Social Innovation Fund Experience Suggests Advocacy Is Needed to Move Performance-based Nonprofits Forward

A new report from The Bridgespan Group about the experience of Social Innovation Fund (SIF) subgrantees suggested that advocacy may be a needed if more resources are to be redirected to nonprofits and programs that work.

The report is based on interviews and a follow-up survey of all 197 nonprofit subgrantees (88 responded). According to the report, respondents said that evidence of effectiveness is more important to some funders than others. But if philanthropy is only slowly moving down the road toward supporting proven programs, government is even lagging further behind.

According to the report, programs like the Social Innovation Fund, Investing in Innovation (i3) program, and home visiting program at the Department of Health and Human Services are performance leaders, but they are the exception. More leadership is needed at the federal level to drive change on the front lines at the local level.

According to the report:

As one nonprofit leader observed, “Large-scale innovation in programs that are principally federally funded and constitute vastly greater resources will require attaching some level of results-driven competition to dollars that traditionally have been distributed automatically and according to input-based thinking.” So long as these traditional dynamics dominate the spending patterns of federal departments and ripple down through the state and local governments, they will crowd out the growth of results-based social innovation.

Once funding reaches the local level, this experience may be more typical:

[One] leader observed that, “Our stronger evidence base gets us to the table, especially with our summer program. But it only gets us to the table. Once we are there, the decision is still largely talked about in terms of operational constraints like price and union contracts instead of evidence of what works.” This leader went on to note that in situations where government funders have to cope with tighter budgets—an increasingly common occurrence—they don’t typically concentrate their scarcer resources on the more effective providers. Instead, “everybody gets a haircut. All providers are treated equally. It does not make a lot of sense because they are not equal in what they provide and outcomes they have for kids.” Here again it is easier for public officials to give smaller losses to all providers than to impose concentrated losses on a subset of them.

Clearly more needs to be done. The report’s authors conclude on this note:

For the movement to advance, government at all levels needs to hear back—as loudly and clearly as possible—from advocates across the social sector. In sum, there needs to be a larger and more vocal constituency to advance “what works.”

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