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:
- Program implementation. The SIF was originally touted by President Obama as a “new way of doing business” for the federal government. And there was real skepticism about whether any agency steeped in the USG’s deep culture of compliance could effectively build a program that presumed wisdom could lay outside of the Beltway and aimed to demonstrate respect for and authentic collaboration with grantees. How and why did this work?
- Matching funds. While criticized for the difficulty many parties had raising the required match, those $241 million in federal grants have yielded more than $500 million in private commitments, tripling the money dedicated to helping improve the lives of people in low-income communities. Who are these donors and what motivated them to voluntarily co-invest their funds in this particular government-run program?
- Grantee selection. Through six annual cycles, the SIF has overseen more than 30 completely open, evidence-based, highly-competitive grantee selection processes, typically working in concert with some of the most experienced results-oriented nonprofit grantmakers in the US. What has been learned that other federal agencies or nonprofits would benefit from knowing?
- Evaluation. When the latest studies are approved, the SIF will have initiated more than 100 rigorous third-party evaluations of program impact, involving nearly 300 nonprofits all across the US. These evaluations—20 of which have been completed, including the five profiled by the SIRC—are informing us not only about how specific interventions perform but about evaluation processes themselves, e.g. how much to budget, how to choose evaluators, and how to interpret and use evaluation results to drive ongoing program improvement. Success here cannot be defined simply as whether a study leads to a positive finding. What actually makes a program work? How can we apply the biggest lessons to other nonprofit and government efforts to benefit more Americans?
- Federal regulations. The federal government’s clear obligation to wisely steward taxpayer funds should not come at the expense of achieving social impact. The SIRC does a thorough job of describing the difficulties encountered by SIF grantees and subgrantees as they did their best to deliver the ambitious results they’d promised. You, the Congress, should be demanding to know which regulations advance a core interest of the government and which ones simply undermine the ability of grantees to succeed on our collective behalf.
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.