Innovation Finalists

Logo for 2024 Minnesota Nonprofit Mission Awards for Innovation with purple graphic surrounding text

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.

2024 Innovation Finalists:

Harm Reduction Sisters  |  Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi  |  Wildflyer Coffee

Based in Duluth, MN, Harm Reduction Sisters (HRS) is a syringe service and naloxone distribution program whose mission is to provide a feminist response, utilizing innovative harm reduction principles and practices, to address the gaps that exist for people who use drugs and experience trauma. The organization serves people who use drugs within Indigenous and other racially diverse communities, LGBTQIA2S+ communities, veterans, people who are unhoused or in congregate living environments, and people within their 12-county geographic reach, including the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and Fond du Lac Nations.

Since their inception in 2019, Harm Reduction Services has been working to break barriers in the field of harm reduction and find creative solutions to meet the needs of communities in Northern Minnesota, particularly Indigenous communities. Nearly 30 percent of Minnesota’s Indigenous population lives in HRS’ service range, and Native Americans were over ten times more likely to die of a drug overdose than white Minnesotans, despite representing only 1.1% of the population

HRS distributes around 35,000 syringes per month and in 2023 distributed over 363,000 syringes. The organization operates on a peer distribution model, also known as secondary exchange, to better serve their target communities. In rural communities, people often rely on the help of peers, grassroots organizations, or community members to access new, sterile injecting equipment. Barriers to sterile syringe supplies can force communities to reuse needles and share syringes; with this in mind, HRS does not require the exchange of old needles in order to receive new ones. Through direct, mobile programming, they are able to meet participants in spaces that are comfortable for them, such as their homes, community gathering areas, or public places.

This model, as well as through strong partnerships, has allowed HRS to build relationships with the Tribal Nations in Northern Minnesota. HRS travels hundreds of miles each month to drop off supplies at multiple reservations. They also participate in many pop-up community events each year to better meet their community members where they are. Participants are welcome to stop into HRS’ office in Duluth for support and supplies, but the majority of their work is done by venturing into the community to break down barriers.

The innovative outreach model of mobile syringe access, low-barrier linkage to care, outreach HIV testing and case management, and naloxone distribution services that Harm Reduction Sisters provides to people who inject drugs is crucial to stemming the tide of overdose deaths, HIV and Hepatitis C, as well as other health consequences related to syringe reuse. In 2023, HRS had 2,338 participant visits from 736 unique participants and estimates over 1,000 secondary participants. They distributed 363,063 syringes, performed 197 HIV tests, and distributed 706 doses of naloxone through their partnership with Next Distro.

HRS has arrived at the scene of an overdose multiple times where their trained staff have administered naloxone and prevented an overdose death in the community. This response to an emergency situation is incredibly important as many individuals refuse to call Emergency Medical Services due to the fear of repercussions and general distrust of police.

Harm Reduction Sisters is saving lives in Northern Minnesota by creating a safe environment for people who use drugs and is creating ties to their communities. Their innovative service model is well-rounded and holistic so that people who use drugs can survive and thrive in their respective communities.

Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi (WTA) is a native-led, native-run environmental nonprofit organization based on the east side of Saint Paul. The name Wakáŋ Tipi Awanyankapi means “those who care for Wakáŋ Tipi,” which aptly reflects the organization’s purpose, which is to provide site restoration and stewardship at Wakan Tipi — a Dakota sacred site that includes both Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Indian Mounds Regional Park.

WTA brings their mission to life to engage people to honor and care for our natural places and the sacred sites and cultural value within them through three unique program areas; indigenous land stewardship, traditional environmental knowledge, and cultural connections and healing. Through their efforts, WTA serves more than 6,000 program participants annually and engages more than 500 volunteers.

WTA is currently leading two large development projects. The first is the construction of Waḳaŋ Ṭípi Center, a 7,500 sq ft cultural and environmental interpretive center that will serve as an intergenerational gathering place that honors the nearby Waḳaŋ Ṭípi cave and related burial mounds as Daḳota sacred sites. Building construction will begin Spring of 2024.

The second project is the restoration, or daylighting, of Phalen Creek, a 4-mile waterway that historically connected Lake Phalen to the Mississippi River. This creek was forced underground into a storm sewer in the 1930’s to make way for development that was never fully realized. In 2022, WTA secured funding from the State of Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund  to restore the first 1/4 mile section of the creek. The organization is currently in the design phase and anticipate construction starting the project in late 2024.

Another significant area of WTA’s work is creating pathways that are actively returning public and private to land Native-led stewardship through unique partnerships, co-management agreements, and site control. A development agreement with the City of Saint Paul has allowed us to manage both the Wakan Tipi Center and Daylighting Phalen Creek developments. We are currently working through a co-management agreement for both projects to restore Indigenous care of these sacred lands.

There are two nonprofit organizations that have recently made a shift to Native leadership — modeling their transitions after WTA’s work and transition in 2023. Friends of the Falls is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that recently transformed itself to Native leadership to accomplish its restoration work at Owamniyomni (St Anothony Falls). They launched their re-name and re-brand in 2024, following a year or more of informal consultation and conversations about how we made our transition. Additionally, the Lakota Language Consortium, based in Indiana, recently transitioned to Native leadership and shared that it was due to the example set by Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi. WTA is working towards of vision of a Dakota Futures that recognizes and honors inherent Indigenous sovereignty, and where the community at large honors and respects Dakota worldviews, values, and connection to sacred lands. The organization centers Indigenous — specifically Dakota — values and voices in decision making related to the land and water, and protection of sacred sites, within the urban geography of what is now known as Saint Paul.

Wildflyer Coffee employee participants enjoying a beverage outside of the retail store

Wildflyer Coffee employees enjoying a beverage outside of the organization’s Minneapolis location.

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 15 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 the Hyatt Regency Hotel or Caribou Coffee, who have committed to hiring youth upon graduation from Wildflyer’s programs.  

In 2023, Wildflyer Coffee employed nearly 30 youth, provided 4,063 hours of paid employment, paid out $61,000 in wages to youth experiencing homelessness, provided 250 programming hours to help youth develop critical personal and professional skills, assisted seven youth in moving into housing, and served 72,000 different customers. 

Through these outputs, Wildflyer coffee achieved the following outcomes:    

  • 100 percent increase in Job Readiness Assessment Scores, meaning youth are exhibiting tangible progress in critical life skill development    
  • 85 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 honestly didn’t think I was worth much of anything before Wildflyer. But seeing what I’ve done through the short program and what it has helped me with has shown me I’m always capable of more than I think as long as I keep going. I can do more than I can imagine”.