As we prepared our application for the federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF) there were times that I struggled with a hard-earned skepticism about the latest silver bullet solution to domestic social problems. I’ve spent 25 years trying to find ways to counter the destructive effects of chronic poverty. A $50 million federal program—a fraction of the resources needed—did not seem to merit the intense focus it attracted from the social sector.
But one remarkable thing about people is that hope springs eternal even in the most dire circumstances. Fanning that resilient and optimistic flame is at the center of the work of the social sector. And it’s at the heart of the success that sometimes comes to those we serve when they are offered half a chance.
Given the stakes, all of us at the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF) were elated to hear that we would be representing California as a member of the first group of federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grantees.
Here’s a brief look at what’s promising and fresh about the SIF—which hopes to accelerate widespread adoption of approaches that demonstrate greater impact than the status quo. To do so, it will test whether funding intermediaries and a focus on measurement of results together deliver better results.
While federal funding for “intermediaries” is controversial, my experience working in two of them over 18 years is that, done right, they can be powerful engines of positive change. These oddly-named entities put the pieces together and connect the dots. We support and aggregate the impact of multiple organizations to make a compelling case for change, and stick with it over time, helping build a healthy nonprofit sector that delivers results (for more on this topic see a great report here).
Funders are often reluctant to sustain intermediaries, viewing them as “overhead”—but the SIF, having the vision to see how intermediaries can expedite and facilitate change, has taken the risk to support us. Our challenge is to prove worthy by adding value.
At REDF, we know what a heavy lift we have ahead with our plans to help nonprofits create businesses to employ people with major barriers across the State of California, and create a model that can be even more widely replicated. But there are few examples of real progress in this area, and the evidence shows that we’re on to something that works. This is the big chance to demonstrate it, and prove it can be done cost effectively.
How will the SIF help? Federal support offers financial resources, greater credibility, and help facilitating policy change. SIF-funded groups will learn from one another.
Some critics also dismiss the SIF’s unprecedented focus on measurement and evaluation as “business as usual” and “not innovation” because subgrantees have to demonstrate a track record. I disagree because the focus on measurement (1) lays down a direct challenge to the kind of patronage that still influences expenditure of public resources; and (2) gives us a lever—objective data—that disruptive innovators can use to get a seat at the table with philanthropy, business, and government. For more on this topic see these blog posts.
With no public resources to spare now, and even less in the future, now is the time to make sure the public knows what results our investments achieve. What is success for REDF and the first “class” of SIF grantees?
- Results! (documented, quantified, well-described, powerful, positive) for people in communities—at a reasonable cost.
- New knowledge and clarity about what works.
- A greater willingness by public and private funders to throw down with those groups that adopt proven practices, measure results, and constantly improve based on what they learn.