Social Innovation Grants Start at 1 Million Dollars

February 16, 2010       Mark Hrywna      

After weeks of public comment, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has released its final Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), lowering the original minimum grant award to $1 million.

The centerpiece of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, the fund will award up to $50 million in the first year. One of the changes that came about as a result of public comment was reducing the grants from a minimum of $5 million to $1 million. Larger grants are expected to go to intermediary organizations with a “track record of supporting sub-grantees with strong evidence and impact and the capacity to support replication and expansion.”

Grant awards will range from $1 million to $10 million, which will be leveraged by private capital by a ratio of 3:1, according to Marta Urquilla, senior advisor for the SIF.

The deadline for applications is 5 p.m. (EST) April 8, with a letter of intent to apply due by March 1 at 5 p.m. (EST). Certification of matching funds to determine eligibility will be due at the time of application. Successful applicants will be notified by July.

Priority issues for the SIF include economic opportunity, youth development and school support, and healthy futures. The SIF aims to promote public and private investment in effective and potentially transformative portfolios of nonprofit organizations to help them strengthen their evidence base, and replicate and expand to serve more low-income communities; identify more effective approaches to addressing critical social challenge sand broadly share this knowledge; and, develop the grant-making infrastructure necessary to support the work of social innovations in communities around the country.

Steve Goldsmith, board chair of the CNCS, described the SIF as “uncharted territory for government.” The fund is an attempt to try to fund some new ideas, he added, and not necessarily activities but innovations. “It’s really appropriate for the federal government to elevate this support for solving critical social challenges,” said Goldsmith, a former mayor of Indianapolis. “We have lots of federal and state government money being spent often without apparent, clear results. This is an effort to do things a little bit differently, to fund innovative approaches that might make a significant difference both as examples in terms of promoting copying of successful innovations in other places,” he said.

“The SIF is part of a new push on behalf of the federal government to elevate the use of evidence in how it approaches social challenges,” said Goldsmith. “We could all agree that for every government dollar we spend in a complicated area of social progress we should have some evidence that that dollar works,” he said.

The SIF will financially support the evaluation work done by the intermediaries on behalf of their sub-grantees. “It’s just crystal clear that we can’t continue to fund social programs without more evidence of success and evidence in many of our cities is less than robust right now in many areas of social progress, including education,” Goldsmith said.

While it hasn’t been determined how many $5-million grants versus $1-million grants will be awarded, Goldsmith said the thinking is that the lower minimum allows more organizations to participate, increasing the pool and also helping rural communities that have fewer philanthropic resources.

Another change from the draft NOFA is a requirement that applicants have partners identified in advance. Now, all grantees will be required to host a competitive nonprofit selection process within the six months of the award. Government requests for proposals (RFPs) are generally very prescriptive, telling applicants what to expect, but Goldsmith said the corporation wanted to ask for innovative solutions rather than tell applicants what they’re looking for. Goldsmith cited three major parts of the evaluation criteria for applicants: • 45 percent for quality of program design; • 35 percent on the organization’s capacity, particularly its ability to host a competitive nonprofit selection process and to help with the program evaluation; and, • 20 percent on the appropriateness of the budget, the amount of matching funds they attract, and how their financial model works.

The preference for intermediaries with a preselected slate of grantees was removed but they still can apply with some preselected grantees, according to Urquilla.

Sub-grants will be made in annual amounts of $100,000 or more per year for a period of three to five years. Awards will be made annually and eligible to receive for programs up to five years, however, Goldsmith said the funds would not be a sustained source of funding for organizations. Rather, he said the SIF should be viewed as a sort of bridge funding or venture funding. Once an organization gets funding to prove its model, the hope is that it can show other funders to be more aggressive with them for future dollars. He hopes that long enough participation in the SIF can “provide someone’s model to effect change in a broader model, and not just rely on us.”