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The Social Innovation Fund Six Years On

social innovation fundThere is an interesting report out today on the effectiveness of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF). Authored by the Social Innovation Research Center (SIRC), a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, the new report details what has worked and what hasn’t in the six year history of the SIF.

Launched by the Obama administration in 2009, the SIF — a program within the Corporation for National and Community Service — provides significant funding to foundations that follow a venture philanthropy model by regranting that growth capital, along with technical assistance, to evidence-based nonprofits in “youth development, economic opportunity, and healthy futures” areas. In 2014, SIF expanded its efforts to include a portfolio of Pay for Success (social impact bond) grantees.

Now, 6 years on it is interesting to take a look back to understand what, if any, effect SIF has had on the nonprofit sector. The effect of the SIF is also critical given that, as of right now, the House and Senate have both defunded SIF in their respective funding bills.

To date, the SIF portfolio is made up of $241 million of federal investments and $516 million in private matching funds, which was invested in 35 intermediary grantees and 189 subgrantee nonprofits working in 37 states and D.C.

The SIRC report focuses on the current progress of SIF grants made during the first three years of the program (2010-2012). The report finds two clear positive results for the SIF so far. The SIF has:

  1. Added to the nonprofit sector’s evidence base about which programs work, and
  2. Built the capacity of nonprofit subgrantees, especially in the areas of “performance management systems, evaluations, financial management, regulatory compliance systems, and experience with replicating evidence-based models.”

On the negative side, however, the report finds that the SIF put real burdens on funders and nonprofits with its fundraising match requirements and the federal regulatory requirements. The report also finds that the SIF has had little effect on the sector as a whole because the SIF has not very broadly communicated their learnings so far.

To me, of course, most interesting are the report’s finding about capacity building at nonprofit subgrantees. There is such a need for nonprofit capacity building in the sector, and this was a clear goal of the SIF.

The SIF is one of few funders that do more than pay lip service to performance management by actually investing in building the capacity of nonprofits to do it. However, the SIF has been criticized for mostly selecting nonprofits that already had strong capacity. And indeed, the SIRC report finds that the SIF was most successful among those nonprofits that already had high capacity (in performance management, fundraising function, etc.) prior to SIF funding. Indeed, the report found that “poorly-resourced intermediaries working with less well-resourced community based organizations have been at a disadvantage.”

One SIF grantee in particular, The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, really struggled to build the capacity of their subgrantees whose starting capacity was so low. As they put it:

During the course of participation, it became clear that…[SIF] was really better suited for replicating existing programs or, at a minimum, investing in well-established programs that had some level of sophistication around organization systems and evaluation.

This mirrors earlier criticism of the SIF that it was set up to grow only those nonprofits that were already doing well, while those nonprofits that struggled with basic capacity issues were left out. The SIF has struggled to determine whether it is funding innovation (new solutions with limited capacity), or proven solutions (with a long track record and the corresponding capacity). It seems the two are mutually exclusive.

What the SIF is trying to do is such tricky business. To identify, fund and and scale solutions that work is really the holy grail in the social change sector. Certainly there are hurdles and missteps, but I think it’s exciting when government gets in the social change game in a big way. Six years is really too soon to tell. So I hope that this brief SIF experiment is allowed to continue, and we can see what a social change public/private partnership of this scale can really do.

To read the full SIRC report go here.

Photo Credit: Obama signs the Serve America Act in 2009, Corporation for National and Community Service

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: November 2014

social changeWow, November was a great month for writing about social change. I had a harder than normal time narrowing my list down to 10. From the election, to philanthropy’s role in Ferguson, to saving Detroit, to giving to the fight against Ebola, to speculation about Giving Tuesday (which is today, by the way), it was a busy month.

Below is my pick of the 10 best reads in social innovation in November. As always, add what I missed to the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.

You can read past months’ 10 Great Social Innovation Reads lists here.

  1. November saw elections across the country, and social media perhaps helped to get out the vote. But a chilling Princeton study found that America is no longer an actual democracy, we have become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy elites.

