Under the Obama administration, the United States government has finally recognized the importance of social innovation as a policy and programmatic objective.   First Lady, Michelle Obama, has taken a particularly strong and visible role as the catalyst and champion for a new White House Office on Social Innovation.  This Office has just announced the recipients of a first round of grants from the new Social Innovation Fund.   Click below to learn more about this important initiative.

The White House Office on Social Innovation: A New Paradigm for Solving Social Problems by Clayton M. Christensen July 1, 2009

President Obama’s new White House Office on Social Innovation and Civic Participation represents more than just another bureaucratic office. If leveraged effectively, this Office could transform how we solve our nation’s most pressing domestic problems — and ultimately move the needle on critical challenges in education, health care, poverty, joblessness, the environment, and more. Here’s how.

Just as innovation in the private sector has been the key to our nation’s longstanding economic prosperity, so too can innovation in the social sector provide the solutions we need to solve our nation’s most challenging social ills. The social sector in its current form, however, fails to foster, support, and scale innovation. Fundamental shifts need to occur in the structure of the social sector in order for systems of innovation to truly take hold. …

This Office can use its convening power to help break though some of the toughest barriers that have long prevented marketplaces that can grow social innovations from taking hold, like the lack of metrics that enable us to know what works and the need to invest in “bottom up” versus “top down” solutions. It can help catalyze a shift in the social sector that would better guide funding and support towards social enterprises that have impact.  How might the Social Innovation Office do this? It must have three priorities.

First, it must demonstrate a new way to solve social problems where government serves as an investor in innovations that are developed and identified by citizens outside of government who better understand the problems and can thus identify and support innovative solutions. The Obama Administration and Congress took the first step in this direction with the recently created Innovation Fund, included in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act signed into law in April.

Second, the Office should guide more social innovators towards “bottom-up” initiatives, in preference to “trickle-down” philanthropy – because the societal impact of the former is typically greater. Bottom-up innovations, also known as disruptive innovations, enable a larger population of people who previously had limited access to expensive services to now enjoy them. By illustration, philanthropy has built most major concert halls, and funded most major symphony orchestras. These have enriched our culture, to be sure, but this largesse by the elites largely benefits the elites. …

Third, the Office should use the convening power of the White House to initiate a focus on impact and metrics.  Specifically, the White House should help initiate a process by which categories of social innovations are agreed upon, and metrics can be defined for assessing the impact of innovations in each category on the social problems that they target. Just like independent rating agencies have developed methods for assessing the safety of investments in various securities, methods might emerge that help social investors categorize the type of impact that various social entrepreneurs hope to achieve, and to rate the present and potential effectiveness of their efforts to achieve that impact. …

If the White House Office of Social Innovation can improve the context for social innovation, its impact will extend far beyond a new government bureaucracy — it will transform the way we solve problems; create a powerful new alignment around impact; and foster an environment where government, the vast reservoirs of American philanthropy, and socially innovative entrepreneurs will spend less on things that don’t work, and more on things that do.

Introducing the Social Innovation Fund
Posted by Stephen Goldsmith on February 17, 2010

America is facing some of the greatest challenges in a generation.  At the same time, promising nonprofit organizations across the country are making heroic efforts to meet overwhelming need and, implement effective and innovative ways to meet these challenges.  But their impact is often hampered by a lack of resources and support to evaluate and improve their programs, and expand them so they can serve more communities of need.

The Corporation for National and Community Service launched the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grant competition, which takes a new approach to addressing our nation’s most critical social challenges.  The SIF will direct funding through innovative, hands-on grant makers (or intermediaries) across the country.  These grant makers will identify fund and support over a period of years promising nonprofit organizations working in low-income communities.   It’s an approach that has clear benefits.

  • It leverages private funding from grant makers and others.  Each federal dollar will be matched with at least $3 of private funding, for a total of $200 million or greater.
  • It offers nonprofits critical support with respect to management, staffing, data collection, fundraising and other challenges that they will need to overcome as they grow.
  • It provides for investments in multiple nonprofits in an issue area or geography, allowing the best innovations to rise to the top.

Critical to this last point, the SIF provides funding and incentives for nonprofits to evaluate their effectiveness.  Grant makers will be true partners in these evaluation efforts and be jointly held accountable for results.  The SIF’s focus on evaluation is so critical, especially for government.  Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on programs in the issue areas that the SIF will focus on – economic opportunity, youth development and school support, and healthy futures.

