Last week the Nonprofit Quarterly issued a call for transparency at the Social Innovation Fund and yesterday the SIF issued an answer to that call, albeit one that still falls short of the openness that the Obama Administration promised to observe.

NPQ wants to be clear that it is not arguing with any of the choices of the Fund on grounds of quality but it is concerned whether or not SIF can demonstrate that no pre-existing relationships sullied the high profile grantee selection process.

First the facts:

  • Two weeks ago, the Corporation for National and Community Service announced the 11 winners of Social Innovation Fund grants, with little information about the grant winners, and no information about the also-rans or about the ratings that the winners and losers had received from panels of anonymous outside experts that the Corporation had declared it would rely on in making its grant awards.
  • The Social innovation Fund has been much heralded as an important indicator of an “evidence based practice” approach that would be more widely pursued by the Obama Administration in its dealing with nonprofits. This makes transparency important as a symbol as well as for anything we might learn from the process.
  • One of the 11 grantees of the Fund in 2010, New Profit, is an organization with which the director of the SIF, Paul Carttar, has had close ties. Upon taking on the role at the Fund, he signed a Conflict of Interest waiver due to those ties. This creates circumstances that heighten the need for transparency.

The Corporation’s response (PDF) yesterday explained for the first time in detail its many-layered process—which, according to our sources, even the expert panelists appear not to have understood. This process had successively fewer and fewer outside experts involved in decision-making as the process progressed.  Unfortunately SIF’s disclosure is still without any specific information on the applications or the ratings or reviewers. An unnamed representative told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that it plans to publish the applications of the 11 winning applicants in “three or four weeks” and that this is the first time the corporation has ever taken this step.

The Corporation spokesperson also told the Chronicle that the Corporation had promised not to make the losing bids or even the names of the bidders public, because “some people” warned during “public consultations” that an open process “might discourage some groups from applying.”  The spokesperson said that the Corporation was aiming to ensure that “the best of the best would apply” by keeping names secret. NPQ finds this statement a bit confounding—is the implication here that the “best of the best” dislike openness and transparency?

For its next round, the SIF says it will “consider” adopting part of the Education Department’s “Open Grantmaking” pilot process.  According to the spokesperson, “What we’re definitely committed to is openly considering additional opportunities for transparency, ensuring that our stakeholders are consulted in the process, and if we decide to go in a new direction, making sure we do so on advance notice.”

How did the process of social innovation as promoted by a federal government committed to being the most open and transparent in our nation’s history turn into a restricted access, need to know, hush-hush operation?

NPQ believes that the Social Innovation Fund must fully enter into the sunlight to ensure its own credibility and power. It is good that CNCS has taken these baby steps by making its process transparent but the disclosure to date simply extends and embellishes a “trust me” situation. Again, NPQ must urge SIF to release the ratings of its panelists and the full range of original applications to the Fund.