  2. But there is hope, some political reform is happening at the state level, like the amazing success of state-by-state legalization of gay marriage. I think we will be analyzing this movement as a social change case study for years to come. In fact they have been so successful that marriage equality nonprofits and donors must now figure out what’s next.

  3. Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof offers a thought-provoking 5-part series about racism in America, touched off by the situation in Ferguson. He argues for a national conversation akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to “examine race in America.”

  4. Detroit has finally exited bankruptcy, but Rick Cohen sees many hurdles still facing the city. And Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill worries that the philanthropists who helped get Detroit out of bankruptcy don’t really have a vision for a revitalized city.

  5. The philanthropic response to the Ebola crisis has been much slower than is usual for disaster response philanthropy. Vicky Hausman and Sylvia Warren suggest some reasons for this. And Google works to remedy the situation with their first foray into converting visitors into philanthropists. It will be fascinating to watch what else Google does in this philanthropy realm.

  6. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms take a fascinating look at what they see as a fundamental shift in power. “Old Power” is “closed, inaccessible and leader-driven,” but “New Power” is “open, participatory, and peer-driven.” As they see it, New Power is fundamentally changing how people and institutions interact, but it isn’t necessarily all positive: “New power offers real opportunities to enfranchise and empower, but there’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality. This is especially the case for self-organized networks that lack formal protections.”

  7. Today is Giving Tuesday, the annual day of philanthropy launched in 2012. Many have questioned the efficacy of the movement to get more Americans giving, including Tom Watson, who now sees some promise.

  8. The Pew Research Center’s Social Networking Fact Sheet offers a great glimpse into how social media use is evolving.

  9. October saw a stinging two-part ProPublica/NPR series about the American Red Cross’ handing of Hurricane Sandy disaster relief. It turns out that the story was helped by crowdsourced information. And David Henderson, Full Contact Philanthropy blogger, sees the tension in the Red Cross story that every nonprofit faces between running programs and fundraising for them: “The market realities of running a nonprofit create adverse incentives, driving organizations to raise funds at the expense of what their stated core missions are.”

  10. Always there to inspire creative entrepreneurs, Steven Pressfield writes about the importance of aspiration, “As artists and entrepreneurs…the content of our personal culture starts with us. We set the level of aspiration. The crew—meaning ourselves—follows us.” Amen!

Photo Credit: Karoly Czifra

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Second Annual Giving Tuesday

As we head off for the Thanksgiving holiday and the start of the consumer-driven holiday season, it’s important also to give back. And there’s a movement to help you do just that.

Tuesday, December 3rd is the second annual Giving Tuesday, an exciting experiment that started last year to “create a national day of giving to kick off the giving season on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.” Last year’s first Giving Tuesday saw some impressive results:

  • More than 2,500 recognized #GivingTuesday™ partners from all 50 states
  • Blackbaud processed over $10 million in online donations on 11/27/12 – a 53% increase when compared to the Tuesday after Thanksgiving the previous year.
  • DonorPerfect recorded a 46% increase in online donations and the average gift increased 25%.
  • More than 50 million people worldwide spread the word about GivingTuesday – resulting in milestone trending on Twitter.

The video below explains the movement and how to get involved. To learn more go to


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A Monster List of Social Innovation Conferences

A Monster List of Nonprofit ResourcesToday is Halloween, which, in my world, means that beyond candy, and trick or treating, and pumpkins it’s time for my annual “Monster List of Resources.” A few years ago I started the tradition of offering a list of resources for nonprofit leaders on Halloween (you can see past lists here and here). Each list is culled from the much larger, constantly evolving list of conferences, organizations, articles, books, blogs, and reports on the Social Velocity Resources Page.

This year I want to focus on the ever-growing number of conferences in the social innovation space. I’m really excited by how many really interesting gatherings are occurring.

But what did I miss? Please add to the list in the comments below. And don’t forget to check out (and add to) the much larger list of resources here.

Happy Halloween!

