What Social Entrepreneurs Need to Know About The Innovation Fund

by The Workers Lab, on February 23, 2021 at 1:34 PM

Each year at The Workers Lab, we offer investments in grant funding to social entrepreneurs with ideas to help build worker power. Are you a social entrepreneur? Should you apply to The Innovation Fund? Read on.

Do you think of innovative ways to solve problems facing workers? Do you get excited about testing your ideas, sharing them with others, and trying to get them off the ground? If you answered "yes" to these questions: You’re a social entrepreneur. 

Outside of the scope of traditional entrepreneurship and the mainstream investment space, where most of the capital and resource investments lie (private equity, venture capital, etc.), it can be a lot harder to get the right attention for your idea. Especially so when your ultimate goal is impact-based—to engage workers and build power for them. We see that as a problem. And it's why The Innovation Fund was created: to uplift innovative ideas building worker power, and give them a chance to succeed and flourish.

We are here for the innovators who want to create positive change. And we are here for those who don’t think of themselves as social entrepreneurs—yet. We believe that the major social changes we need in society today cannot happen without the power of workers. And our vision for the future is one where workers are the primary drivers of economic, political, and cultural transformation.

The Workers Lab exists to seed the future of work. The Innovation Fund is our flagship program. Since 2014, we have distributed over $5 million in grants to 70 innovators through The Innovation Fund.

The types of projects we support through The Innovation Fund:

  • Have creative or new approaches to making workers more safe, healthy, secure, and free;
  • Engage workers in decision-making, ownership, and problem-solving, in service of increasing their power;
  • Create new ways to center workers in policy, economic, and day-to-day business conversations;
  • Help realize the transformative power and participation of working people, increasing recourse, the inclusion of their voice, as well as giving them more control and mobility.

Read on for answers to frequently asked questions about The Innovation Fund.

We fund social ventures

We are frequently asked: What exactly is The Innovation Fund? 

Is The Innovation Fund an incubator? Is it an accelerator? Is it a venture philanthropy fund?

The Innovation Fund is an intersectional space of all the structures noted above, but we prefer to be known as a “social investment fund” or “social impact fund.” Through our focus on social impact, we invest in leaders who are ready to move their ideas forward, to learn, and to share their learnings so that others in the worker and labor ecosystems can build on them.

In each funding cycle, we invite social entrepreneurs, non-profits, and public and private sector leaders to submit innovative ideas that have the potential to build worker power. Winners receive up to $150,000 to cultivate their solution and one year to evaluate learnings, including its long-term sustainability and potential for scale.

We fund social ventures—organizations that prioritize the social good, the health of communities, and the strength of workers, along with business success. Social ventures can take many different forms, including:

  • Non-profit organizations
  • Public sector entities
  • Cooperatives
  • For-profit companies
  • Social enterprises

We also consider funding projects that have established a relationship with a fiscal sponsor but are not independent organizations themselves.

Social entrepreneur funding with no strings attached

Winners will receive funds in the form of one lump sum, which can be used for anything related to their project. Whereas many sources of capital place restrictions on the use of funds,  such as operations or equipment only purchases, the award from The Innovation Fund is flexible and can be used in whatever ways the winners need to advance their work and test its viability. 

Although our grants come with no strings attached, we do believe that having a detailed budget and operating plan, in addition to clear learning questions and outcomes, contributes to an idea's success. These elements are part of what makes a successful application to The Innovation Fund.

Take the first step to $150,000 by downloading our application checklist.

In addition to capital investment, winning innovators will have access to a valuable network along with The Workers Lab's resources, including our staff, funding partners, industry experts, and current and past winners. By leveraging our network, winners often receive help securing follow-on funding and partnership opportunities. 

