In recent weeks, the Appropriations Committees of both houses of Congress have “zeroed out” the Social Innovation Fund (SIF)—a signature program of the Obama administration that seeks to mobilize public and private resources behind community-based programs with evidence of real impact. Interestingly, these actions coincided with two other noteworthy SIF-related developments that had a much different cast: the publication of a net-positive assessment by the Social Innovation Research Center (SIRC) and the appointment of a high-powered new director, Damian Thorman, formerly of the Knight Foundation.
In considering the merit of the SIF, how is one best to interpret these disparate signs—the decisive doubt of the Congress, the cautious optimism of an objective external party, and the resolute affirmation of the Administration?
All are significant, but only you, Congress, have the authority to determine the fate of this distinctive initiative, which you created in a conspicuous act of bipartisanship six years ago. As the initial director of the SIF, to whom your creation was first entrusted, I’m writing to encourage you to think deeply before making a decision that would be a major setback for the cause of determined, evidence-based (dare I say innovative) government.
In short, borrowing a phrase from nonprofit performance gurus Mario Morino and Lowell Weiss, I urge you to learn before you leap.
Let me emphasize my appreciation for the difficulty you face in getting an accurate read on the SIF’s actual performance. In fact, I agree with a key criticism levied by the SIRC report—that the SIF has been slow (beginning on my watch) to fully capture and broadly communicate its own output and accomplishments. To be sure, there have been other complications as well: enormous early hype that inflated and distorted expectations; chronic partisan sparring that so colored what members of Congress desired to see; seemingly-endless appropriations cycles that inhibited planning and execution by all participants; as well as ongoing debate about “innovation” versus. “evidence” that has left even members of the nonprofit community at odds over the SIF’s true purpose.
Your responsibility, however, is to cut through such fog and ensure that you are getting the information you need to make the best possible decision for the American people. So, what is the SIF’s value?
Patrick Lester, the author of the SIRC report, found it in two main places: the positive results from five formal program evaluations of the SIF (along with the promise of more to come) and the SIF’s effectiveness in helping build the operating and program capacities of the nearly 300 nonprofit organizations across the US funded through their efforts.
I’d argue that the SIF’s value is far bigger and more profound than that: its value lies in the rich trove of cumulative experience and knowledge this bold experiment has generated. If properly harnessed, this represents an extraordinary asset for federal policy makers and nonprofit leaders alike, touching many critical subjects:
Fortunately, the challenge of accurately assessing the SIF is not one you need assume alone. Indeed, recent developments highlight the fact that you have some unexpected friends in this quest: the SIRC and new management of the SIF. The SIRC got the ball rolling by raising key questions and offering well-reasoned conclusions. SIF management is highly motivated to deliver and communicate tangible results.
My parting advice would be that if you must cut funds from the SIF, be sure to preserve its ability to do two things: first, allow current grantees to complete the programs they’re implementing on your behalf, including the formal evaluations still in process. Second, enable SIF management to accelerate and expand its knowledge-dissemination activities. Given the progress to date, it would be tragic to end this exemplary and productive experiment without capturing the rich value that you so wisely foresaw and that the US taxpayers have already funded.
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