A Communitiy Foundation Perspective on the Social Innovation Fund

Last month, the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Corporation), the federal agency that manages AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, and Senior Corps, released its draft Notice on Funds Available (NOFA) for the $50M the Social Innovation Fund (SIF). The Corporation is accepting comments until January 15.

In my most recent post about the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), I commented that the cash match requirement at the minimum grant award level might prevent most community foundations from participating in the program. Today’s guest post on the Tactical Philanthropy blog by Eileen Ellsworth, president of the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia, greatly expands on this issue and illustrates how the new minimum grant award level and one-to-one cash match requirement will prevent her community foundation from participating. Specifically, she writes, "the increase in the minimum grant level from $1 million to $5 million now constitutes an insurmountable barrier for our SIF application....raising the minimum grant level to $5 million will prevent all but a tiny handful of very large foundations from applying." This issue is further reinforced by the Council on Foundation in a short commentary published today.  The Council notes that some foundations “have expressed concerns about the match requirements for the minimum grant threshold of $5 million…and the difficulty that small communities may experience in trying to take advantage of this program.”

 

The Community Foundation of Northern Virginia has about $30M in managed assets, 98% of which is restricted as donor advised funds. At the original $1M minimum grant award, Eileen was confident she would have been able to participate. However, by increasing the minimum level and thus the barrier for participation, the Corporation has dramatically narrowed the pool of community foundations that might apply to be a SIF intermediary. I ran a quick search on the Foundation Center database for community foundations with assets of $150M or greater (i.e., five times the size of Eileen's foundation and representative of the increase in the SIF match requirement) and came up with 69 foundations – mostly based in urban centers – that might have the resources to apply for a SIF grant. And that assumes that those foundations either have unrestricted resources available to them or can raise at least 50% of the match requirement within a short period of time.

 

Eileen also presents a very strong argument to modify the draft NOFA's definition of low income communities. Her point that "“pockets of poverty”...are not neatly circumscribed by city or county borders" applies to Northern Virginia as well as other communities across the nation. I agree with her suggestion to set a percentage cut off for this definition (she recommends 30%) that would encompass the populations at the Federal Poverty Line as well others at the 150% of the Federal Poverty Line. I'm curious to know how that would work with other communities.

 

Eileen concludes with a very interesting push to focus the evaluation efforts at the local community organization level instead of focusing on how an intermediary might run its SIF grant. However, not all foundations provide their grantees with the freedom to operate as they know best in their communities. There is a broad spectrum of how foundations interact with their grantees and I expect the Corporation will be very keen to assess the active (perhaps authoritative role) of foundations in developing, fostering, and nurturing local social innovation.

 

The discussions and posts this week – both on the Tactical Philanthropy blog and on Twitter (using the #SIF and #SIFund hashtags) – have reinforced my sense is that the Corporation will be really challenged to fund projects that offer true innovation versus funding those with that proven impact. The draft guidelines — in echoing the Department of Education’s i3 program – emphasize “strong impact” and three levels of proven evidence (strong, moderate, and preliminary). But even the preliminary level is based on research evidence, which skews the balance in my opinion toward the proven impact side. As Michele Jolin, of the White House Office on Social Innovation, mentioned at least year’s National Conference for Volunteering and Service, government is not best at taking risk and the SIF is the perfect example of a program that should be taking risks. My hope is that the Corporation finds a path that does allow its intermediaries to support true innovation.

 

  

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