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A Place for Government in Social Innovation?: An Interview with Laura Tomasko

By Nell Edgington



Laura TomaskoIn this month’s Social Velocity interview we are talking with Laura Tomasko. While she shares her millennial generation’s passion for social innovation, she sees a real opportunity, that many dismiss, for government to play a role. Laura serves as manager of Public-Philanthropic Partnerships at the Council on Foundations. She is a proud StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow who holds a Master of Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where she served as the Vernon Snow Fellow in Nonprofit Management. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauratomasko.

You can read all of the interviews in our Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: Many of your contemporaries are as passionate about social innovation as you are, but they tend to dismiss government. Why don’t you? Why do you think there is hope for government to be reinvented?

Laura: I don’t dismiss government because I believe that cross-sector partnerships benefit social innovation. People, organizations, and sectors all have strengths and limitations. Partnering affords an opportunity to merge skills and areas of expertise for the purpose of achieving a common goal. Like any institution, there are ways that government could improve. But I don’t believe that government needs to be reinvented to be a helpful partner in social innovation. In classrooms and professional settings, my generation recognizes the value of partnerships and discusses how to blend social innovation and government. Increasingly, master’s degree programs in public service emphasize social entrepreneurship. Fellowship programs like StartingBloc train emerging leaders to drive social innovation across sectors. Last fall, I facilitated a conversation among StartingBloc fellows on the role the public sector plays in social innovation, and I saw that these next generation leaders recognize the valuable role that government can play in social innovation.

Nell: Where do you think government fits into the social innovation movement? What should government’s role be?

Laura: Government provides an incredible platform for convening people and connecting ideas. Right now, we are seeing federal innovation initiatives that elevate results-oriented programs and incentivize public-private partnerships. The White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation used its platform to draw attention to federal initiatives such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Investing in Innovation Fund. The Corporation for National and Community Service and the Department of Education, the federal agencies that respectively house those initiatives, attracted interest from public and philanthropic entities that want to work together to support innovative community-based models for change. These examples demonstrate the ability of government to draw attention to social innovation and encourage the development of partnerships to sustain the movement.

Nell: What are you working on right now at the Council on Foundations’ Public-Philanthropic Initiative? What gets you really excited there?

Laura: I serve as the Council’s manager of the Public-Philanthropic Partnerships Initiative, a program that marries my passion for social innovation and government. The goal of the initiative is to increase substantially the quality and quantity of government-philanthropic collaborations. We serve as a conduit between foundations and the federal government by cataloging opportunities, developing partnership tools, and generating analysis and commentary about current partnerships. As foundations work with the public sector, we are here to offer support and coordination assistance. During the Council’s Family Philanthropy Conference last month, I met with our members and had conversations about collaborating with government to scale up promising programs. Philanthropy plays an important leadership role in society, and I get excited by the opportunity to bring together people and ideas and facilitate connections.

Nell: How confident are you that public and private money can come together to create significant social change? There wasn’t a large government presence at past Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conferences, for example, but that might be changing. What will it take to get private and public money to collaborate more?

Laura: I believe that public and private money can come together to create social change. To encourage more collaboration, both the public and private sides need to understand and trust one another. The barrier of unfamiliarity creates misunderstandings and missed opportunities for partnerships. Greater understanding of the risks and opportunities can build trust and lead to significant social change. The SOCAP conferences are excellent platforms for breaking down barriers, increasing understanding, and fostering relationships among for-profit investors, social entrepreneurs, government officials, and philanthropic leaders. In your interview with Kevin Doyle Jones, one of the SOCAP founders, he described SOCAP10 as a time for translation as people learn to work together. A few months ago, I was excited to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announce her intention to bring SOCAP to the State Department in fall 2011. With the talented SOCAP team leading the way, I am optimistic that participants can move past translation and into action, developing public-private collaborations in the social capital markets.

Nell: What sorts of changes would you like to see in government, at the local, state and federal levels in order for it to be more effective and instrumental in the social innovation movement?

Laura: The social innovation movement focuses on the root causes of social conditions. It looks to new and creative means for improvement, rather than continuing to treat the manifestations of problems. Innovators, optimistic about the potential for change, focus on the assets of clients and aim to use resources in new ways. With an end goal in mind, they emphasize measurement, evaluation, and collaboration when appropriate. Government can help these efforts by aligning incentives in a way that encourages innovators to address the root causes of social conditions and by supporting programs that emphasize results. Through federal innovation funds, we are seeing government invest in ventures at a level commensurate with past and potential impact. In addition to emphasizing the importance of measurement, I think that government should seek opportunities to work with philanthropy as a knowledge partner. For example, community foundations can offer local governments innovative solutions for addressing critical needs in the community.

