NOVEMBER 30, 2017 – In 2002, Jo Ann Simons and Steven P. Rosenthal happened to pick neighboring elliptical machines at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead. During their workout, they chatted. Simons learned of Rosenthal’s interest in philanthropy; Rosenthal learned about Simons’ interest in intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Neither had a clue that 15 years later, they would partner to revolutionize the way their two fields could intersect.
It all started when Rosenthal was planning his 2017 donations. The Marblehead resident and former CEO of Northland Investment Corp. knew he wanted to do more than just write the traditional check to a nonprofit that supports his core values of “tikun olam” (repair the world). He wanted to inject innovation and creativity into the process, setting an example that might encourage other philanthropists to think outside the box.
He immediately thought of Simons, now CEO of Danvers-based Northeast Arc, which is at the forefront of providing innovative services, education, and training to 9,000 adults and children with disabilities each year.
“We are a thought leader. We want to establish ourselves as the most innovative, creative, strategic organization in our industry,” Simons said of Northeast Arc, which has 1,100 employees and a $250 million budget, and reaches 190 communities throughout eastern Massachusetts.
It was a good fit. Rosenthal, who now runs the Boston real estate investment firm called West Shore LLC, donated $1 million to Northeast Arc to launch The Changing Lives Fund. He, Simons, and the Arc board of directors then brainstormed to come up with a groundbreaking approach to spending that money.
“We thought, what a novel concept if — instead of keeping the money — we decided we were going to try to inspire the most creative ideas within our industry,” said Simons, who lives in Swampscott and is a Swampscott High School graduate. “Steve’s vision of philanthropy helps us identify a new, nuanced role.”
Borrowing from the name and competitive methodology of “Shark Tank,” the popular ABC television show, the team created “Arc Tank,” where anyone with a creative concept to aid people with disabilities can pitch an idea and compete for funding from The Changing Lives Fund.
“We realized we can develop initiatives that support our mission and leverage the money for a greater impact if we give it away,” Simons said.
Of the 100 proposals from all over the world that flooded in after the competition was advertised, 45 were selected for the “holding tank.” Outside reviewers recommended seven finalists.
The inaugural Arc Tank contest, collaboration between Northeast Arc and the JFK Library Foundation, took place on Nov. 15 at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum and awarded $200,000. Over 300 people attended.
A panel of judges awarded grants to three winners who “positively disrupted the conventional methods of providing services to persons with disabilities.”
• Pathways to Inclusive Healthcare,” submitted by Dr. Carolyn Langer, associate professor at UMass Medical Center in Worcester, received $80,000 to develop a pipeline of healthcare professionals to ease the transition from pediatrics to adult medicine care.
• The Center for Public Representation of Northampton, a public service law firm, received $85,000 for its proposal, “Disrupting the Guardianship Pipeline,” to create an effective alternative to guardianship, often the only option for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
• “Water Wise,” submitted by the YMCA of the North Shore in Beverly, addresses the fact that drowning is a leading cause of death for children with Autism spectrum disorder by developing a water safety program that targets specific needs. The $30,000 grant will fund the program in two locations next year, with plans to expand to eight sites by 2019.
In addition, two incubator proposals were awarded $2,500 each. Andrew Holmes of Winchester, a junior at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, is developing “Shop, Drop and Roll,” a wheelchair attachment that simplifies the transport and accessibility of goods on the back of a wheelchair. Nathaniel Lorenz Galdamez, a freshman at Swampscott High School, is designing “The BIONIC hand,” a wrist device to assist computer usage.
Rosenthal couldn’t be more pleased with the first Arc Tank. “The event was a terrific success. I think we have started an important and much needed conversation about innovation and philanthropy,” he said.