August 27, 2010

What's Next for the Social Innovation Fund?

While the controversy about the Social Innovation Fund's process for selecting its first round of grantees seems to be winding down, nonprofit social-media circles continue to buzz about the fund's future and the potential damage caused by the dispute.

The Social Innovation Fund represents an important experiment in the way government interacts with the nonprofit world, but it's in danger of being worn down before it even gets started, the victim of overanalysis by the people who should be most supportive, Nell Edgington, a nonprofit consultant, writes on her blog.

"If we don't give the government some space to actually innovate, they may never go down this road again," she writes. "Instead of beating innovation to death, let's get out of our own way and see where this goes."

Not everyone, however, agreed that the time for talk was over. On Wednesday afternoon, a one-hour Twitter debate generated more than 300 posts.

That both government and nonprofits need to accept failure and learn from it was one of the most important points discussed, Geri Stengel, a nonprofit consultant who served as a SIF reviewer, wrote in her summary of the debate.

The consensus among participants was that 60 percent of the fund's grants need to be home runs for the fund to succeed, writes Ms. Stengel. But she worries that the larger field won't see it that way.

"But for nonprofits and the people who fund them, success is required every time," she writes. "Unrealistic. And continuing this fantasy means any failure will call into question the whole idea of SIF and private/public partnerships, even if some are very successful."

(For the stout of heart, a complete transcript of the Twitter debate is available online.)

Looking ahead, the next subject of debate will probably be the selection of the nonprofits that will carry out the work by the winners and how they perform, Matt Klein, executive director of the Blue Ridge Foundation New York, writes on his blog.

"The premise of SIF is that a public/private partnership can identify what works better than traditional government funding streams," he writes. "That premise will be put to the test as observers reflect on what subgrantees accomplish and ask the key question: Did they outperform other approaches aimed at similar social problems that currently receive significant public dollars?"

Mr. Klein predicts that the answers to that and other questions may not always be clear but that the discussions they prompt will be important for the nonprofit world.

"Hopefully the debate can get beyond a binary 'it worked / it didn't work' argument," he writes, "and serve the sector by articulating the under-appreciated complexity of 'impact' and delineating more nuanced ways to assess it."

And to help everyone keep up with the commentary on the Social Innovation Fund, two nonprofit bloggers, Jeff Raderstrong and Adin Miller, have compiled an extensive anthology of articles and blog posts about the Social Innovation Fund dating back to May 2009.