CNCS Unveils Guidelines for Social Innovation Grants

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Long-awaited funding guidelines for the new $50 million Social Innovation Fund were announced Tuesday by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), whose interim board chair, Stephen Goldsmith, tried to explain just how much experience might be needed to qualify for some of the money.

Although the fund is focused on innovation, the Obama administration’s emphasis on evidence-based programs leaves CNCS the task of trying to divine which unproven innovative programs look promising and which already established programs are worth backing for replication or expansion.

Goldsmith said the fund is moving into “uncharted territory,” because it is not dictating solutions to problems, as previous federal initiatives have done. Instead, CNCS is asking organizations to come up with solutions.

“We need evidence that the money we are putting out there in the [Social Innovation Fund] is making a difference,” Goldsmith said.

The Social Innovation Fund grants, which require matching on a three-to-one basis, will be concentrated in three areas, CNCS said:

  • Economic Opportunity – Increasing economic opportunities for economically disadvantaged individuals.
  • Youth Development and School Support – Preparing youth for success in school, active citizenship, productive work, and healthy and safe lives.
  • Healthy Futures – Promoting healthy lifestyles and reducing the risk factors that can lead to illness.

The latter group seems to include programs that would further first lady Michelle Obama’s program to fight childhood obesity.

The $50 million will be awarded to social intermediaries in sums from $1 million to $10 million for this, the initial year of funding.  CNCS says it expects to fund as many as seven programs over a wide geographical area. The deadline for applications is April 8; awards will be announced in July.

Programs will be eligible for funding for from three to five years, with the later grant amounts dependent upon the success of the efforts and the amount of congressional appropriations.  The fund is a product of the Kennedy Serve America Act, passed last year.

Marta Urquilla, CNCS senior advisor for social innovation, said the corporation received more than 200 comments on its proposed notice of availability of funds, and cited several changes because of them.

For example, CNCS had proposed to give preference to intermediaries that already had subgrantees lined up. Now, however, all intermediaries will have to hold competitions to choose the subgrantees that will carry out the programs. Also, Urquilla said the minimum size of grants was reduced from $5 million to $1 million in an attempt to entice participation by smaller intermediaries, especially those in rural areas.

She and Goldsmith tried repeatedly to explain the evidence-based requirements of the programs, noting that many smaller programs may only have plans for programs with “preliminary evidence” that they would work.  Urquilla said the goal of the program is to move those programs into having “strong evidence” of effectiveness.

Still, Goldsmith admitted that not every program will be successful, and that is the cost of being experimental. “We are betting on innovation,” he said.

For the Social Innovations Program’s Notice of Availability of Funds, click here.