While many were starting their 4th of July vacations last week (me included) President Obama had a remarkable event at the White House. He invited a very impressive list of nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and thought leaders to launch his “Community Solutions Agenda.” Key to this agenda are the White House Office of Social Innovation and the Social Innovation Fund.
Sean Stannard-Stockton of the Tactical Philanthropy blog gives an excellent description of exactly what the Social Innovation Fund will do. Essentially the Social Innovation Fund is a $50 million federal government fund (assuming Congress actually appropriates the money) that will be granted, via the Corporation for National Service, to “grantmaking institutions” to then regrant (and match the regrant 1 to 1) to nonprofit organizations.
The nonprofits that receive the regranted funds are required to:
- Match the grants 1 to 1 through state, local, or private sources (thus resulting in an overall 2 to 1 match of federal dollars)
- Grow proven programs, or support new programs, in low-income communities
- Demonstrate that they can sustain the program at the end of the grant period
- Use performance metrics to evaluate and improve the program
- Contribute the resulting knowledge to their field
In addition, the grantmakers that receive the Social Innovation funds must provide technical assistance to their grantees. And the Corporation will 1)provide technical assistance to both the grantmakers and the nonprofits receiving the regranted funds and 2) create a clearinghouse for best practices from the funded projects.
There has been much debate (here and here for a start) about whether the Social Innovation Fund will have a positive, negative, or any effect on the nonprofit sector and its ability to find and grow solutions. The most pessimistic of these is Jeff Trexler, professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Pace University, who writes:
At its core, the [Social Innovation Fund] follows a model that’s all too familiar from comparative administrative law–a government program that gives money to subgrantees who in turn give money to other subgrantees, managed through the relentless documentation of how stated program goals were met. For example, Russia moved to precisely this model recently, channeling social funds through grantmaking intermediaries, and USAID has been doing it for years.
True, the mechanisms of the Fund are probably not that innovative. And the relatively small size of it ($50 million compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding that annually goes into the nonprofit sector) is not very impressive. But what is interesting and exciting is that the largest nonprofit funder (the federal government) is turning a page.
As Bob Ottenhoff points out on the Guidestar blog, the federal government is by far the largest funder to the nonprofit sector, providing over 29% of its funding, compared to the 12% that comes from charitable giving, which we spend most of our time talking about. If the federal government could take an interest in innovation in the nonprofit sector (when was the last time that that many nonprofits and philanthropists were assembled together at the White House?), try and succeed at some new funding vehicles, take a lead role (or, really, any role) in the creation of a social capital market to seed and scale social innovation, THAT would be tremendous.
The Social Innovation Fund, in and of itself, is maybe not that impressive. But what is impressive is that the federal government has recognized social innovation as a force for change, is willing to take a risk (albeit small) in this new realm and may be willing to use this test case as R&D for a future, much larger, more innovative stab at getting itself pointing in a new, more helpful direction. If we are truly going to scale social solutions then the largest funder of those solutions has to be on board. So let’s see what happens when the federal government dips its toe into the waters of social innovation.