Social Innovation Conferences

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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Echoing Green Fellowship Application Goes Live Soon

It’s that time of year again. The Echoing Green application is about to go live. In their annual competition, Echoing Green looks for promising entrepreneurs starting up new organizations aiming to create large-scale social impact. The Echoing Green Fellowship awards up to $90,000 of start-up capital and two years of technical assistance to help get your organization off the ground. They fund nonprofit and for-profit startups.

The application will be open online from December 4th to January 7th, but you can get a head start by:

  • Reviewing the application questions
  • Reading the guide about how to answer the questions
  • Watching a few short videos on the application process
  • Signing up for informational webinars targeting underrepresented applicants (including African Americans, US Latinos, and women)

And while you are waiting for the application to go live you can also read my past interview with Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green and my review of her book, Work on Purpose.

To learn more about the Echoing Green fellowship or to access the application when it goes live, go here.

Good luck!

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5 Questions to Ask Before You Pursue That New Opportunity

Nonprofits, like any organization, are constantly faced with new opportunities. In a world that is moving faster, becoming more competitive and increasingly requiring solutions, new opportunities crop up all the time. Should you offer services to a different kind of client? Should you collaborate with a competing organization? Should you pursue a new potential revenue stream? Because nonprofits are consensus-based and have multiple “customers” they sometimes go after new opportunities that they shouldn’t.

The trick is to analyze whether the new opportunity makes strategic sense for your nonprofit. Here are 5 questions to help you:

  1. Does it fit our strategic direction? You don’t want a strategic plan that sets in stone your organization’s future course, particularly given the tremendously volatile world in which we now live. So if your strategic plan is a good one, you’ve created filters for analyzing new opportunities. If this new opportunity fits within those filters that’s great, but you still need to determine what resources you will reallocate in order to do this new thing.

  2. Does it fit our core competencies? Even more important than your strategic direction, this new opportunity must play to your strengths. If you excel at running a pre-K reading program, a new math program might not be a good fit. Included in this question is the follow up: Could someone else do it better? If so, let them. Focus on what you do best.

  3. Is someone pushing this because of their own interests? Let’s face it, nonprofits are made up of many people, some of whom have their own individual interests or pet projects. But once you start following one of those individual interests instead of the interests of the organization as a whole you are in big trouble. Take a step back and make sure this new opportunity is really going to get the organization further.

  4. Do you want to do this because of your own baggage? Leaders are only human, and we humans all have our weaknesses. Sometimes when a nonprofit leader is making a critical decision some of their personal baggage gets in the way. Perhaps you are afraid of how you will look to your peers if you don’t pursue this opportunity, or maybe you want to keep your fiercest competitor from gaining turf, or perhaps you have a really hard time saying no. Whatever it is, you need to recognize when your baggage, instead of smart strategy, is calling the shots.

  5. Will this new opportunity further your mission or long-term financial sustainability? If it’s not about mission or money, why are you doing it? Don’t get caught up in vague ideas about “community goodwill.” You will achieve community goodwill by working toward your mission effectively.  And be careful about assuming any potential money is a reason to pursue an opportunity. Not all money contributes to the long-term financial sustainability of the organization. Make sure that this new opportunity doesn’t cost more than it brings in.

Nonprofits should not fear new opportunities. Indeed innovation, which the sector so desperately needs, requires a real openness to change and risk. However, nonprofit leaders must take a disciplined approach to making new opportunities part of their overall strategy.

Photo Credit: mytmoss

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Innovation in the Arts: An Interview with Karina Mangu-Ward

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Karina Mangu-Ward. Karina is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts a social enterprise for innovation and adaptive change across the arts sector. She leads the strategy and development of, an interactive online platform where arts leaders can learn from each other about the power of adaptive change and the practice of innovation. Her interest is in bringing adaptive capacity and innovation from the margins of dialogue in the arts sector to the center.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: ArtsFwd is about encouraging and profiling innovation in the arts. But innovation is such a loaded and overused word, what does it mean to ArtsFwd and what do you think is true innovation?

