Several years ago, Iowa Public Radio, with the help of a donor, established an Innovation Fund. The concept was that a fund like this would support the creativity of our staff by providing an opportunity for them to access resources for new and innovative ideas outside of our annual budget cycle. It not only did that, but after five years in operation, the innovation fund shifted our station’s working culture and unlocked an additional $255,000 in annual revenue. 

The IPR Innovation Fund is funded annually by a donor who committed $250,000 over five years and the gift was recently renewed for a 6th year. Internally, we decided that $50,000 was enough annual seed funding to allow staff to ask for meaningful support toward a project and to allow leadership to potentially support more than one request a year. The concept of the Innovation Fund was born in a strategic planning process, but it wasn’t fully developed until a donor showed interest. The donor who started the fund had been in conversation with us for several months. We were re-establishing a relationship with her after the opportunity to steward a five-figure gift made several years prior had been dropped through a misunderstanding. After several meetings over the course of a year, she indicated that she was interested in making a larger investment in IPR and wanted to hear our ideas.

Since the Innovation Fund was a new fund for IPR, the donor liked this idea best and had many questions about how their funds would be used. The donor came from an academic and research background so she was interested in how we were planning to set up and administer the fund. She liked the idea that resources from the fund could be accessed by anyone in the organization. She also wanted to see that the ‘gatekeepers’ of the fund had a rubric for assessing and approving new ideas. After meeting with her several times to understand and meet her philanthropic goals, we convened internal discussions to establish a clear application and review process. 

The review process today is similar to how it was established five years ago. IPR calls for proposals to be considered once or twice a year. Staff are asked to vet their ideas with their supervisor and to fill out a canvas worksheet to help them think through the scope of the project and to consider including other departments such as marketing, membership, or operations at the start of any new idea.



Both the donor and IPR recognized a need for some formal processes so that ideas could be vetted similarly. The canvas that was adopted for the Innovation Fund was useful in the development of a new podcast called Caucus Land and helped us shift our work styles between departments. The biggest shift was between development and marketing and the content creators on our news and talk teams. The canvas process allowed for marketing and development to be a part of the conversation at the time a project was being developed, not after. This allowed for better planning of activities and channels for marketing the podcast and because we had lead time, development was able to find a sponsor for the podcast. This step required some careful trust-building over the news/funding firewall.   


With this annual $50,000 gift, we’ve been able to test some strategic directions before making a leap, and we’ve been able to generate an additional $255,000 in revenue since FY22 from a variety of innovation-funded projects. A sample of the projects the Innovation Fund has funded over the years:

  • This fund was established just as we were launching the new podcast, Caucus Land, and supported marketing and outreach for this award-winning podcast.
  • We used some of the funding to conduct a planned giving survey with an outside vendor, which resulted in identifying an additional $3M in future gifts. 
  • IPR piloted a local music show and the innovation fund supported a digital music producer for 12 months, after which IPR was able to fully fund and retain the role in our annual budget. 
  • IPR also accessed this fund to expand our digital team and products. We were able to hire a newsletter product manager who went on to launch 4 newsletters over the course of two years, and just last year, was awarded “Excellence in Newsletters, Portfolio” at the 2023 Online Journalism Awards. 
  • Most recently, our AAA music stream was given an opportunity to develop a 24/7 dedicated music station serving our Des Moines market and the Innovation Fund is supporting the launch of this new station. 


Inevitably, not every idea has panned out or been funded. One idea was to launch a book club with a complementary Facebook group but that project turned out to be more staff time intensive than expected and we did not see the audience engagement we had hoped to see. Some of the ideas submitted by staff were not funded initially but were still worthy of testing so in some cases, they were downsized in scale and approved. These failures and smaller experiences have informed us in other ways and staff are encouraged to submit ideas big or small for discussion, at a minimum.

Culture Shift:

The fund has improved the culture within our organization. The selection committee is composed of managers from each of the departments. When proposals are reviewed, the managers have an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about the projects from a variety of viewpoints. The application process also encourages staff to work more cross-departmentally to explore creative solutions, knowing there are potential resources available, leading to a dynamic and impactful work environment.


The Innovation Fund has provided a meaningful financial boost because they have either helped access or grow an audience or provided a product that generates revenue, enabling us to invest in projects beyond our core budget.

Lessons Learned:

The fund’s journey has been an ongoing learning process. We’ve tweaked the application process, refined our communication with staff, and strengthened our support services for ‘grantees’ based on valuable feedback.

Donor Engagement & Growth

The initial donor’s generosity has had a ripple effect. On-air recognition of their contribution has inspired other supporters, leading to additional major gifts. This spirit of collaboration has made a lasting difference.

Building a Sustainable Future

An aspirational step is to endow the Innovation Fund with a $1 million goal. This will ensure a permanent source of support for groundbreaking initiatives, allowing IPR to continue testing new ideas while maximizing impact. We’re incredibly grateful to our initial donor for this transformational gift.