Obama Pushes For Social Innovation

July 1, 2009       Mark Hrywna      

Calling on other sectors to partner with government to invest and find high-impact, results-oriented solutions, President Barack Obama highlighted several nonprofits as examples of the kinds of programs sought for the administration’s Social Innovation Fund.

The $50-million fund is part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act passed this past spring but still requires Congressional approval as part of the next federal budget. President Obama has tasked Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and her innovation team to search for the programs that can most effectively transform communities and change lives.

Administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the fund will provide grants to existing grant-making institutions that will invest in growing innovative, results-driven nonprofits.

The fund will find the most promising nonprofits in the nation, examine their data and rigorously evaluate outcomes, and select those that probably get the best return on tax dollars, the president said.

“We won’t be looking at usual suspects, we want to find those hidden gems too,” Obama said.

Among those highlighted at Tuesday’s event were:

  • HopeLab is a nonprofit in Redwood City, Calif., founded by board chair and philanthropist Pam Omidyar, which combines intensive research with cutting-edge technology to improve the health and quality of life of young people with chronic illnesses.
  • In 1997, a network of programs began for a 24-block area known as the Harlem Children’s Zone Project, and 10 years later the project grew to almost 100 blocks, serving more than 8,000 children and more than 4,100 adults. Over the years, the organization introduced several ground-breaking efforts including the Baby College parenting workshops, the Harlem Gems pre-school program, the HCZ Asthma Initiative, which teaches families to better manage the disease, the Promise Academy, a high-quality public charter school; and an obesity program to help children stay healthy.
  • Headquartered in New Hampshire, Bonnie CLAC helps clients build creditworthiness and provides car selection and purchase assistance to help low- and moderate-income individuals create savings, improve their access to health care, and reduce carbon emissions into the environment. Since its founding in 2001, Bonnie CLAC has guaranteed more than $12 million in loans for more than 1200 clients, most of whom fall below HUD low-income guidelines.
  • Genesys Works is a Houston-based nonprofit that trains and employs high school students to perform technical services for major corporations. Founded in 2002, the organization seeks to enable economically disadvantaged high school students to enter the economic mainstream by providing them with the knowledge and work experience required to succeed as technical professionals. Over 95 percent of Genesys Works graduates go on to college. Genesys Works has locations in St. Paul, Minnesota and Houston, Texas, and is planning to open a Chicago location in 2010.

“There’s only so much that Washington can do. Government can’t do everything and be everywhere,” Obama said. People who are struggling don’t need more bureaucratic red tape, but most solutions are often in their own neighborhoods waiting to be discovered rather than coming from someone in Washington. “Solutions to America’s challenges are being developed at the grassroots level and government shouldn’t be supplanting those efforts but supporting them,” he said, with creative, results-oriented programs like Harlem Children’s Zone.

If Harlem Children’s Zone can work in New York, Obama said, then why not in places like Detroit, San Antonio or Indianapolis. If Bonnie CLAC can work in New Hampshire, it should work in Vermont and across New England and America. “It’s not easy to scale up these programs but it’s critical,” Obama said.

Andrew Wolk, founder and CEO of Root Cause, called Tuesday’s news conference the “first formal stake in the ground” as Congress begins to look at the Service America Act and the appropriation of the Social Innovation Fund. “What today is all about is a new perspective. It was a milestone to have a president stand up and publicly talk about the Office of Social Innovation and the Social Innovation Fund,” he said.

Root Cause is a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit working to advance social innovation.

Wolk, in attendance at the White House news conference, expects there might be some link from the fund to the president’s four priorities (healthcare, energy, education and job creation). While there’s been some concern that it would focus on “brand name” nonprofits, he said some of those highlighted at Tuesday’s event were groups that might not be as well known to a national audience, such as Genesys.

Root Cause has worked with social impact offices at the state level in Texas and Louisiana and has advised the White House to link the federal work to state-based approaches. States interested in taking advantage of the administration’s focus on social innovation would be smart to examine a social innovation agenda, Wolk said.

“This is just the beginning. These are new concepts for Washington,” he said. While the $50 million in the fund may not seem like much from D.C perspective, Wolk said it’s more about using the bully pulpit to get the dialogue going, partnering with nonprofits and the private sector.