Karina: Innovation is definitely a buzzy word, so we try to be careful about how we use it. ArtsFwd is a project of EmcArts, a non-profit that works with arts organizations across the country to strengthen their adaptive capacities and advance the practice of innovation. So we’re primarily concerned with organizational innovation, which EmcArts has defined as instances of organizational change that: 1) result from a shift in underlying assumptions, 2) are discontinuous from previous practices, and 3) provide new pathways to creating public value.

So we’re not talking about creativity, which is more of an individual pursuit, or inspiration, which is about a momentary spark. The stories we tell on ArtsFwd are about organizations working to build their capacity to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment through the process of innovation, which requires a cross-functional team working together over a sustained period of time to develop, test, and optimize genuinely new approaches.

Nell: Why do you think innovation is particularly important in the arts world and why now?

Karina: In the past 10 years, unprecedented changes in our operating environment have placed radical new demands on our arts organizations. We’re seeing changes in patterns of public participation, technological access to the arts, generational and demographic shifts, new forms of resource development, and many more factors. Now more than ever, it’s apparent that the “muscles” arts leaders exercise to promote organizational stability need to be balanced by equally strong muscles around adaptive capacity. We believe that organizations can build those muscles, and an ultimately an organizational culture that is intrinsically flexible and responsive, by in investing in incubating innovation.

While a few training opportunities exist to support adaptive change, like those offered by EmcArts’ Innovation Labs and New Pathways for the Arts programs, the nonprofit cultural field lacked an arena for timely, field-wide conversation and peer-to-peer learning around these new practices. In order to pick up on the remarkably innovative work underway in some organizations, so that individual examples of success can become new norms in the field, there was an urgent need for a field-wide learning platform. In response to this need, EmcArts created ArtsFwd a place for arts leaders to learn from each other about building adaptive capacity and the power of effective innovation.

Nell: What are some of the most innovative things you’ve seen in the arts?

Karina: I love the story of how the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco transformed their visitor experience from “come, look, leave” to “immersive.” There’s a lot of discussion right now about how the arts sector can move from thinking about audiences as passively receptive to actively engaged, and I think YBCA is at the bleeding edge of this work. They’ve changed the museum’s hours, handed curatorial duties over to junior staff, redesigned their website around big ideas instead of logistics, and started a new personalized arts education program called YBCA:You. Check out our short documentary and written profile about how they did it .

The Wooster Group’s Video Dailies Blog is a great example of putting technology to work to build audiences in a way that is genuine to the artistic core of the organization. I think that’s really hard to do. The Wooster Group had to rethink their assumptions about organizational structure by inviting the entire staff to participate in a lateral way in the creation of a daily short video that truly blurs the line between marketing and art. Check out their profile on ArtsFwd.

One that we haven’t covered on ArtsFwd is the Portland Museum of Art’s Object Stories. With this project, they invited visitors to bring a personally meaningful object with them into a booth at the museum and record a story about it. The booth took a series of pictures and creates an audio slideshow, which became part of an exhibit at the museum and an online gallery. It’s a beautiful example of creating an authentically participatory experience that spans the divide between visitor and creator.

Nell: People often say that when economic times are hard charitable dollars to the arts are the first to go because the arts are more “expendable” than social services and other more basic needs. How do you respond to that idea?

Karina: I’m (obviously) predisposed to think that defunding the arts is a great way to shoot ourselves collectively in the foot. But what I find really exciting right now is that we’re seeing a lot of innovative arts groups partnering with social service and urban development organizations to improve their communities. The arts have always been a part of making our communities (and lives) livable, so it’s inspiring to see the connection between arts and direct services forged more deeply.

For example, on ArtsFwd we’re following what’s happening at Adventure Stage Chicago, a theater organization that was created within the Northwestern University Settlement House (NUSH), a century old social service provider, as they join forces to incorporate the arts into social services delivery. Artful practices are being integrated in NUSH’s Head Start program, summer camps for kids, and adult programs, including their food bank, and senior program. Anyone who receives services was invited to co-create a new theater piece about “home,” which was performed in the Adventure Stage auditorium in Spanish, the native language for most of the community. We have a multimedia profile about their process premiering on ArtsFwd in our Innovation Stories section. Stay tuned!