Discussing the SIF last year, the First Lady said it best when she noted:  “By focusing on high-impact, results-oriented non-profits, we will ensure that government dollars are spent in a way that is effective, accountable and worthy of public trust.”


The Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a new public-private investment vehicle established by the 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, is designed to:

  • Fund effective and potentially transformative portfolios of nonprofit community 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 challenges and broadly share this knowledge; and
  • Develop the grantmaking infrastructure necessary to support the work of social innovation in communities across the country.

Nonprofit community organizations will be competitively selected by SIF intermediaries and receive subgrants to:

  • Produce measurable outcomes within a specific issue area or  region;
  • Evaluate their effectiveness; and
  • Replicate and expand to serve more individuals and communities.

The Social Innovation Fund will invest in effective, innovative nonprofits working in low-income communities to address critical social challenges in the priority issue areas of:

  • Economic Opportunity – Increasing economic opportunities for economically disadvantaged individuals
  • Youth Development and School Support – Preparing America’s youth for success in school, active citizenship, productive work, and healthy and safe lives
  • Healthy Futures – Promoting healthy lifestyles and reducing the risk factors that can lead to illness.

Social Innovation Fund Announcement:
Remarks by Patrick Corvington, May 27, 2010

We owe the greatest gratitude to the President and the First Lady for making community solutions and service such a meaningful part of their agenda.  You know, this garden is the perfect place for our event today. When the First Lady replanted this garden earlier this spring, she said, “There’s nothing like watching tiny seeds grow into something amazing,” and I couldn’t agree more. We too have come to this spot to plant seeds – the seeds of service.  And I know we are all looking forward to seeing the seeds we sow here today take root and flourish throughout our great nation.

One of the defining characteristics of this country is innovation – that relentless search for better ways to solve problems and striving to make life better for one another. And every day, in communities across America, promising non-profit organizations direct heroic efforts to implement innovative, effective solutions to our nation’s most daunting social challenges. Tackling a wide variety of issues, from poverty to failing schools, non-profits are at the forefront of what I call the “solutions business.” The impact of their good work is only hampered by a lack of resources and insufficient capacity to gauge their programs’ impact, improve on them, and grow them to serve more people in more communities.

Our challenge is to take what works and replicate it on a national scale. And that kind of transformational change comes from encouraging new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. And the Social Innovation Fund is the mechanism by which we can make that change.  Through the Social Innovation Fund, government will become a supportive partner in solving big social problems focused in the areas of economic opportunity, healthy futures and youth development and school support. The SIF will drive the best solutions and reward results. The SIF will promote increased investment in innovative approaches that work at a local level, and then it will elevate those solutions to the national level.

First Lady Announces Foundation Commitments to Invest in Innovative Community Solutions, May 27, 2010

“As we continue to tackle our nation’s great challenges, we know that many of the best, most lasting solutions are already being developed in communities across the country. Local answers to our national challenges originate everywhere,” said Mrs. Obama. “Today’s event shows how the government is doing business differently: finding solutions outside of Washington, DC; investing in innovations that can have a big impact and have the potential to grow; and partnering with the private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors to address the toughest problems we face. These efforts are just the beginning of how we seek to turn community solutions into national solutions.”

The SIF is a new competitive grant program, housed at the Corporation for National and Community Service, that is designed to invest in innovative solutions with evidence of impact and that are ready to grow to meet the needs of more communities throughout America. The SIF will drive more resources to high-impact nonprofit organizations working in three areas of national priority: Economic Opportunity, Healthy Futures, and Youth Development and School Support. …

The following private foundations and philanthropists committed $45 million over the next two years to match SIF grants or invest in other innovative community solutions:

  • The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation ($10 million over 2 years)
  • John and Ann Doerr’s Family Foundation ($5 million over 2 years)
  • Omidyar Network ($10 million over 2 years)
  • The Open Society Foundations’ Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation ($10 million over 1 year)
  • The Skoll Foundation ($10 million over 2 years)

Additionally, an independent consortium of more than 20 national and regional funders, led by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, joined to pledge almost $5 million to a “Scaling What Works” initiative, designed to provide complementary funding that would contribute to the long-term success of the SIF.   The Council on Foundations also released a letter signed by the heads of more than 130 community foundations around the country supportive of the SIF and investments in community solutions.

