Missed Opportunities for Social Innovation Fund?

When I spoke with new Social Innovation Fund director Paul Carttar earlier this week, he said that he appreciated the many voices that have commented on the Fund here at Tactical Philanthropy. Personally I think that reader Adin Miller has consistently offered some of the most interesting comments. In today’s guest post, Adin lays out what he thinks are opportunities that the Fund has missed so far.

By Adin Miller, Adin Miller Consulting

Just ahead of its deadline for Social Innovation Fund applications, the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Corporation) announced that Paul Carttar will serve as director of the Social Innovation Fund. Sean has a great profile and overview of his conversation with Paul yesterday. Nathaniel Whittemore has another worthwhile profile here.

It’s been a busy week already for the Corporation. In addition to Paul Carttar’s announcement, the agency also published its Open Government Plan yesterday and today will close the application window for the Social Innovation Fund with possibly several hundred proposal received.

One of the predominate reasons so many of us have focused on this $50 million initiative is the opportunity it represents to significantly affect philanthropy by making it both more transparent and reshaping how it distributes funding.  In my opinion, though, the Corporation – through its unusual position as a funder of funders – has already missed a few significant opportunities to affect the sector through transformative collaboration and increased transparency. Hopefully, Paul Carttar’s announcement portends an opportunity to recapture these opportunities.

The first key missed opportunity came with the letter of intent process for the Social Innovation Fund. The Corporation received over 200 letters of intent from a broad range of funders. The stated purpose was to help the Corporation “better estimate the volume of potential applications” (see the Corporation’s 3/8/2010 Frequently Asked Questions (PDF) and it purposely declined to release a list of those funders that had submitted letters (see the same FAQ and Suzanne Perry’s post yesterday in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

One of the more frequent questions I got during the application window came from organizations looking to partner, leverage their funding resources, and exponentially grow their potential impact. By publishing the list of funders submitting letters of intent, the Corporation could have demonstrated true innovation in the grantmaking process. It could also have had a profound impact by encouraging funders to build collaborations and partnerships in advance of the application deadline, especially for efforts that would have focused on low-income and rural communities not significantly served by philanthropy. Instead potential funders were left in the dark by this lack of transparency.

Interestingly, such transparency early on the process would have been in line with the Corporation’s focus on increasing data transparency outlined in its Open Government Plan (PDF) published yesterday. The Open Government Plan specifically shows that the Corporation will provide “program descriptions and contact information for [its] grantees and project sponsors [that] will make it easier for programs to collaborate and individuals to get involved.” (page 6)

The second missed opportunity relates to the Corporation’s Social Innovation Fund review process. The guidelines stress the importance for applicants to discuss and shed light on their own grantmaking reviews and processes. Yet, the Corporation’s proposal review process remains too vague. For example, the guidelines mention that a team of experts will serve as the review panel. This is one of the major black hole areas in philanthropy: who are the proposal reviewers and what expertise do they bring to the table. The Corporation could have led by example by publishing its list of reviewers and their expertise and truly becoming transparent. In this example, it can still do so.

The last critical opportunity looms ahead and I hope that in this case the Corporation will proactively step ahead under Paul Carrtar’s direction. Sean’s post included a key question on whether the Corporation would make the Social Innovation Fund applications public. Those applications will include key details and information on how foundations practice the art of grantmaking and reviewing proposals, a key area that remains mostly hidden behind closed doors.

The eventual Social Innovation Fund grantees applications could be obtained through the FOIA process. The Corporation’s practice, however, has been to not publicly provide applications not funded by the agency. And yet, this is exactly the rich trove of information that will help transform the philanthropic sector through transparency.

The Corporation’s Open Government Plan calls for it to build a learning enterprise. “In order to increase the effectiveness of the Corporation, its grantees, organizations, communities, and individuals in tackling social problems, we need to strengthen our ability to gather and share knowledge, tools, and effective practices. This includes rethinking how to share information online and making it easier for the public to find and use tools that they need. The Social Innovation Fund provides an excellent opportunity to begin modeling more effective ways to share innovative practices in more effective ways.” (page 16)

I hope in this case that the Corporation will take a giant leap forward and provide access to the broader data collected by the agency through the Social Innovation Fund.

5 Comments

  1. Erin DeMarco says:

    Adin highlights a few of the many missed opportunities of SIF. My biggest issue with this program is the limited amount of money that is available. $50m is not a lot, especially once distributed to funders and then further distributed to the nonprofits that will actually do the work. How can innovation be expected with such limited funds?

    Also, why the choice to distribute through CNCS? My experiences with the CNCS grant process with the AmeriCorps VISTA program were less than pleasant. The interface is difficult to work with and the cookie cutter questions/response choices to measurement and outcomes hardly encourage innovation.

    Lastly, will innovative programs actually be selected to receive these funds, or will ‘the usual suspects’ be selected? (Those organizations that know how to manipulate language, but are not actually innovative in their programming.)

    It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

  2. Apryl Alexander says:

    Adin’s points are well taken. I, too, would like to see the SIF applications posted for a couple of reasons.

    1. I feel that organizations who think they should receive the funds but don’t deserve an opportunity to review the organizations who do receive funding – not to create a bickering competition over who is better – but to identify the ways in which the “winner” is better serving its territories (both geographic and programatic) and how these ideas might be implemented at the “non-winner” organizations.
    2. If everyone has an opportunity to see the types of organizations who ARE truly doing good but do not receive SIF funding for whatever reason, perhaps this is an opportunity for larger grant making institutions who did not receive funding, or who did not participate in the process for whatever reason, to seek out new beneficiaries and help supplement the work of the SIF for even greater impact.

    I’m interested to see who actually receives funding an if the SIF critics will be right or if this fund might become a truly innovative springboard for social endeavors.

  3. Benjamin says:

    The danger of releasing the names of applicants is the stigma that may come with a proposal that is rejected. Will that cause current funders of that organization to shy away? Even, with so much data and information out there, funders are sure to notice if an organization they give to is rejected and will likely want to know why.

    What I am hoping is that, in the process of awarding grants, the SOI does not shy away from going back to applicants and, on an individual basis, and, if appropriate, encourage them to connect with other relevent groups.

    If they can be succesful in doing this, it will help make the $50 million go further and a major change that comes from the SIF will be helping organizations really see the value of partnering in their work. The reduced duplication and increased cooperation will make the money go further and help more people be served.

  4. Benjamin, An important aspect of the SIF is that the applicants are grantmakers who will then regrant the money to nonprofits. That means that the applications don’t fundraise (most as least) and so while their egos might be bruised if they don’t win, they have less to worry about than nonprofits. Also, since only 5-10 applicants out of 200 will be selected, I don’t think there will be much stigma for someone who doesn’t win.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Apryl,
    The idea of grantmakers applying for a grant is rather intriguing. Personally, I would love to see highly thought of grantmakers making a case for why they are good at what they do. I think there applications would make for a tremendous learning opportunity for the field.