Innovation Finalists

The Mission Award for Innovation recognizes creative applications and nontraditional approaches to solving community challenges. Nominated nonprofit innovations should:

  • Bring solutions to community challenges by using current solutions or strategies in new and creative ways or by bringing new solutions to a common problem;
  • Focus on doing things differently, rather than just doing things better;
  • Take new ideas and implements them successfully with measurable outcomes;
  • Employ a variety of strategies in developing these solutions; and
  • May collaborate with other nonprofit organizations, businesses, and governmental agencies in their efforts.

Voting has closed for the 2023 Mission Awards. Thank you!
2023 Innovation Logo

Franklin Center 1

A group of Franklin Capstone participants gather for a game of frisbee on a beautiful autumn day.

Franklin Center was founded in 2003 by a group of parents who set out to create a new educational model designed for neurodiverse individuals who have different learning styles and require an educational model that meets their needs. The organization aims to empower neurodiverse individuals to reach their full potential by providing comprehensive and tailored support for their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs.

Franklin Center offers a range of services, including an accredited K-12 private school, enrichment and after-school programming, academic and activity-oriented summer programming, a mental and behavioral health center, and an adult education transitions program. The organization’s student and client base comes primarily from the Twin Cities Metro area, with total enrollment across all programs at 262 and waiting lists for both the school and the clinic. Franklin Center has the capacity to serve up to 125 K-12 students, provide 500 hours of mental and behavioral health services per week, support 30 clients in our transitions program, and assist 50 vocational rehab clients.

Neurodiverse people, who have neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia and other conditions, often struggle with generalizing information or adapting to transitions in daily life. Unfortunately, the implicit expectations for behavior in, for example, classrooms, are not always clear to them.  Instead of receiving the necessary accommodations and support to reach their potential, these individuals are often labeled as “bad” or “wrong”. In the state of Minnesota, special education students accounted for 42.3 percent of all reported disciplinary incidents, despite being only 14.6 percent of the student population. It is important to note that repeated discipline referrals, including suspensions, are linked to higher dropout rates. In fact, the special education dropout rate in Minnesota is twice that of the general population.   

In 2023, Franklin Center introduced an innovative early education model in our kindergarten classroom,  Minnehaha Falls. This innovative approach combines academic instruction with individualized therapy goals, bringing two essential pieces of a neurodiverse child’s development into one model. Each child in the classroom receives personalized support from a designated therapy team consisting of two to three registered behavior therapists, a senior therapist, and a treatment lead. This model is unique to this classroom and provides a rare opportunity for neurodiverse Kindergartners to receive full-time behavioral therapy and pursue academic learning. 

Unlike other schools, which may provide only therapy or academic instruction, Franklin Center combines both to meet the individual needs of each student. This results in a highly effective and individualized approach to learning and treatment, leading to sustained progress in all developmental areas. Rather than merely correcting or punishing undesirable behavior, we help our students understand the underlying reasons behind their actions. Franklin Center prioritizes “regulation before education”, as we believe that people learn best when their most basic needs are fulfilled. This approach fosters self-awareness and emotional regulation skills, which are beneficial in various situations throughout the students’ lives.      

The Minnehaha Falls classroom, at the heart of Franklin Center's educational model, is a testament to its success. Not only does it foster learning flexibility and the generalization of behavioral and academic skills, but it also serves as a catalyst for collaboration among the academy, therapy services, and families. In Minnesota, where the special education graduation rate from 2019-2022 stood at only 64.3 percent, Franklin Academy, with its 100 percent neurodiverse population, achieved a remarkable 100 percent graduation rate during the same period. This achievement underscores the effectiveness of the innovative and nurturing environment created by Franklin Center, which consistently defies expectations and empowers students, clients, and participants to surpass their anticipated potential, leading them to lead fulfilling lives.

Second Harvest North Central Food Bank photo

Chaz and Second Harvest North Central Food Bank volunteers at a Mobile Pop-Up Pantry distribution point.

Second Harvest North Central Food Bank's (SHNCFB) mission is simple: engage communities in north-central Minnesota to end hunger. The organization fights hunger and promotes health in seven counties and two tribal nations in north central Minnesota—spanning over 11,000 square miles and 209,766 residents. With help from a network of 145 hunger relief agency partners and more than 500 volunteers, they source and redistribute food and grocery products, providing nearly five million meals each year. Not only do they address hunger, they also invest in the long-term health of their communities and children’s developing brains and bodies by providing meat, dairy and over one million pounds of fresh produce each year to meet nutritional needs. Their work brings together neighbors in our communities to nourish one another in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Itasca, Koochiching, Kanabec and Mille Lacs counties and Leech Lake and Mille Lacs Reservations. 