Also, there’s a lot of talk about placemaking happening right now, and I’m encouraged to see the arts taking a vital role in that conversation. For example, Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis is working on a project called Irrigate, which is an artist-led creative placemaking initiative that will help turn the six miles surrounding a new light rail under construction in an underdeveloped and undervalued part of Saint Paul into a welcoming place. The project brings together infrastructure development, a diverse community, and artists in a cross-sector collaboration.

Nell: Arts organizations in particular have struggled because of increasing competition for an audience’s time. How do you think the arts can overcome those trends? And are some areas of the arts better positioned to overcome it?

Karina: What I’m seeing in the arts sector right now is a shift from thinking about the abundance of new technologies and channels for entertainments as competition, to thinking about them as opportunities for cooperation. After all, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts indicated that 74% of Americans are engaging with arts, yet only 35% are doing so through professional “benchmark” arts organizations. There’s a huge territory of interest to cultivate, if we can find ways of connecting and engaging.

Nina Simon is doing great work in this area right now and writing about it with refreshing openness on her blog Museum 2.0. For example, she experimented with having a puzzle, unrelated to the artistic work, in the galleries to engage visitors for a long period of time, though not directly with the art. She was testing the idea that by bringing potentially “competing” activities into the gallery you increase the length of time someone is in a artful environment and therefore the chances that they will have a meaningful experience with the art. There was some interesting push back on that experiment from artists, which you can read about here.

This in the same vein, City Lights Theater Company in San Jose is experimenting with Tweet Seats, or seats where audience members are encouraged to tweet, which defuses the competition for attention while also generating publicity for the show. If you can’t fight ‘em, make ‘em work for you, right?

Nell: The Nonprofit Finance Fund is in the process of a pretty interesting “Change Capital for the Arts” project where they are helping arts organizations raise capital to revamp their organizations. What do you think about the concept of change capital and do you see more arts organizations going after it?

Karina: We’re encouraged by this move from old capitalization, i.e big endowment campaigns, to more frequent injections of smaller amounts of capital to bridge the inevitable gap between prototyping and the sustainability of a new strategy.

We certainly see a hunger for this kind of “risk” or “change” capital in the organizations applying to our Innovation Labs, which is why we provide a $40,000 grant for prototyping during the program. This kind of seed money helps managers resist the pressure to monetize or fossilize new programs too soon, giving them the breathing space for innovations to grow and embrace a culture of adaptive capacity. Note: the deadline for Round 2 of the Innovation Lab for Museums is May 15th.

I was encouraged to hear Ken Foster, Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts talk eloquently in this ArtsFwd podcast about setting up a $200,000 fund within the organization’s annual budget to encourage innovation and risk. Throughout the year, any staff member can apply to the fund with an innovative idea. All they need a champion from senior staff (not necessarily from their own department) and to fill out a short application. Small grants are awarded in a rolling basis.

This kind of change capital is the money we need a lot of right now. The failure of funders to provide it is one of the reasons why innovation has not had a larger impact on the field.

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Are You the Next Echoing Green Fellow?

Echoing Green has launched their annual search for social entrepreneurs. Each year, Echoing Green identifies promising social entrepreneurs with bold ideas to solve society’s most pressing problems and provides them with up to $90,000 in seed funding, strategic support, leadership development, and a powerful community of nearly 500 other Fellows and alumni. To date, Echoing Green has invested nearly $30 million in seed funding to almost 500 social entrepreneurs and their organizations.

Echoing Green is a great organization and a real pioneer in the social entrepreneurship space. To find out more, you can read my interview with Lara Galinsky, SVP at Echoing Green, and read about English at Work an Echoing Green fellow and Social Velocity client transforming the lives of ESL service workers.

Echoing Green’s online Fellowship application will be open from December 5, 2011 to January 9, 2012. You can find out more about the Fellowship application process here and you can sign up to receive the latest news on the process here.

Good Luck!

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