic violence and one of the major hurdles that forces them to return to an abuser: the opportunity for a steady, reliable income. According to the organization, 60 percent of survivors lose their job as a result of the abuse they have experienced — many survivors are forced to make the impossible decision between finding a safe place away from their abuser or keeping their jobs.

FreeFrom creates access to regular, stable employment for survivors. Their plans for the Innovation Fund grant include the creation of a survivor-designed paid leave program that works with employers to create an emergency leave program tailored to survivors’ needs for flexibility, privacy, and confidentiality.

“We are excited to start a national conversation about survivors of intimate partner violence as a subset of workers that need tailored support,” said Sonya Passi, founder and CEO of FreeFrom. “COVID-19 has drawn global attention to intimate partner violence. We have a window here to create some real systems change. Most funders want to invest in a solution once it’s already been proven, but The Workers Lab invests in innovation, not only providing funding but also sharing expertise, mentoring leaders, and amplifying their work. We feel confident that together we can transform workplaces into supportive environments for survivors.”

The Innovation Fund is a program co-sponsored by The Workers Lab and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Programs like these are exciting because of their flexibility: The competitive and open-ended nature of the grant application process gives grantees flexibility to use their funds the way they see fit.

The Workers Lab’s focus is on improving the lives of workers, specifically. At first glance, this organization doesn’t have much of a lens of racial justice or gender equity. However, many low-wage workers are disproportionately women, people of color, and members of the LGBT+ community. By supporting innovation from people with workers’ best interests at heart, we can support social change and gender and racial equity from the ground up.

I’m eager to see what the grantees produce with this latest round of funding from the Innovation Fund — and who we find in the next application cycle.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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