Nell: There has already been a bit of controversy around the Social Innovation Fund, the federal government’s first official foray into the social innovation realm. What do you think about this first attempt by the federal government to play a role? Is it working or is too soon to tell?

Laura: I like the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) because it raises the visibility of philanthropy’s leadership in social innovation. The SIF offers a model for how government can leverage funds and expertise to identify promising and innovative mid-sized nonprofits. Once selected as intermediaries of SIF funds, grantmaking organizations identify and grow high-performing nonprofits. This is an important aspect of the SIF design because government defers to philanthropy’s knowledge when finding effective ways to meet community needs. In addition to encouraging public-philanthropic partnerships, I like that the SIF focuses on evidence, a desire to scale success, and the need for growth capital. George Overholser has provided incredible thought-leadership about the field of nonprofit financing. Sean Stannard-Stockton, president and CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, wrote a great post that applies Overholser’s distinction between builders and buyers to the SIF. Steve Goldberg also has offered detailed commentary about why the SIF is so important.

Even among those who like the SIF concept, some have criticized its implementation. As with any initiative in its early stages, it is helpful to have conversations about what is working and what could be improved. From my perspective, I see two good measures of success for the SIF. The first measure is whether the community-based organizations that receive public-private funds and resources can achieve their desired impact. Community-based organizations have just begun receiving funds, so we still have to wait and see. The second measure is whether state and local governments elect to implement similar models moving forward. Even before the SIF, state and local governments showed interest in social innovation and entrepreneurship. I am hopeful that these initiatives will continue to exist and new ones will develop. The more of these models that exist, the more opportunities will be available for philanthropy and government to collaborate in supporting social innovation.

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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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6 Comments to A Place for Government in Social Innovation?: An Interview with Laura Tomasko

kevin jones
February 21, 2011

laura how do you understand the difference between builders and buyers in the context of the social investment fund?

Laura Tomasko
February 28, 2011

Kevin – thanks for your question. I think Sean does a nice job of explaining the difference between a builder (someone who donates money to build an org) and a buyer (someone who donates money so an org can provide services) in the context of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF).

He explains that government traditionally acts as a buyer, funding services that an organization will provide. In the case of the SIF, government awards grants to funders with a track record of “identifying and growing high-performing nonprofit organizations,” or, in other words, funders with a track record of acting like builders.

I see three ways in which the SIF positions government to act as a builder:

1) Government recognizes that, when it comes to selecting grant recipients, philanthropy has tremendous knowledge. By deferring to philanthropy, government builds and elevates the importance of philanthropy.

2) By specifying that SIF grants will go to funders that act as builders, government endorses a method of grantmaking that champions building the capacity and resources of an organization over simply funding a particular service.

3) The SIF leverages public money by encouraging the development of partnerships between funders and technical assistance providers that focus on scaling organizations.

My explanation of how government acts as a builder for the SIF takes a broader definition of builder than I think George intends. He often defines the builder/buyer distinction in terms of the type of funds granted. A builder provides philanthropic equity that helps build an organization’s sustainability. A buyer provides money (the revenue) that funds a particular program. I see ways in which the SIF both builds and buys.

Interestingly, when Nell interviewed George Overholser, who originated the buyer/builder theory, George described government as one of the most important buyer funders of program execution. George didn’t comment on Sean’s post, so I am curious what he thinks of Sean’s application of buyer/builder to the SIF.

Since the SIF is an extremely small part of the federal budget, or even of the discretionary budget for that matter, government could still be an important buyer funder while acting as a builder for the SIF.

Unlike the proposed “pay for success” program that focuses is on a particular financial tool (a social impact bond), the SIF focuses on the process of identifying and growing high-performance organizations.

Thanks again for the question, Kevin. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the buyer/builder distinction as it relates to government support of social innovation!

[...] “Why Should I Care About the Social Innovation Fund?” I also wrote about the SIF (scroll to the bottom) in response to Kevin Jones’ comment asking how it relates to the distinction between [...]

John René Keller Lauritzen
March 7, 2013

Very interesting interview.

This debate paper also addresses this interesting issue: http://tepsie.eu/images/documents/socialinnovationinlocalgovernment.pdf

Nell Edgington
March 7, 2013

John Rene, that is a really interesting paper. Thanks so much for sharing the Denmark perspective on government and social innovation, it’s fascinating.

[...] Place for Government in Social Innovation? – Do hop over to Social Velocity for an interview with Laura Tomasko, manager of the Public-Philanthropic Partnerships at the [...]

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