Two Obama administration evidence-based programs whose funding had been targeted for elimination by congressional Republicans survived, although perhaps barely, in a final budget deal struck between Congress and the president Tuesday night. The package is expected to be passed by Congress and signed into law in the coming days.
Funding for the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) was reduced from $70 million to $50 million in the final package (bill text), although provisions that allow SIF to set aside up to 20 percent of its funding for pay-for-success projects were retained.
Funding for SIF was cut even though funding for the portion of the bill covering health, education, and labor programs was increased by $5.4 billion. Funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service, of which SIF is part, was also increased.
The bill covers the rest of the fiscal year, which ends next September 30. SIF’s new funding may be enough to maintain existing projects, but it may not be sufficient for additional grants in the coming year.
There was better news for the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which was level-funded at $120 million. The funding sets up what looks like a smooth transition to a new program that will come on line next year. The new Education Innovation and Research program, which will replace i3, was adopted as part of education legislation that President Obama signed into law earlier this month. The newly created program is only authorized at about $70 million starting in the next fiscal year, but advocates have expressed hope that they might be able to win an increase.
Another initiative, Performance Partnership Pilots (P3), was also maintained at existing levels. An initial round of nine projects was announced in late October. The legislation authorizes another ten projects in the coming year.
Congress also maintained or slightly increased funding for a variety of evidence-based pregnancy prevention programs, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
SIF’s National Assessment Rolls Out
The spending cuts for the Social Innovation Fund come just as reports from its national assessment are beginning to emerge. Two reports from the program’s evaluator, ICF International, were released earlier this month and both reinforced conclusions reached by SIRC’s own analysis, which was released over the summer.
One report, a review of subgrantee evaluations, found a wide range of evaluation results spanning from strong to weak. Like SIRC’s report, it also found that smaller regional grantmakers and their subgrantees faced the largest challenges due to constrained resources and low evaluation budgets. According to the report, none of this category of subgrantees has yet achieved a moderate or strong level of evidence in their evaluations.
A second report focused on capacity building, a strength of the SIF program. The report found that the capacity of SIF grantees improved on nearly every measure, but the greatest improvements were in evaluation — an unsurprising conclusion considering the woeful state of evaluation in the nonprofit sector more generally.
Both reports were a bit light on criticism. Neither significantly touched on intermediary transparency or the program’s burdensome match requirements, which were a major cause of funding shortfalls and evaluation problems for smaller, regional projects.
The reports also missed one of SIF’s critical program strengths: its oversight of local evaluations. Given that grantees and subgrantees were hiring their own evaluators, creating a potential conflict, such oversight is critical for ensuring evaluation credibility.
Although the two reports cast SIF in a generally favorable light, this year’s funding cuts suggest that the program’s future remains in doubt. Unless the program can find a way to win over congressional Republicans, its fate may depend less on its own effectiveness than on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
- Washington Post, Congress Passes Budget Deal and Heads Home for the Year (December 18, 2015)