Michael Edwards on Social Innovation Fund

In mid December, the Corporation for National & Community Service released a Draft Notice of Funds Available (NOFA) for the Social Innovation Fund. They are now accepting public comment on the document until January 15 (simply email your comments to SIFinput@cns.gov). Until that date, I’ve opened the Tactical Philanthropy blog as a public forum for discussion of the Fund and the draft NOFA. For background, please read an explanation of the Fund, why it matters and the highlights from the draft NOFA.

This is a guest post from Michael Edwards, author of Just Another Emperor: The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism.

Thanks for the invitation to comment on the Social Innovation Fund, though my first reaction is whether to laugh or cry – trillions of dollars with almost no strings attached to bail out Wall Street and $50 million for civil society surrounded by bureaucracy and micro-management by numbers? It’s not just the amounts that are derisory, but the fact that the mechanisms involved are so lacking in, well, innovation. These are the same ideas that we know don’t work if you really want social change -empowering distant intermediaries, increasing the number of hoops that groups must jump through, and investing scarce resources in number-crunching in lieu of real evaluation. The whole scheme is implicitly biased towards those who speak the language of the “new philanthropy” and the service-delivery efforts they support, but there’s no evidence that these approaches make the biggest impact on what matters most – the structural and systemic problems in society that hold so many people back. Wouldn’t more investment in tackling those problems be “social innovation?”

For example, the call for "rigorous evidence" excludes evidence that is rendered rigorous by means other than experimental design and randomized trials (p11 and p15 of the NOFA), despite the documented weaknesses of these methods and the strengths of alternatives like action-research. Any activity which cannot be subjected to these methods will be excluded. That means most things that are key to long-term social transformation.

Providing for only 5 per cent for administrative costs and insisting on an equal financial match will privilege cash-rich intermediaries who may not be the best-equipped in program terms (i.e. those with their ear closest to the ground, or those who are best at supporting smaller organizations with non-financial help). The usual suspects will win, and their biases will be replicated throughout the system. And one could go on.

Perhaps we should run a sweepstake on who will get resources from the Fund and publish the results? That would be a good way to test whether my concerns are real. I’m tempted to recommend that the Fund should be boycotted in protest at the sums and strictures involved (there goes my invitation to the White House), but I know that’s unrealistic when resources are in such short supply. Nevertheless, civil society surely deserves much better than this.