Even social entrepreneurs who apply but do not ultimately win a grant from The Innovation Fund experience benefits from the process, and are encouraged to participate and stay connected through our Learning Hub. We typically have at least 10 finalists during a funding cycle, and as a finalist, you will receive:

  • Valuable feedback on your idea
  • Input on how to refine and clarify it
  • Practice pitching
  • Public relations exposure and support

We fund underrepresented social entrepreneurs

An important function of The Innovation Fund is to lower the barriers to entry for social entrepreneurs by providing both financial and advisory support. We must bring more people in, particularly those who have been traditionally excluded in the past and those who may not feel like they have the room to be a social entrepreneur. This includes people who have been traditionally excluded from philanthropy, startup capital, and venture funding. We're especially drawn to projects that lift up individuals and communities from underrepresented groups including Women of Color, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+, youth, returning citizens, and leaders in rural regions of the country.

We fund innovations that build worker power

To us, innovation is the catalyst for a worker-driven sea change. It is a way of building worker power through reimagining how, and for whom, systems work to benefit. 

We look to innovators like you to ensure workers have a voice and a role in shaping the institutions affecting their lives. Strong applications tend to have ideas about where workers will play a role in bringing the idea to life (for example, as partners, leaders, advisors, end users, owners, and more).

To learn more about the types of projects we fund, check out our past winners from 2020, 2019, and 2018.

We are a fund for changemakers

The Innovation Fund opens doors to changemakers by providing you a chance to get your ideas off the ground and take them to the next level. You’ll find that our model contrasts with most other grants, foundations, and start-up funding sources such as incubators, accelerators, or venture capital funds, and that’s intentional. 

“Most funders want to invest in a solution once it’s already been proven,” notes Sonya Passi, founder, and CEO of FreeForm, a Spring 2020 winner of The Innovation Fund. "The Workers Lab invests in innovation, not only providing funding but also sharing expertise, mentoring leaders, and amplifying their work.”

When we review applications, we’re looking for innovative ideas that push for high levels of participatory action. Specifically, we love ideas that: 

  • Take new approaches, toward an idea, the worker segments, or geographic areas served; and
  • Demonstrate clear and impactful worker engagement, so that solutions come from the people impacted by the problem.

Across all the different types of projects we’ve funded, we can identify several traits that are common to our winners:

  • Clearly centered on workers
  • Curious and open to experimentation
  • Authentic and passionate
  • Innovative and opportunistic
  • Creative and discerning
  • Engaged in active learning
  • Approachable and humble

Applying to The Innovation Fund

The Innovation Fund is open for applications up to three times per year. In general, we offer up to $150,000 for ideas that are most commonly in the pre-pilot, pilot, implementation, and scale stages of development. We often also award smaller cash prizes, such as ones up to $75,000 to encourage and learn alongside early-stage or experimental ideas.

Before each new cycle opens, we’ll announce the number of grants available and the cycle’s worker power focus. The best way to hear about new cycles and application windows for The Innovation Fund as they’re announced is through joining our mailing list and following us on social media:

By applying for The Innovation Fund, you create a bridge that allows us to connect you to resources in our Learning Hub, as we develop it, and you are plugged into our network ecosystem. It will help you familiarize yourself with the application process and you’ll be that much more prepared for the next round.

Plus, as we mentioned above, if you make it to the semi-finalist or finalist rounds, you’ll be provided with detailed, individualized feedback to support your process for refining and reiterating upon your project as well as exposure to donors. 

The first step is always getting started. Know that even if you don’t advance past the open call, spending the time to apply is still valuable. We take your ideas seriously and want to see them go places. You can make a difference. You can have an impact. Your idea can get noticed. 

We look forward to hearing from you!


About The Workers Lab

The Workers Lab was founded in 2014 by Dr. Carmen Rojas. Based in Oakland, California, The Workers Lab gives new ideas that increase worker power a chance to succeed and flourish. We do this by investing flexible dollars in a national network of leaders and innovators to test their new ideas, to learn from them, and to share those learnings with others through our signature program, The Innovation Fund. In addition to The Innovation Fund, we also run annual Design Sprints to explore and address solutions to specific problems facing today’s workers. We share our learnings through hosted panels and publications in our Learning Hub, and by request. To learn more, contact info@theworkerslab.com.

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