Foundations typically decide in secret which ideas to fund, and recipients often are the tried-and-true programs. But Minneapolis-based GHR Foundation is upending conventions with its BridgeBuilder Challenge, which is offering $1 million annually for outside-the-box ideas.
And here’s an unusual twist: The foundation puts all proposals on full public display.
“We are excited to find out what we don’t know — what is out there? What are some unlikely partnerships that are forming?” said Amy R. Goldman, CEO of the GHR Foundation.
GHR — a private family foundation established by the late real estate developer Gerald Rauenhorst and his wife, Henrietta, — has committed $3 million over the next three years to the goal of addressing “urgent global challenges … in radically new ways.”
More than 80 ideas have been submitted via GHR’s technology partner, OpenIDEO.com. Examples include funding small, portable river turbines that can provide electricity to villages in the developing world, and cultivating grasshoppers as a new source of protein for humans and animals rather than raising conventional livestock and risking environmental damage.
So far there is one Minnesota submission: BanQu Inc., a start-up that has developed smartphone technology offering a ledger of financial and personal records. It’s intended to help the estimated 2.7 billion people without bank accounts create and maintain an economic identity, including a credit history.
The scope of the challenge is intentionally broad to foster creativity and “discover social innovators doing critical work” who may fly under the radar of traditional foundations, said Goldman, the Rauenhorsts’ daughter.
Nonprofits, institutions, even businesses are encouraged to apply. The goal is to select and support the three to five most promising ideas each year, and the winners will share in the $1 million awarded annually.
While the Rauenhorsts’ support of Catholic causes is well-known, their 52-year-old foundation is not, their daughter said. Henrietta Rauenhorst died in 2010, and Gerald Rauenhorst four years later.
Now, with a $470 million endowment and $20 million in annual grant-making, GHR is poised for “significant growth” and is cultivating a higher public profile than ever before, Goldman said.
“We are becoming more visible,” she said. “The branding and visibility is really tied to how can we help those that we support be more effective.”
The foundation borrows from Gerald Rauenhorst’s innovative business legacy. Renowned for the halo-topped Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis and Mariucci Arena at the University of Minnesota, among many other local structures, Rauenhorst’s Opus Group helped pioneer the design-build model for development — one that relies on keeping a range of skills in-house, from architecture to engineering and construction, to better control the process and cost.
Similarly, the BridgeBuilder Challenge relies on a design-build model of philanthropy. While foundations often just write a check to support a good cause or charity, GHR — taking its name from Gerry and Henrietta’s initials — is committing to an ongoing collaboration, helping winners develop and improve their ideas and tap into additional funding.
Historically, the foundation has focused on education, health and international aid. It has long funded Catholic schools in the Twin Cities that serve working-class and low-income families, and provides support to the founders’ alma maters: the University of St. Thomas, St. Catherine University and Marquette University in Milwaukee.
GHR also works with Mayo Clinic and National Institutes of Health, and private companies to study Alzheimer’s prevention therapy.
Goldman said that Pope Francis’ visit to the United States in 2015 inspired her and others to create the challenge. The challenge cycle has four parts: the idea phase (which ends April 14), beneficiary feedback, expert feedback and the improve phase.
“Pope Francis is the most significant voice in our world today around bridging divides,” she said. “How can we deepen his message in the U.S. and the world with our actions and partnerships?”