My Comments on the Social Innovation Fund

These are the comments I submitted today regarding the draft NOFA for the Social Innovation Fund. Thanks to the many people who submitted comments for publication here at Tactical Philanthropy. The in depth comments from readers greatly informed my own comments.

To the Corporation for National and Community Service, Attention: Stephanie Soper:

Key Points

  • The draft NOFA seriously overestimates the availability of conclusive evidence.
  • The model subgrantee should not be an organization that has rigorous evidence of program effectiveness.
  • The model subgrantee should be an organization that actively collects information about the results of its programs, systematically analyzes this information, adjusts its activities in response to new information, and has an absolute focus on producing outcomes.
  • The goal of the SIF should be to fund and build the evidence base of the next Nurse-Family Partnership.

I believe the Social Innovation Fund has the potential to exert a major positive influence on the field of philanthropy. However, I feel that the draft NOFA  seriously overestimates the availability of conclusive evidence within the social sector. While the NOFA acknowledges that “in many fields and in many parts of the country, such evidence is not available,” the overall thrust of your process does not fully appreciate the limited ability of funders to run truly evidence-based grantmaking programs.

Just this week, the CEO of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, one of the premier evidence-based grantmakers, wrote that “Most nonprofits, including a majority of the Clark Foundation’s grantees, do not yet have convincing quantitative evidence of their programs’ effectiveness.”

We must not pretend that the nation is filled with nonprofits whose programs have been proven effective. The lack of evidence that the NOFA mentions as an exception is in fact the rule. The opportunities to make investments in proven effective organizations are few and far between. But as President Obama noted in launching the economic stimulus plan, “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the essential.”

Rather than demand evidence that by and large does not exist, the SIF should seek to support organizations that actively collect information about the results of their programs, systematically analyze this information, adjust their activities in response to new information, and have an absolute focus on producing outcomes.

Nurse-Family Partnership is the nation’s premier example of an organization that has “rigorous evidence” of effective programs. In fact, NFP’s evidence so strong that President Obama has called for their program to be expanded to cover all low-income, first-time mothers and has requested $8.5 billion over ten years to fund the effort.

This is not the sort of organization that the SIF should be looking to support. Instead, the SIF should be looking to support the next Nurse-Family Partnership. It should be aimed squarely at building capacity in organizations that have the potential to build programs that can pass rigorous studies.

The model subgrantee that I suggest would not have “research-proven initiatives” nor be prepared to pass “rigorous evaluations” of their programs as the draft NOFA requires. In fact very, very few nonprofit organizations anywhere could qualify under these requirements.

I wish we lived in a world where proven nonprofit programs were scattered across the country simply waiting for funding. In that world, the current NOFA draft would be ideal. But we do not live in such a world. One of the most common mistakes in philanthropy is to find a problem that fits the tool at hand instead of finding the tool that fits your problem. Doing so creates the illusion of success, while in reality failing to solve the problem.

I believe that the current NOFA draft makes this mistake. It is a tool designed to assist nonprofits with clear evidence of effectiveness receive adequate funding. But the actual problem is that most nonprofits lack such evidence, and those who seek to obtain it have little support to do so.

The debate over the NOFA has focused on the tension between funding “innovation” and “proven programs”. But the kind of information collection, analysis, adjustment and outcomes focus describe above is itself highly innovative within philanthropy. Few nonprofits actually operate in this manner and few foundations authentically provide funding that encourages this sort of behavior.

If  the SIF is administered along the lines of the current NOFA draft, a very small number of nonprofits who work in areas that are particularly well suited to the studies that the NOFA prefers will qualify for support. In such a case, the SIF’s resources will not be wasted. Real social impact will be achieved.

But the SIF’s enormous potential to effect change will be squandered. It will fail in its mission to support “promising, innovative nonprofit organizations.” It will miss an opportunity to set an example of effective philanthropy for other funders to follow. The list of nonprofits who can produce the rigorous evidence that the SIF seeks is so short that the only way for other funders to imitate the SIF will be to support these same organizations. However, if the SIF supports the model subgrantee that I have described, it will set an example of evidence-base building that other funders can replicate. This process can help create a nonprofit sector teaming with organizations deploying proven effective solutions.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer my comment on the Social Innovation Fund. Whatever happens, and however the final NOFA is written, you have helped catalyze important discussions about the state of philanthropy and the behavior of funders and grantees. The future of American philanthropy is being designed today, and it is critical that the highest levels of our government participate in the discussion.