Addressing rural hunger requires constant innovation and adaptation to work effectively with agencies in a wide range of community contexts, from regional centers of 10,000+ residents to close-knit communities with fewer than 200 people. The COVID pandemic made this work exponentially more complex for an agency whose mission is to feed hungry people safely.

In response, SHNCFB created its Mobile Pop-Up Pantry program, so people in every corner of the region could easily and safely access food. Staff quickly noticed that Mobile Pop-Up Pantry customers came from all walks of life, including many working-age men and seniors. More than 30 percent of people who access SHNCFB Pop-Up Pantries are seniors, whose fixed income can't stretch when expenses go up, so they depend on the food from the Pop-Ups to get by.

The program has been well-received and well-used, and continues to this day. In March 2023 alone, SHNCFB served 21 sites in some of the region's smallest communities: Bena (pop 147), Palisade (pop 156), Northome (pop 283), and Onamia (pop 800). At the start of the pandemic, SHNCFB staff worked closely with the Bois Forte, Leech Lake, and Mille Lacs tribal nations – where food insecurity is acute – to distribute additional food through Pop-Up Pantries in ways that adhered to tribal government COVID guidelines. This partnership has continued and grown into regular Mobile Pop-Up Pantries in nearly a dozen tribal communities.

As a whole, Second Harvest and its member agencies have been highly successful in creating systems and infrastructure to respond to increased need. The big success of the Mobile Pop-Up Pantry program has been that nutritious food has reached small, isolated communities, including several tribal communities, where no hunger relief services existed before because they aren't large enough to support and sustain their own permanent food shelf. It has also reached a portion of the population who struggled with food insecurity but weren’t using previously available services, by enabling both convenience and a dignified experience for people in small communities.

SHNCFB understands that ending hunger not only means providing enough food, but enough quality food—so efforts like this one are critical. Efforts like the Mobile Pop-Up Pantry program will continue to be critical, reaching directly into rural communities with high-quality food, promoting health and filling dinner plates.

Wildflyer photo

Jupiter, programs shop manager at Wildflyer Coffee's Minneapolis coffee shop! 

Wildflyer Coffee exists to create employment opportunities and cultivate life skills to empower youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability. The organization’s vision is to end youth homelessness. To achieve this vision, they work with youth aged 16-24, offering a four-month employment training program to cultivate the personal and professional skills needed to find and maintain stable employment and leave homelessness for good.

The organization’s work skills training happens at their coffee shops located in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where they serve nearly 60 youth each year between Hennepin and Ramsey County. Wildflyer utilizes an expansive definition of homelessness, including couch-hopping, temporary housing such as a shelter or transitional living program, and living on the street or another place that is not fit for habitation.

Wildflyer provides a 4-month Work and Life Skills cohort program for 20 youth at a time. Youth employees work 20 hours per week in the coffee shop, where they experience hands-on skills training and coaching. In addition to their time in the cafe, they spend several hours each week developing skills that will help them succeed in long-term employment including customer service, mental health and the workplace, and financial wellness. Youth are compensated for all of their time in the program at $15 per hour plus tips, which often amounts to more than $20 per hour. Youth participants develop both the necessary soft and hard skills to successfully transition into long-term stable employment.

Wildflyer has many formal and informal partnerships with other youth-serving, housing, and employment focused organizations, including the Link and Avivo. They also partner with local businesses and large corporations, such as Starbucks or Caribou Coffee, who have committed to hiring youth upon graduation from Wildflyer’s programs.

In 2022, Wildflyer Coffee employed 25 youth, provided 3,500 hours of paid employment, paid out $85,000 in wages to youth experiencing homelessness, provided 250 programming hours to help youth develop critical personal and professional skills, and served 22,000 different customers.

Through these outputs, Wildflyer coffee achieved the following outcomes:  

  • 66 percent increase in Job Readiness Assessment Scores-meaning youth are exhibiting tangible progress in critical life skill development  
  • 73 percent of youth were involved in ongoing postgraduate support-meaning youth are building social capital, working with their job coach and attending alumni programming 
  • 80 percent of youth remained stably employed/enrolled in education at 3-month post-graduation check-in 

Through their program, youth are finding employment and leaving homelessness behind. Beyond that, they are building social capital and creating a network of support and belonging. Wildflyer benefits not just the youth themselves, but the community as a whole. While these quantitative achievements are important, the stories of youth remain most impactful in showing the impact of dignified, supportive employment opportunities.

At the end of her time in the Wildflyer program, one youth shared the following: “I’ve gone from hating myself and family trauma to being over six months clean now. To go from that to finally having a stable life, to actually being able to wake up in the morning and be thankful, to wake up in the morning and not cry, not be in pain, and just be happy to be alive, I don’t take that for granted.”