Year Two for the Social Innovation Fund: Fewer Applicants, Less Money, More United Way

August 9, 2011; Source: Miller-McCune.com | The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has announced its second round of Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grantees. Five new organizations join the original 11 SIF grantees from 2010 to form an elite group of nonprofits charged with leveraging public-sector investments to scale up effective programs that address the root causes of tough social issues such as child poverty. The types of organizations and activities that received funding, the amount of that funding, and a more transparent CNCS all reveal emerging trends about the program’s future trajectory.

Due to federal budget cuts, 2011 funding amounts are significantly lower than in 2010. The five new grantees will receive a total of $13.9 million from SIF over the next two years, or an average of $1.39 million per year for each organization. By contrast, in 2010 the first-round grantees received $3.73 million for their first-year implementation work (this figure disregards as an outlier the large $10 million first-year award to the Edna Clark McConnell Foundation).

While $1.39 million per year is still nothing to scoff at, the pool of applicants was noticeably smaller for the second round of funding. The diversity of organization types in the applicant pool was also narrower. There were 18 applicants who met the initial compliance screening requirements for 2011 funding, compared with 54 for the first funding round. United Way dominated the 2011 applicant pool, representing half of the 18 eligible applicants. In 2010 by contrast, United Ways comprised only 13 percent of eligible applicants. Clearly, the SIF model is gaining attention from the United Way network, and that attention has been rewarded: three United Ways have received grant awards to date.

In terms of project focus, the emphasis for SIF funding has shifted from workforce readiness / job development to health. The target population has also shifted, from “youth” (adolescents and young adults) to children. In terms of project activity, “integration of services” continues to be the dominant innovation strategy.

Finally, one big shift has been increased transparency about CNCS’s proposal review process (PDF). For example, we now have information about the applicant pool because CNCS has responded to criticisms in this area.

Still, the jury is still out on whether SIF is truly fostering hotbeds of innovation. Given its approach toward innovation (replicating proven ideas instead of seeding new ones) and its high matching-funds requirement (2:1), it is possible that the program will prove to be most accessible to those organizations that are already on the radar of major institutional funders. Given what you know about the funded projects, do you think they are really unique and innovative?—Kathi Jaworski