Sean Stannard-Stockton
Tactical Philanthropy Advisors

Sean Stannard-Stockton is CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, a philanthropy advisory firm that serves individual and family philanthropists. Sean is the author of the Tactical Philanthropy blog and writes a monthly column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council on Philanthropy & Social Investing and has been quoted or referenced in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Financial Times and many other media outlets.


  1. Sean, I hope that the original version of these comments not only had those phrases in bold, but underscored and highlighted too.

  2. Thanks Christine, glad you agree!

  3. I think you make a good point, Sean, but on the other hand, it seems that there are quite a few evidence-based programs that have simply ended. I asked some researchers about that a few months ago, and their sense was that many programs end after the evaluations because funders no longer want to fund them and go for something new and exciting.

    I haven’t looked into this systematically, but I would be really interested to know if anyone out there has and can comment on whether it is indeed the case that 1) there are many evidence-based programs that are no longer implemented, and 2) what the reasons might be (could it be that funders find them too expensive…?).

  4. Rachael Barrett says:

    Dear Sean:

    NFP presents an interesting case for donors. Yes, as an evidence based program that has been proven to work and is being scaled up in many settings, everyone can be confident that the beneficiaries will receive high quality and timely services. This is good. This should be promoted.

    However, in NYC (at least), npos host a few other home visiting programs, such as the Community Health Worker Program and the Healthy Families Program. While I do not believe either of these programs have undergone the rigorous evaluation of NFP, government funds the efforts and NPOs implement the programs and clients are served.

    What has struck me following the rise and well-deserved accolades bestowed upon NFP is that other home visiting programs, while not yet studied, may in fact be just as impactful…and, without a doubt, deliver services at a far lower cost. The NFPs manual based approach requires BSN and MSN-level staff, therefore driving up the cost of the program. We know it works, but do other models work as well at less cost?

    Maybe the social innovation fund needs to consider “like” program models for study so that we can identify alternatives to the few evidence based programs like NFP.

  5. Rachel, I think that’s a great idea. Also, I think there is valid criticism of NFP. They are not some sort of perfect organization. I used them in this comment because they represent an archetype.

  6. Gordon Strause says:

    I admit that my eyes have been glazing over at most of the comments on the “Social Innovation Fund” that you’ve been publishing here, and I’m not sure I read any of them start to finish.

    So I was glad I resisted the tempation to simply ignore your comments as well. They are well worth a full read. Great post.

  7. Alex Armenta says:

    Thanks for summarizing this thoughtful point, a critical one in my view – I was delighted to read your post. In general, I’m deeply supportive of the desire (or imperative) in philanthropy to direct resources to organizations that have “proven” the social value and effectiveness of their work. However, from the perspective of those of us who are indeed at the stage of collecting, analyzing, and applying learning from information, I’m well aware that we are several steps (and a few years) away from meeting the requirements as they appear in the Fund’s NOFA. As you point out, investments in bringing our organizations through both further applications of our models and the next stage of learning, growth, and evaluation could give rise to the next generation of NFP’s.

  8. I didn’t mention in my earlier comment that I fully agree with your post, Sean. My comments to the Social Innovation Fund emphasized the need for the NOFA to require that intermediaries select organizations that have the ability to manage performance – as you, Alex and others have described it. Whether programs are evidence-based or not, they must have the ability to implement their programs in accordance with a model, and make adjustments to implementation as required.

  9. longrange says:

    Did you get the Director of PC’s comments?

  10. Sean – I’ve been reading all of the posts around the Social Innovation Fund and it’s been really inspiring to see the progress made the last few months on the development of the fund. I think it’s crucial for the future of philanthropy to diversify and this is a very active way to move the ball forward and keep the conversation going.