News and analysis
October 21, 2014

Social Innovation Fund Leader to Head Obama's 'My Brother's Keeper' Effort

Michael Smith

President Barack Obama has tapped Michael Smith, a foundation veteran who has led the federal Social Innovation Fund for just over a year, to head a high-profile White House effort to improve the lives of minority boys and young men.

Mr. Smith will start on October 29 as director of My Brother’s Keeper , which has attracted nearly $300-million in private support from foundations and corporations.

Melissa Bradley, chief strategy officer at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the Social Innovation Fund, will lead the fund until a replacement is found for Mr. Smith.

As the third leader of the fund since it was created in 2010, Mr. Smith has been part of the administration’s effort to draw private support for programs that help young minority males.

My Brother's Keeper sprang from a remark Mr. Obama made in July 2013 that Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager who was shot while visiting a gated community, "could have been my son." My Brother’s Keeper was launched in February with the support of 11 foundations. Since then, that number has grown to 40.

‘Expand the Tent’

A big part of his job, Mr. Smith says, will be to "expand the tent" and attract more foundations and corporations to support education and job-training programs and efforts to keep young minority males from being incarcerated.

Requirements to measure progress and evaluate programs are "baked into" the work of My Brother’s Keeper, Mr. Smith says. Relying on data to identify promising strategies for social change was a main thrust of his work at the Social Innovation Fund and as vice president for social innovation at the Case Foundation.

"I have been preaching for the past year that we need to be investing in evidence and not in isolated stories," he says.

His enthusiasm is also personal. Mr. Smith’s parents were 16 when he was born, and he lived in a "rough neighborhood" in Springfield, Mass. He said My Brother’s Keeper would "offer a hand up" and attempt to remove barriers facing children who are in similar situations.

"Far too many opportunities are seemingly out of reach in the neighborhood where I grew up," he says.

Meanwhile, Ms. Bradley, who was formerly the executive director of the Tides network, a social-change organization, says she will "attempt to keep the trains running" at the Social Innovation Fund until a replacement is found.

Grant Makers Withdraw

The Social Innovation Fund has provided $243-million in grants to intermediary organizations that try to identify promising nonprofits that are focused on economic opportunity, health and youth development. Both the intermediary grant makers and the nonprofits must match the federal funds, a requirement that has brought in an additional $540-million.

Congress has warmed to the idea. In last year’s budget deal, lawmakers increased support for the fund from $42.4-million in 2013 to $70-million.

This year, three grant makers announced they would pull out of the program after three years because, Mr. Smith says, attracting matching dollars and abiding by strict reporting rules proved difficult. Another organization, the Capital Area United Way, in Baton Rouge, La., withdrew altogether.

The approach has critics, who contend that a federal partnership with philanthropy is unlikely to unlock massive change.

Using federal grants to lure philanthropic dollars amounts to "executive-branch earmarking," according to Howard Husock, vice president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

Philanthropists, he said, prefer to "march to their own drummer" rather than following directions from the White House.

"Where’s the big success story?" he asks.

Mr. Smith says the success in the Social Innovation Fund lies in its ability to attract money to programs that measure effectiveness. He points to $12-million in Pay for Success grants awarded earlier this month that will pay nonprofits only if they achieve measurable goals.

That money, he says, will be tripled over the next six months as the nonprofits receive nonfederal matching grants.

In his absence, Mr. Smith says, the Social Innovation Fund "won’t skip a beat."

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.