Inaugural Social Innovation Fund Grants Awarded to Experienced Innovators

Washington, DC – In response to the increasing health needs, economic challenges and gaps in youth achievement facing low-income rural and urban communities, the Corporation for National and Community Service announced its inaugural Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grants today. The grants will target millions in public and private funds to grow effective solutions to persistent social challenges across more than 20 states.

The SIF portfolio consists of 11 organizations selected through a rigorous review process involving 60 external experts. The grantees, who represent a diverse set of nonprofit organizations and private and community foundations, share a track record of success at identifying and growing high-performing nonprofit organizations and their proposals offer a set of compelling ideas for how to use innovation and evidence to tackle social challenges in a new way.

“This portfolio is a collection of extraordinary organizations with an unparalleled body of knowledge and expertise on growing what works,” said Patrick Corvington, the Corporation’s CEO. “They are all driven by the search for bold solutions and recognize that we must use evidence to target limited resources where they will have the greatest impact.” …

“Over the long-term, the SIF will contribute to the development of the grant making infrastructure that supports the work of high-impact nonprofit 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.”

To select grantees, the Corporation implemented a rigorous, multi-phase application review process over a three-month period. Over 60 experts with extensive experience as social innovators, directors of nonprofit organizations, and evaluators of social programs, provided external input across three stages of the review, assessing applications against the criteria published in the SIF Notice of Federal Funds Availability (NOFA) in February of this year. The applications were evaluated based on their program design, organizational capacity and budget. In the final stage of the review, senior members of the Corporation’s staff were joined by external reviewers to assess the qualities of the top applications against the portfolio criteria in the NOFA. The finalists were asked to participate in clarification discussions to help the Corporation further assess the merits of their applications. …

Below is the list of the SIF grantees and a short description of the work the grants will fund.

Economic Opportunity

  • Jobs for the Future, Inc. ($7.7 million; 2 year grant) and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions (NFWS) will expand their targeted training and technical assistance to at least 23,000 low-income individuals over three years while also addressing the critical skill needs of more than 1,000 employers. The funds will dramatically increase economic opportunities for disadvantaged workers and job seekers through investments in regional workforce collaboratives that partner with employers to identify jobs and career pathways in high-growth industries.
  • Local Initiatives Support Corporation ($4.2 million; 1 year grant) will grow Financial Opportunity Centers – a workforce development and asset-building model that boosts earnings, reduces expenses and coaches low-income families on how to make better financial decisions – to five new cities and 7,500 total participants. The Centers are a core component of the organization’s strategy to build sustainable communities.
  • Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City ($5.7 million; 1 year grant) and the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) will replicate five effective anti-poverty programs originally piloted by CEO in eight urban areas. By advancing the education, employment and financial savings of low-income adults and families, the programs will combat poverty across a diverse cross-section of America.
  • REDF ($3 million; 2 year grant) will create job opportunities for thousands of Californians with multiple barriers to employment – including dislocated youth, individuals who have been homeless or incarcerated, and those with severe mental illness – in sustainable nonprofit social enterprises in low-income communities throughout the state. The project includes testing to determine the potential of these enterprises as scalable employment vehicles.

Healthy Futures

  • Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky ($2 million; 2 year grant) will improve access to needed health services, reduce health risks and disparities, and promote health equity in 6-10 low-income communities in Kentucky. Subgrantees will focus on testing innovative strategies to increase physical activity, improve nutrition, curb smoking and other unhealthy habits, and, increase access to health services in underserved communities.
  • Missouri Foundation for Health ($2 million; 2 year grant) will invest in 10-20 targeted low-income communities across the state to reduce risk factors and the prevalence of two preventable causes of chronic disease and death: tobacco use and obesity. The project draws on an integrated community change model blending two transformative models of prevention on obesity and tobacco control.
  • National AIDS Fund ($3.6 million; 1 year grant) will support innovative strategies that increase access to care and improve health outcomes for at least 3,500 low-income individuals living with HIV/AIDS. The project will employ rigorous evaluation, informing the implementation of the White House National HIV/AIDS Strategy and offering lessons that reduce barriers to care for a broad range of people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic diseases.

