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Beating Innovation to Death

By Nell Edgington



There is a tendency in America of late, or maybe for awhile, to over-analyze to the point of distraction. So too is the case with the Social Innovation Fund, the federal government’s $50+ million experiment in providing growth capital to nonprofits. This great experiment to see whether government can do something pretty different to address social problems is in danger of being railroaded by leaders of the social innovation community who should be the ones most supportive of a new day for government.

The Social Innovation Fund (SIF) was modeled after the idea of venture philanthropy funds who were themselves modeled on venture capital funds. The idea with the SIF is to grant $50 million to private grantors (foundations, venture philanthropy funds, etc) who match the money and then turn around and grant it to promising nonprofits to scale their proven programs. Is the idea really innovative? No. But what is innovative is that the government is  recognizing the concepts of social innovation and scale and is experimenting with becoming a builder instead of just a buyer of nonprofit services.

But this experiment is in danger of failing before it even gets out of the gate. A major controversy developed this week with the announcement of SIF grantees. The controversy centers around whether New Profit, arguably the inventor of the venture philanthropy concept, was given preferential treatment in being awarded a grant.  Paul Light, the Nonprofit Quarterly and others voiced their concerns about the granting process. You can read all the details of the saga here.

Let’s be honest, everyone knew New Profit was going to get a SIF grant. New Profit pioneered the idea of venture philanthropy. And their spin-off organization, America Forward, which works to connect the vast governmental resources to social innovation, was behind getting the Serve America Act,  containing the SIF, formulated and made into law.  Would the SIF make any sense without New Profit? They have been scaling nonprofits for years, and they have unlocked the door between government and social innovation. How could they not be at this table?

And the growing amount of documents being released by the Social Innovation Fund demonstrates the fairness and process behind the grant awards and more than makes up for any of SIF’s initial ignorance of the importance of transparency.

I understand that discussion, transparency, and refining of process are all critical elements to getting change to happen, but too much of that before the actual experiment happens can actually prevent change. Let’s not conduct business as usual by over-analyzing a new project to death. Let’s see where this experiment takes us instead of railroading it before it even begins. It’s not perfect innovation, it’s not a perfect process, but experiments never are. If we don’t give the government some space to actually innovate, they may never go down this road again. Instead of beating innovation to death, let’s get out of our own way and see where this goes.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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