March 27, 2014

Time to Follow Congress’ Lead…to the SIF

Although in recent years the concept of "Congressional leadership" has become questionable, to say the least, our representatives in Washington proved with their additional budget for the SIF in January that the term is not a complete oxymoron.

Although in recent years the concept of "Congressional leadership" has become questionable, to say the least, our representatives in Washington proved in January that the term is not a complete oxymoron. As part of the FY2014 omnibus appropriations bill, signed into law on January 17, Congress voted to allocate $70 million to the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a marquee program of the Obama Administration. That’s an increase of more than 60 percent, or $27.5 million, from the previous year’s funding level. By so dramatically increasing SIF's appropriation while increasing non-defense discretionary spending overall by just six percent, Congress sent a powerful message of support for a small but noteworthy program that in the past four years has actually exceeded the very high expectations that accompanied its introduction. And for that Congress deserves our praise.

It also deserves our action. In late February, the SIF announced the start of its fourth grant competition, which will accept proposals from qualified grant-making intermediaries until April 22. As the SIF faces what is arguably its most challenging and important new-grant competition since the first, it's up to the rest of us to build on this impressive momentum.

You'll recall that the Obama administration launched the SIF four years ago with much excitement. The White House went so far as to call it a "new way of doing business" for the federal government. Although the SIF faced all the challenges of any new federal program—including media controversies, staffing problems, and funding uncertainties—the fund and its extraordinary staff and grantees have persevered, their focus unerringly on their mandate, which includes expanding access in low-income communities to promising service programs, amassing evidence of "what works," catalyzing private funding to scale these initiatives, and building nonprofit capacity.

In a recent blog post for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Michael Smith, the director of the SIF, catalogued the SIF's accomplishments to date:

  • $177 million in awards made to 20 grant-making intermediaries
  • An additional $423 million committed in non-federal, mainly foundation, funding
  • 217 operating nonprofits selected in 37 states and the District of Columbia, all with evidence-based programs
  • Program expansion to serve more than 270,000 additional individuals to date
  • 72 formal evaluation studies of the intervention models underway

The majority of the $70 million appropriation is earmarked for continuation grants to intermediaries selected in previous years as well as on-going expenses for evaluation, technical assistance, and knowledge creation and dissemination. Approximately $30 million, however, will be available for awards to new grantees in the arenas of youth development, economic opportunity, and healthy futures. This amount, though small in comparison with most federal grant programs, is greater than the sum of all funds awarded to new grantees since the initial year of the SIF. Further, because the initial awards were all for five-year terms that end this year, the intermediaries selected in this round will constitute the foundation of the SIF's second phase. That makes this year's competition a rare opportunity to set the tone for the fund's future.

Why was Congress so enthusiastic? Lawmakers work in mysterious ways, but it's certainly clear that there's a lot to like about the SIF no matter one's political affiliation. Democrats seem to admire the SIF for mobilizing more than a half-billion dollars to expand access to promising, high-quality programs. Republicans, for their part, appear to appreciate that this program is voluntary and highly competitive, that it relies on experienced nonprofit intermediaries rather than federal bureaucrats to select the promising nonprofits, and that non-federal money raised from hundreds of private foundations and other donors funds 70 percent of the total SIF budget. All surely value the fact that the SIF invests only in programs backed by evidence of effectiveness and is fully accountable for achieving rigorously documented outcomes.

And why should you care? As a taxpayer, you should care because federal dollar for federal dollar, it's hard to imagine a program that yields more in terms of on-the-ground impact, organizational capacity-building, and overall field-building than the SIF. As a policy maker, you might see SIF as an innovative way to leverage federal funds for broad impact or for testing evidence-based interventions in several critical domains. As a nonprofit leader, you should see an opportunity to advance your mission and propel your organization to a new level of visibility with funders and the public alike.

And what can you actually do to advance this cause? First and most important, you can encourage applications from outstanding, well-qualified qualified candidates. That would include experienced grant-making intermediaries with high aspirations and proven ability to identify and support promising, innovative programs with evidence of compelling impactespecially one that thirst to join other like-minded organizations as part of this growing movement. Second, you can encourage contacts in other federal agencies to consider embracing key elements of the SIF model in their own work—most importantly the open competition for innovative, evidence-based interventions, the reliance on nonprofit intermediaries and the healthy match requirements. Third, you can encourage your elected representatives to appreciate the extraordinary asset they have created and support the continued expansion of the SIF and similar programs.

It's exciting to imagine what a thriving SIF can contribute to society—while positively reinforcing our representatives' self-image as true visionaries and leaders. With our encouragement, they might someday live up to those lofty honorifics.

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