Special Alert – Your Feedback needed on Social Innovation Fund NOFA

Last week, the Corporation for National and Community Service released a draft Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the Social Innovation Fund. The Social Innovation Fund plans to give $50 million divided between five to seven grants to “funding intermediaries” from which possibly 200 sub-grants will be made. The funding intermediaries are required to match their grant.

Nonprofits have the opportunity to give the Corporation feedback on the NOFA and the Fund itself, supplementing what Nicola Goren, the acting CEO of the Corporation, said were the Corporation’s “conversations with hundreds of stakeholders but it will take the continued input of the public, including the leaders in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, to get this right.”

The NOFA itself poses some questions and we encourage you to examine it in full here but we also had some additional questions. Our concerns include these:

  1. On the call, CNCS chairman (and former Indianapolis Mayor) Steve Goldsmith addressed the appetite of “national funders” in providing the anticipated matching funds. But he also referred to national funders’ potential interest in “repurposing existing resources.” Should foundations that may be applying to be SIF regrantmaking intermediaries be allowed-or encouraged-to reprogram existing funds as opposed to putting up new money as matching funds for the program?
  2. According to the NOFA, “social innovation” is “the development of a potentially transformative practice or approach to meeting critical social needs.” Is this a definition that works for you? What kinds of organizations might be inadvertently excluded under some interpretations of innovation per this scheme? Note the three topical themes that the Corporation is stressing for the NOFA: economic opportunity, youth development and school support, and healthy futures.
  3. By statute, SIF intermediaries must select subgrantees on “a competitive basis” in annual amounts of no less than $100,000. But at the same time, this call and previous SIF calls have referenced the notion that some intermediaries will come with preselected subgrantees. How does “competitive basis” work with national funders that already have a predetermined slate of subgrantees selected through their own often opaque decision-making processes?
  4. As a potential example of a regrantmaking intermediary, the draft NOFA suggests the possibility of a “high-engagement philanthropy organization working with a handful of innovative community organizations in two areas: workforce development and poverty alleviation.” This sounds like a venture philanthropy fund, where the grantees are closely related if not significantly influenced by the grantmaker. Based on this and other examples of regrantmaking intermediaries, how open a subgrantee selection process does this appear likely to be?
  5. Interestingly, the draft NOFA also offers the possibility of a local government office as a regrantmaker. Do you imagine that municipal agencies will be good candidates as SIF regrantmaking intermediaries? Many certainly have experience in selecting grantees in a more open and transparent way(for example, with Community Development Block Grant funds, etc.) than foundations, but in some localities, those selections may be heavily influenced by political considerations and pressures. How do you think public agencies should be positioned in this process, or is the inclusion of public agencies a feint (to the public sector) by the Corporation to suggest that they might consider more than foundations as regrantmaking intermediaries?
  6. What do you think of the language that “no more than 5 percent of the Federal funds awarded by the Corporation may be used to pay for administrative costs” and “no more than 15 percent of the Federal funds awarded by the Corporation may be used to pay direct program costs (other than subgrants awarded) of the SIF Intermediary in carrying out its approved program?” It sounds like there’s more administrative latitude for the intermediaries than for the subgrantees.
  • Richard Herman

    Re Question 5: I would hope that local governments not be eligible as regrantmakers. The political pressures as well as funding challenges in local government will make it too tempting to appropriate these funds inappropriately.

    Re Question 6: 5% admin costs for the regranting agency is too low and would perpetuate what is already a major problem in the non-profit world of trying to take on new work without appropriate scaling up of internal capacity. At least 15% for admin costs should be allowed.

  • Michael Edwards

    Thanks for the invitation to comment on the Social Innovation Fund, though my first reaction is whether to laugh or cry

  • Sue Ellen Heflin

    The Social Innovation Fund is part of the Kennedy/Hatch Serve America Act. (Well, it was known originally as a bi-partisan Act. It’s taken on a new identity as the dream act for Senator Kennedy’s legacy. I’d like to acknowledge Senator Hatch’s role in moving this legislation forward. It’s one of the few times I’ve agreed with Senator Hatch.)

    I am perplexed that the NOFA does not even talk about the role of service as part of that desired Social Innovation. We know that CNCS is not the only agency dealing with social issues that need innovative approaches. By virtue of its place in CNCS, service ought to inform the use of these funds.

    By standards in the field of volunteering and service, these are large grants and are out of the reach of most grassroots organizations that focus on the service and volunteering aspects of creating social change. The search is for large agencies capable of regranting funds to other agencies so that they may foster the illusive Social Innovation. Large organizations do not have the corner in the market for innovation; in my cmmunity it is often smaller, nimble organizations that truly create social change models that work. However, for the purposes of the CNCS, it appears that decentralization is critical. I wonder if it is to reach out further, or because the administrative burden of the program is daunting.

    I’m not as worried as some commenters about the administration of the program as outlined in the NOFA (although it is ironic that a program to develop social innovation is so heavily reliant on established bureaucracies – nonprofit and governmental.)

    I’m more concerned that the intent be an end result that is replicable in communities across the country, that some of the Innovations address non-urban populations, and that the funded entities engage in work that is truly innovative. There is nothing in the NOFA that guarantees true innovation, I know. I’m willing to have us take a chance, but I’m eager for these Social Innovations to take into account the broad spectrum of kinds of communities and kinds of issues that truly do face communities across the country and truly do need a fresh approach.

    The time is ripe for innovation in the fields identified in the NOFA – I hope that the “national organizations” not just package their existing programs in flashy new boxes, but investigate,explore and test genuine innovation that can be put to into practice in communities of all sizes and constituencies across the country.
    If it is financial investment that brings about social innovation, this should lead us in a quantum leap.