Inaugural Social Innovation Fund Sets an Example

The Corporation for National Community Service's new Social Innovation Fund helps scale effective approaches to social problems, write Jitinder Kohli and John Griffith.

Patrick Corvington, former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, speaks at the National Service-Learning Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Friday, April 8, 2011. (Flickr/<a href=NYLC)" data-srcset=" 610w, 610w, 610w, 500w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
Patrick Corvington, former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, speaks at the National Service-Learning Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Friday, April 8, 2011. (Flickr/NYLC)

See also: From Setting Goals to Achieving Them by Jitiinder Kohli 

The Corporation for National Community Service announced its inaugural Social Innovation Fund grants last week, which committed $50 million to organizations with effective solutions to persistent social challenges. This marks an important step toward spreading public-sector innovation.

Scaling New Heights, a Center for American Progress report, argued earlier this month that scaling successful social innovations is a key challenge facing government. Governments need a more systematic approach to identifying what works at the small scale and helping it expand—including financial and other support to help grow proven local-level innovations. That is exactly what the first round of SIF grants does.

The 11 grantee organizations have demonstrated their ability to effectively address urgent needs in economic opportunity, healthy futures, youth development, and school support. The fund, for example, devotes $7.7 million to expand the Jobs for the Future program that works closely with employers to help an additional 23,000 low-income individuals gain employment over three years. The money will support 24 local projects to adopt an approach that has successfully reduced joblessness elsewhere.

The fund also made a $5 million grant to improve several youth-focused nonprofit organizations that help young people navigate the path from high school to college to productive employment in 10 cities including Baltimore, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Providence, and San Francisco. Again, this grant will help to expand an approach proven successful in Chicago.

Another example of the corporation’s focus on programs that work is a $5.7 million grant to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. The grant will replicate five effective antipoverty programs originally piloted in New York to an additional eight urban areas including Kansas City, Memphis, and Tulsa.

New York City has adopted a large number of innovative initiatives to tackle poverty, with the foundation sector providing the funding. Only a few of these ideas have had a transformative impact but each one of them had the potential to do so—the only way to find out what would actually work was to try it at the small scale. The award to expand five effective approaches comes just two months after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to end six other new antipoverty programs due to lack of proven results.

New York’s strategy for alleviating poverty should be commended—investing small amounts of money in approaches that might work, testing whether they do, and then eliminating those that don’t work while expanding those that do. New York City cannot use its funds to expand successful approaches to other parts of the country, so the SIF grant helps ensure that New York’s successful approaches can be scaled to other cities.

The SIF also establishes a new funding model for fostering social innovation in the public sector. Every grantee had to demonstrate that they could access funds from other sources. The result is that the $50 million from the SIF will be complemented by at least an additional $150 million, $74 million of which has already been committed.

CNCS CEO Patrick Corvington echoed the importance of looking forward during the corporation’s award announcement. He said that fifty million dollars was both a little and a lot—a lot of money to start the process of scaling successful innovations, but not a lot of money to tackle some of the most important issues the nation faces.

The current statutory allocation is indeed a solid start, but $50 million is just a drop in the ocean. The administration and Congress must have the courage to devote the necessary funds to scale innovative approaches that are effective at taking on the nation’s issues. We believe that Congress should dedicate at least 1 percent of all agency budgets to developing, testing, and scaling up new and better ways of doing things—doing so would amount to an investment almost a thousand times greater than the SIF.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at American Progress. His work focuses on government efficiency, regulatory reform, and economic issues.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow

John Griffith

Policy Analyst