Can Paul Carttar Reclaim Missed Opportunities with the Social Innovation Fund?

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 Stannard-Stockton 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.

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