Youth Development and School Support

  • New Profit Inc. ($5 million; 1 year grant) will collaborate with five to six innovative youth-focused nonprofit organizations with existing evidence to yield significant improvements in helping young people navigate the increasingly complex path from high school to college and productive employment. The project will expand the reach of these nonprofits to improve the lives of nearly 8,000 young people in low-income communities throughout the country.
  • The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation ($10 million; 1 year grant) will combine large grants, strategic business planning, rigorous evaluation and capital aggregation to increase the scale and impact of up to 10 youth development organizations in communities of need across the U.S. The subgrantees will focus on improving economically disadvantaged young people’s educational skills and workforce readiness as well as helping them to avoid high-risk behavior.
  • Venture Philanthropy Partners ($4 million; 2 year grant) will create a powerful network of effective nonprofit organizations in the Washington D.C. National Capital Region supporting an integrated approach to addressing the education and employment needs of low-income and vulnerable youth ages 14-24.


  • United Way of Greater Cincinnati ($2 million; 2 year grant) the Strive Partnership and other funders, will address the needs of low-income children and youth from “cradle to career” in the Greater Cincinnati-area though investments in early education, mentoring and literacy programs, college access, career pathways and other innovations.

White House Creates Office Of Innovation by Pam Fessler
MORNING EDITION from NPR News – May 28, 2009  (3:59)

The Obama administration has created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The idea is for the government to work with nonprofit organizations to identify programs that have had proven success in tackling social problems, such as homelessness and joblessness, and then to expand those programs across the country. The office will in effect provide seed money for the most innovative ideas.



It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Steve Inskeep.


And I’m David Greene. The Obama administration likes to think of itself as innovative, so it’s created something new. It’s called the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. NPR’s Pam Fessler tells us what that means.

PAM FESSLER: The idea goes something like this.

Ms. MELODY BARNES (Domestic Policy Advisor to the President): There are some great people doing incredible work out and about the country, starting new projects. For example, Teach for America is an example of social innovation.

FESSLER: But Melody Barnes, President Obama’s domestic policy advisor, says such groups often have trouble getting the support they need to grow.

Ms. BARNES: The Social Innovation Fund will provide the seed capital to try and get these new ideas, these new organizations, up and off the ground.

FESSLER: And hopefully, she says, to spread their efforts across the country to help address deep-seeded social problems in areas such as education, housing and health care. The president has asked for $50 million for the first year. And the administration is talking to foundations, philanthropists and businesses to find matching funds.

The office is still in its infancy. Details are scarce. But many in the nonprofit world are excited by the possibilities, especially as they see other financial support drying up in the current recession. Eric Schwarz is cofounder and CEO of Citizen Schools, one of the programs the administration often touts as the kind of innovation it wants to support.

Mr. ERIC SCHWARZ (Chief Executive Officer, Citizen Schools): Emerson, the philosopher, said if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. And I think in the technology world, maybe in the mousetrap business, that’s true. In the nonprofit sector, that’s often not true.

FESSLER: In fact, he says, a nonprofit success often means that funders will pull back because they think you don’t need them anymore. His 14-year-old program now operates in 20 cities, but he’d like to expand. Citizen Schools recruits professionals to go into low income schools and work with students on what Schwarz calls hands-on learning activities, things such as designing video games and holding mock trials. He says these volunteers help kids realize that education relates to the real world. And he says it’s had demonstrable results.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Children who participated in Citizen Schools have graduated high school at dramatically higher rates, have moved on to college track high schools at much higher rates, have done better on standardized tests, done better on grades.

FESSLER: And that’s something Melody Barnes says the new White House office will take into account when deciding which programs to back. Have they already proved they can work? But that raises a concern for Allison Fine, who writes a blog about philanthropy and is a senior fellow at Demos, a liberal research and advocacy group.

Ms. ALLISON FINE (Demos): That’s not social innovation. That’s creating a small business administration for nonprofits out of the White House. It’s funding very tried and true approaches.

FESSLER: Fine says when she thinks about social innovation, she thinks about something more cutting edge than programs that have been around for 10 or 15 years.

Ms. FINE: I think about all the ways that we can engage all the brain power we have of people to share new ideas about how to address problems, you know, how to deal with hunger in their communities.

FESSLER: She thinks that might involve things such as the creative use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to raise money and help communities address their problems. Fine doubts the government is willing to take the kinds of risk needed for real innovation, so she thinks she has a better way for the Obama administration to spend $50 million to help nonprofits.

Ms. FINE: Just give the money to a food bank and be done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FESSLER: The White House says it’s not ruling out anything yet and is open to ideas. Domestic policy advisor Barnes says the government can’t address social problems by itself, that it needs to partner with creative people on the frontlines. The new office is just starting to figure out how to identify the best programs out there. She hopes the money will start flowing next year.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.