Analysis of Social Innovation Fund Update

On Thursday, the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Corporation) held a media advisory conference call to provide details about the Social Innovation Fund. Paul Carttar, Director of the Social Innovation Fund, and Marta Urquilla, Senior Advisor for Social Innovation, framed the conference call as an opportunity to provide details about grant application process and next steps. Following the call, the Corporation released a press release on the SIF process and a link to the conference call audio (which will be up for about 30 days).

The Corporation received 69 applications by the April 8th deadline, reflecting approximately 35% of the total number of Letters of Intent received earlier. These proposals represent more than 260 collaborations between foundations, private investors, businesses, higher education institutions, nonprofits, and local government, which speaks well of the Social Innovation Fund’s capacity to spur these relationships. It also might reflect the challenge of raising the necessary cash match without partners.

The proposals were well balanced across the three priority areas of Economic Opportunity, Youth Development and School Support, and Healthy Futures. While a complete breakdown was not provided, the Corporation did indicate that 15 applicants focused on youth development while another 16 focused on multiple priority areas. The Corporation will announce the grant awards in July and expects that funding will not go out until January 2011. The six month gap reflects the need for the eventual intermediary grantees to conduct their own grant application processes and identify their respective subgrantees.

In total, 25 states and the District of Columbia were represented. Collectively, these applications requested $125 million in funding while providing commitments of $375 million in matching funds. The average request is approximately $1.8 million, which is closer to the minimum grant award level and validates the public push that led the Corporation to drop its minimum grant award to $1 million following the public comment period on the draft guidelines.

While expressing some disappointment with the number of applications received, the Corporation will still have a significant review process to conduct to identify the final 7 – 10 grantees. Its approval rate will be between 10.1% and 14.5%, similar to extremely competitive open call competitions conducted by prominent foundations. It will launch now into an intensive review process in which each proposal will be reviewed by two peer review panels. Approximately fifty recognized national experts will participate in the review process and will each dedicate about fifty hours for the assessments. Following the peer review process, a handful of proposals will proceed into subsequent rounds of analysis, which will most likely include intensive discussions with the Corporation and possible site visits.

Several other interesting points were made during the call. In particular, Ms. Urquilla states that some of the applicants have never had an open grant process. If selected as intermediary grantees, these organizations would be conducting an open grant completion for the first time. Ms. Urquilla also noted that while the Corporation did not receive as many proposals as Letters of Intents, that the application process did successfully push some grantmakers to reassess their own strategies and collaboration efforts. While not fully captured in an evaluation design, tracking how grantmakers evolve – both those that did not apply and those that do not get selected as grantees – would help shed light on the ability of the Social Innovation Fund to play a catalytic role in refocusing philanthropy.

The Corporation also stressed the importance of collaboration through the Social Innovation Fund. Ironically, however, the circumstances do place some limits on fostering such collaboration. At the request of Sean Stannard-Stockton of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors, I asked the Corporation if it would it would have any objection to applicants publicly releasing their own proposals. Ms. Urquilla responded that a proposal belongs to the applicant, which can make it available on its own, but that the Corporation cannot release the proposal without consent. Mr. Carttar further noted that the Corporation will have to find ways to encourage greater information sharing in order to generate increased leverage opportunities. I continue to hope that at a minimum, the Corporation will publish a list of the applicants. Up to 85% of them will not receive grants through the Social Innovation Fund, but identifying them at this stage may have the positive consequence of birthing additional collaborations and funding opportunities to support local innovation. This would fit perfectly with the Corporation’s position to act as a catalyst and not as a final arbiter on what is effective or innovative.

I asked the Corporation to clarify how its reviewers were identified and recruited. Ms. Urquilla stated that the Corporation had reached out to over 400 individuals and came up with its list of possible expert reviewers through multiple avenues. The initial public forums and interactions during the Social Innovation Fund development process helped identify possible reviewers. The Corporation also conducted a viral search and collected recommendations from thought leaders and experts on possible reviewers. Ultimately, the Corporation identified experts with substantive leadership experience and at least ten years of experience in the particular priority areas of the Social Innovation Fund. After considering possible conflicts of interests and areas of expertise, it arrived at its final list of reviewers.

While the Corporation will not release the names of the reviewers in order to protect their confidentiality, it might revisit this policy after the review process is complete. But, as with the Social Innovation Fund applicants, the reviewers could initiate such disclosure on their own (one such disclosure came from Charlie Brown, Executive Director of Ashoka's Changemakers, via Twitter this morning). I continue to believe that intermediary applicants will want to know who is judging their proposals.

What was amazing about the call was the level of transparency applied to the Social Innovation Fund and the grantmaking process in general. As Mr. Carttar noted, the Corporation has stressed an open and transparent process, which has been carried out throughout the development process for the Social Innovation Fund. While the Corporation won’t release the names of the applicants, its willingness to shed light on the applications received and its upcoming review process must be recognized and applauded. The field of philanthropy, in which grantmakers commonly cloak such information, can learn to adopt similar standards of transparency.

 

 

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