Social Innovation Fund: Who will get to play in the sandbox?

Is this sandbox just for the big kids?

The Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a White House effort to pump millions of private and public dollars into projects that are effectively tackling pressing social problems, awarded its first round of grants this month, totaling nearly $50 million.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates the SIF, announced 11 grants – ranging in size from $2 million to $10 million each – to intermediary organizations, which will in turn award money to non-profit groups working in the areas of economic opportunity, youth development and healthy habits. Seen as a breakthrough announcement by a new kind of President in 2009, the Fund has understandably attracted attention from the non-profit community in the US as well as north of the border.

“Over the long-term, the SIF will contribute to the development of the grant-making infrastructure that supports the work of high-impact non-profit organizations and inform other federal, state and local efforts to address social challenges,” said Paul Carttar, Director of the SIF at the Corporation. “It offers an avenue for community-driven solutions to grow and demonstrate their value.”

However, the SIF’s focus on funding experienced intermediary organizations with proven track records is a disappointment to some. Nathaniel Whittemore, writing for the popular blog, says, “The results show the SIF is primarily focused on ‘funding what works’ versus making more risky bets. I tend to think that the relative smallness of the amount of resources being deployed lend themselves well to this being the ‘sandbox space’ where the government could support really experimental efforts that could have disruptive potential.”

Despite Nathaniel Whittemore’s lamentation on missed opportunities, there is still time to see transformation with the allocation of these funds. It’s also important to note that this is the first round of the SIF. It doesn’t surprise me that a new Office with a new fund felt only so daring in the distribution of their grants. Perhaps they’ll exercise more courage in the future.

What it does mean for this first round of grantees is that the innovation baton has passed to them. In the distribution of their award money, will they support proven programs or look to more risky but potentially more scalable, more impactful projects?

Perhaps some of these intermediary bodies, now charged with distributing millions of grant dollars could look to the work of the J.W. McConnell Foundation here in Canada. The Foundation acknowledges that the not-for-profit sector receives little encouragement to be risky. “‘Innovation’ normally means doing things better, smarter, more efficiently. In business, it is a given; it receives constant encouragement in the form of training, investment and public attention.”

“The not-for-profit or public benefit sector sees no such support: there are many social entrepreneurs but most funders seek ‘safe’ projects. There is little risk-capital and even less willingness to accept some ‘failure’ as the price of path-breaking innovation.” In contrast to many foundations, McConnell are particularly interested in disseminating proven local projects that demonstrate the potential to trigger transformative change. McConnell’s work with Social Innovation Generation (SiG) is an active example of their dedication to experimentation and facilitating a social innovation agenda in Canada.

But let’s not ignore the Canadian government in this discussion. The Canadian government may not have announced a Social Innovation Fund, but there are positive indications that they are looking seriously at social innovation and how to apply its principles. The Policy Research Initiative released a paper in April called, “‘Social Innovation’: What is it? Who does it?” While the paper asks more questions than it answers, it is a step in the right direction.

See here for a full list of the Social Innovation Fund recipients.