Scaling Community Solutions: Reflecting on the Social Innovation Fund With Paul Carttar

In the face of continuing cutbacks from government austerity measures and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget driving conversations about funding "what works," many nonprofits and their grantmaker partners are exploring ways to increase their impact and most effectively invest their resources in communities.

Over the last three years, we at GEO have been monitoring the Social Innovation Fund, a new government program with a strong emphasis on public/private partnership and gathering and understanding evidence of "what works." The Social Innovation Fund works through a series of private grantmaker intermediaries to source and support effective community-based solutions. These grantmakers select nonprofits with significant evidence of their success and provide them with grants and capacity building support.

To learn more about the structure of the Social Innovation Fund and its unique role in matching public resources with the additional resources and community expertise of private funders, please watch this video.

Through GEO's Scaling What Works initiative we have been tracking and sharing what grantmakers are learning from the Social Innovation Fund and other such experiments in public/private partnerships. I recently spoke with Paul Carttar, the former Director of the Social Innovation Fund, about his reflections and what he learned during the course of his tenure.

In talking about the benefits and challenges of working with government, Paul shared:

"The government can be a very challenging partner. Yet, there are some things that the government represents that can be really hard to duplicate. The government has some real advantages in terms of access and resources. The connection to a national agenda is an enormously important opportunity for private grantmakers to leverage their work to be part of something bigger than themselves. It helps them to realize impacts far broader than they could realize just operating on their own. The challenge for everybody -- for government and for philanthropy -- is to understand what each has to offer."

In its early years, the Social Innovation Fund has focused on the role it is best positioned to play. Designed to show the power of evidence-based funding, the Social Innovation Fund recognizes that others are better positioned to find and support high-performing local nonprofits and relies on the expertise of other grantmakers to do just that. Yet collaborative work is often quite hard and requires an organizational culture shift. Paul shared:

"We explicitly did not want to act like the government, at least in the negative ways attached to that label. We wanted to work collaboratively with grantees and subgrantees. We wanted to take account of their concerns and make sure that we're providing the best possible support and resources to them. We hoped to accept criticism, to make adjustments and to be brutally honest about what's working and what's not working."

Another fundamental of the Social Innovation Fund is its focus on evidence of "what works," a focus that has brought clarity to the reason to scale. Again, here's Paul:

"There's no doubt that what we care most about is expanding the benefits or the effect of a good intervention. For the most part, the attention and the context of scaling is not to expand the means of production, but the effects and outcomes that are produced."

The U.S. Soccer Foundation is one example of a Social Innovation Fund intermediary that is successfully using data to understand and grow its impact. The foundation's anti-obesity campaign for low-income, minority youth in urban areas combines soccer with nutritional counseling and family education in better eating habits. According to Paul:

"What's particularly exciting about this is that the U.S. Soccer Foundation has a good body of evidence that indicates that this will be successful. As they continue to validate this model there's potential not only for scaling it around soccer but also the possibility that the nutritional and other anti-obesity components of the program could be effectively integrated into other forms of exercise."

Like U.S. Soccer's work, the Social Innovation Fund is ultimately concerned with behavior change. Paul shared:

"I think the SIF, most powerfully, is a demonstration of an alternative way of making federal grants. It's an open, competitive process to find absolutely the best organizations based on evidence of their impact. Ultimately, the most powerful applications of those processes are inside the other [federal] agencies. However there are a lot of vested interests in the status quo, and a lot of obstacles to changing behaviors in a way that would represent success for the Social Innovation Fund. Those take leadership to overcome."

I thank Paul for sharing his reflections with us and for the open way he approached challenges and received feedback during his leadership of the Social Innovation Fund. There is a great deal that we have yet to learn from the experience of the SIF, and I look forward to continuing to glean lessons learned through GEO's Scaling What Works initiative.