Social Innovation Is Driving Massive Change With Unique Partnerships

Newburyport is a scenic, historic coastal city, a popular destination to enjoy shopping, cultural activities and wildlife. But like many small cities in Massachusetts, there are children and families who are left behind, living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to make ends meet. It’s an issue that’s neither obvious nor well-known in the community. But United Way Social Innovation Venture Fund winner Our Neighbors’ Table wants to change that.

“Imagine a community where every teacher, soccer coach, pastor, and troop leader was aware that 1 out of 8 children is food insecure,” said Lyndsey Haight, Executive Director at Our Neighbors’ Table. “These leaders would not only understand how common this struggle is, they would be armed with information and sensitivity to respond appropriately and point families in a direction to solve this basic need.”

Census data shows there are 735 Newburyport children living below 200% poverty level and at high risk for food insecurity.  Like many entrenched community problems, food insecurity is not an issue that one organization can solve on its own. That’s why Our Neighbors’ Table recently pitched a live audience and expert panel of judges and won one of four $75,000 grants from United Way’s new Social Innovation Venture Fund, presented by Aetna.  

With this new funding, Our Neighbors’ Table will mobilize the City of Newburyport to create food security for all of its children. Working in partnership with the City of Newburyport Mayor’s Office, Newburyport Public Schools, Children’s Health Care and Community Service of Newburyport, Our Neighbors’ Table will raise public awareness of food insecurity, increasing screening and intervention for families in need, and ensure all children and their families have consistent access to fresh, nutritious food.


Massachusetts is home to world-class universities, health care institutions, businesses and nonprofit organizations, and hundreds of thousands of people who are working to improve the lives of people in need in our communities each day.  So why can’t we solve seemingly intractable issues such as inter-generational poverty, the workforce skills gap, homelessness and hunger?

“While there are many organizations working to improve our communities, not enough are working together,” says Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “These are complex issues, ones that will only be solved by government, nonprofits and businesses partnering in a meaningful way. As funders, we need to push more on incentivizing collaboration — and paying for the solution.”

That’s why United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, in partnership with Aetna, a CVS Health Company, recently launched the United Way Social Innovation Venture Fund. The focus on partnerships is what caught the attention of Aetna’s leaders.

“Being able to need to work with trusted organizations like the United Way to address social determinants of health can have a huge impact in the health of communities across the country, including here in Massachusetts,” said Leila Nowroozi, Aetna Business Strategy. “We are eager to work with the United Way Venture Fund recipients to understand their programs, collect data on what works and where we can make improvements, and ultimately look to scale these types of initiatives across the country.”

The community responded to United Way’s challenge to develop unique collaborations to approach community problems in a new way. The Social Innovation Venture Fund received 76 applications from across Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Over 200 volunteers helped to review and score the applications, and eight finalists pitched their partnerships to an expert panel of judges and a live audience at United Way’s first-ever Venture Fund Pitch Night, hosted by Boston Consulting Group.  

The winners were also judged on their readiness for a successful launch this summer and the potential for the solution to be scaled up to improve outcomes for an entire population over time. The result of this process: four game-changing community partnerships became the first to win grants of up to $75,000.


Urban College of Boston was one of the winners. According to their proposal, U.S. News and World Reports notes there are nearly 70 hospitals within 25 miles of Boston. But despite the tremendous job opportunities these hospitals and biotechnology firms create, many local residents lack the education and training needed to access those career pathways.

Moreover, Urban College of Boston notes that academic hospitals face a key structural issue in the conduct of clinical research: mistrust and lack of community engagement interfere with the recruitment of research participants from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. As studies have shown that diseases and drugs impact members of different racial and ethnic groups in different ways, predominantly white clinical trials limit the applicability of findings to the general population.

Urban College of Boston won $75,000 to implement an innovative partnership with Tufts Medical Center to recruit more people of color to participate in clinical research studies, while at the same time building a career pipeline for low-income people from diverse backgrounds who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree to manage clinical studies.

Other United Way Venture Fund prizes were awarded to Lawrence CommunityWorks, who will be partnering with local employers to transform manufacturing floors into bilingual workplaces and create more opportunities for the predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce in the region, and FamilyAid Boston, who will partner with Boston Public Schools to identify students who might have insecure housing and work with their families to stabilize their homes and prevent their education from being disrupted. United Way will profile each winner in the weeks ahead.

“These partnerships have the potential to be transformative for those who need our help,” said Karley Ausiello, Senior Vice President for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley.  “We can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together.”