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May 22, 2017

Three lessons from the Social Innovation Fund to improve federal grantmaking

May 23, 2017

Buried in the recent budget deal to keep the federal government open through September was an obituary for the small but notable Social Innovation Fund (SIF).

Although the SIF’s death represents a blow to evidence-based policymaking, the SIF’s best elements can live on in other areas of federal grantmaking.

What was the SIF?

Housed in the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the SIF was part of a portfolio of evidence-based programs that garnered bipartisan support. The initiative awarded grants to fund local programs addressing economic opportunity, health, and youth development challenges facing communities, as well as efforts to develop pay for success projects, such as funding to address administrative data issues.

The SIF has awarded over 50 grants to grantmaking institutions to support nearly 500 nonprofits in 46 states and the District of Columbia. (The Urban Institute received a grant from the CNCS to deliver technical assistance and data access support to pay for success projects.)

What was different about the SIF?

The SIF’s focus on identifying, validating, and growing promising approaches and “finding what works and making it work for more people” represents a more holistic approach to program development than most federal grantmaking for several reasons:

  • Focus on evaluation. Instead of assuming the programs selected for investment would work, the SIF required rigorous program evaluation of all subgrantees. One report found that “significant oversight activity by SIF helped ensure evaluation quality and evaluator independence” in dozens of SIF-supported evaluations.
    By engaging different partners in research, the initiative encouraged the development of a culture of evaluation. The more we can learn about program efficacy through research, the more we can target scarce public dollars on what works and improve (or end) what does not.  
  • Encourage public-private partnership. The SIF’s structure was built on the foundation of strong public-private partnerships. The CNCS selected external intermediaries, such as the Nonprofit Finance Fund and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, with long track records of working with strong nonprofits to identify and select promising “subgrantee” programs.
    In this arrangement, the subgrantees received federal dollars for programmatic support and technical assistance and for capacity-building support from the intermediaries to deliver and evaluate their programs.
  • Employ tiered-evidence grantmaking. Like other innovative federal programs, the SIF employed a tiered-evidence grantmaking structure. Programs that applied for funding had to demonstrate the initial evidence base of their effectiveness through past evaluation results.
    More importantly, programs had to describe how they would build additional evidence through future rigorous evaluation. The SIF sought to support programs from different tiers of evidence to build a broader pipeline of evidence-based programs.
  • Match federal resources. Unlike most federal programs, the SIF required significant matched resources from the intermediaries and the subgrantees. Every dollar of federal funding in the SIF garnered approximately two dollars in nonfederal funds, resulting in $341 million in federal grants and more than $672 million in non-federal match commitments.

How the SIF’s aims can live on elsewhere

Three takeaways are especially relevant:

  1. Evaluation is a team sport. The earlier you incorporate considerations of research design into federal grantmaking, the greater the likelihood that programs will develop strong evaluations and produce research useful to both policymakers and programmatic leaders.
    Agencies should seek out opportunities to build research agendas and consider how best to support those agendas at the policy, regulatory, and program levels. For example, each operating agency in the US Department of Labor is required to create a five-year learning agenda, which gets updated every year, and highlight key research questions and priority studies for the coming years.
  2. Think long term about evidence building. Research on a program or policy should not end with one evaluation. Agencies should consider every evaluation as a contribution to the knowledge base for a social program and try to move programs up the evidence continuum through more rigorous testing like low-cost randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies.
    Applying models of tiered-evidence grantmaking like the SIF and the US Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research grant program to new areas could support evidence building in new areas.
  3. Develop resource multipliers. In an era when discretionary funding may be under siege, finding strategic ways to leverage federal dollars with philanthropic support can bolster resources for promising programs. Further, bringing nongovernment partners to the table can increase interest in a program’s long-term success.

Although we may pour out a little liquor to mourn the SIF’s passing, we should seek out ways to ensure its spirit lives on.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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