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.
There are three things I’m watching for the Social Innovation Fund:
1) Collaboration. The Fund will work be allocating $5m-$10m grants to foundation intermediaries, who regrant the money. Foundations are required to match those grants, meaning that only foundations with a significant amount of cash on hand can participate. That said, the Notice of Available Funds (NOFA) encourages funding collaboratives to form. I love seeing incentives for funders to work together, but it’s also a difficult proposition. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.
2) Leverage. The whole premise of this fund is that, through matching as well as the Social Innovation Fund’s better access to other government programs, it provides more leverage and a better pipeline from social innovation to policy. In my mind this is the make or break piece of things for whether the SIF is the beginning of something immensely important or just another funding source – albeit a cool one. There is some alignment and hopefully coordination possible with the Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation Fund, which is promising.
3) Innovation (vs. Proven Impact). The real nugget of tension is how to bring the "innovation" out in "investing in what works" which is also the mantra of the Fund. Former Ford Foundation leader (and well known Philanthrocapitalism critic) Michael Edwards wrote about how the requirements for how nonprofits demonstrate impact are constricting and potentially counter-productive. I think that getting proven younger (if not brand new) approaches into a pipeline where they can impact other government policy bodies seems more important than investing in brand new innovative approaches, given the SIF’s potentially unique placement. That said, most evaluation frameworks are littered with holes, so my hope is that they invest serious resources in their own review process rather than relying on strict structures.
BONUS: Bureaucracy. At the end of the day, the question will be whether the aggregate benefit of the government as a funder – in terms of whatever advantages that synergy might create – is worth the cost of the process of applying and doing the reporting. While government processes are often bureaucratic nightmares, the reality is that the foundation funding process tends not to be all that much better. I’ll be watching to see whether the SIF can reduce the pain of the experience.