August 09, 2010

National-Service Agency Explores More Open Grant Process

The Corporation for National and Community Service posted details Monday about the selection process for the recently awarded Social Innovation Fund grants and is exploring whether to make next year's process more open.

The agency, which has drawn criticism for declining to disclose more about how it awarded the money, also plans within the next three or four weeks to post online the 11 applications that won the $50-million in grants, the first time it has done that for any of its grant programs, senior officials said in an interview.

However, it will not release information about the groups that did not win grants, unlike the Education Department, which has posted on a Web site the names of all applicants for its Promise Neighborhoods and Investing in Innovation grants, along with their project descriptions.

The national-service agency cannot do that because it promised Social Innovation Fund applicants that they would not make unsuccessful bids public, the officials said. They said some people warned during public consultations that a more open approach might discourage some groups from applying, they added.

The agency wanted to be sure "the best of the best would apply," one official said.

However, the officials said the corporation is exploring whether elements of the Education Department's approach—a pilot project called "Open Grantmaking"—would work for its future awards. The agency plans to consider that most immediately as it prepares for its next competition—for 2011 AmeriCorps grants—but will also raise the issue when it consults with people about the 2011 Social Innovation Fund grants, they said.

"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," one official said.

Highlights of the Social Innovation Fund selection process, as detailed in the corporation's two-page summary, include:

  • The agency used 63 external reviewers, selected from a pool of more than 400 recognized experts. Most were from nonprofit groups, universities, or consulting firms.
  • The first review phase, which involved 48 outside experts and 16 corporation officials working on 16 panels, sent 31 out of 54 eligible applications to the second round.
  • The second phase, involving six panels and 12 external reviewers, winnowed applications to 16 finalists that had the strongest use of "evidence-based decision making" in the fund's priority areas.
  • In the final phase, senior corporation executives selected the 11 award winners following a daylong meeting at which three external experts provided feedback on each applicant.