Doing Better at Doing Good

Doing Better: Challenge programs can serve immediate needs while driving innovation

CorrespondentsOctober 12, 2013 

High school students consistently demonstrate a lack of understanding on how to manage personal finances. A growing number of kindergartners have untreated oral health issues that are interfering with their well-being and ability to participate fully in school.

Cities around the world are facing a new array of challenges ranging from environmental sustainability to concentrated pockets of poverty.

All around us are opportunities to turn problems into solutions. But how can we best engage next generation problem solvers? Increasingly, companies, foundations and even governments are creating competitions to help catalyze a new wave of public sector innovation.

Fidelity Investments, for example, just announced the Financial Education Grant Challenge. Recent studies show that fewer than one-third of young adults possess basic knowledge of interest rates, inflation and risk diversification, a percentage that dramatically changes based on family background and education.

A University of Michigan study shows that a college-educated male whose parents had stocks and retirement savings is about 50 percent more likely to know about risk diversification than a female with less than a high school education whose parents were not wealthy.

The consequence of financial illiteracy is that young people are carrying significantly more debt than the previous two generations – especially those who can least afford it. And yet, Brookings Institution research shows that current financial literacy efforts in schools are not having substantial impact.

Community engagement

With financial literacy representing a cornerstone of their community engagement strategy in North Carolina and beyond, Fidelity Investments has announced a competition to find break-through solutions to these challenges – with a specific focus on addressing the needs of high school students in low-income communities. Open to anyone, the winning idea will receive up to $100,000 in funding and volunteer support from Fidelity employees to test the idea with a non-profit and / or education partner. Applications are due Nov. 7.

Following the success of last year’s Health Innovation Challenge to find innovative solutions to reduce obesity across North Carolina, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina once again partnered with the Institute for Emerging Issues and Bull City Forward (that Christopher co-founded) to launch the Oral Health Initiative.

Recognizing that 14 percent of kindergartners have untreated dental care problems and a significant number of young people, particularly in underserved communities, do not take the proper preventive dental precautions, the Oral Health Initiative sought innovative solutions in our state that could be scaled to more communities.

From the competitive field, three finalists were selected to receive a $20,000 grant this past month. Winners included the Cabarrus Health Alliance in Kannapolis, which is seeking to connect low-income families to a comprehensive support system to reduce costly dental emergency room visits.

Solving urban problems

Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College’s Early Childhood Education, Dental Assisting, and Dental Hygiene programs are collaborating to develop a preschool oral health education initiative with access to their dental clinic. And Chapel Hill’s UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is developing a set of technology tools and videos to provide early childhood educators with the latest ideas for improving oral hygiene.

On the global stage, outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has launched a Mayor’s Challenge. Seeking bold ideas to major urban problems domestically, last year’s Challenge garnered 300 city proposals. Twenty finalists were selected based on their creative vision, impact potential, and transferability to other cities.

Durham and High Point were both among the finalists for their ideas, which included: creating solution-generating entrepreneurial hubs in three distressed Durham communities and adapting the evidence-based CeaseFire approach to gang violence to reducing domestic violence in High Point.

Expanding to Europe

Ultimately, Providence, R.I., won $5 million for its efforts to increase vocabulary usage in low-income communities through innovative technologies, with Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, and Santa Monica, Calif., each receiving $1 million to implement their ideas.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is expanding its Challenge to Europe – increasing the mix of solutions that all of our cities can learn from.

At a time when our government seems so stuck, we need more opportunities for civic innovation. Challenge programs represent a great opportunity not only to serve immediate needs but also to generate fresh new concepts from around our state and world.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the Center for Creative Leadership, is author of “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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