Report: Social Innovation Fund’s Early Results Are Promising

The Social Innovation Fund, an Obama administration initiative that funds promising community-based programs and subjects them to rigorous evaluations to determine their impact, has produced five project evaluations with positive, evidence-based findings, according to a report released today by the Social Innovation Research Center.

Enacted in 2009 as part of the Serve America Act, the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) is a centerpiece of a broader White House evidence agenda that would tie funding for social programs to results.

The report released today is based on a review of final and interim project reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, interviews with current and former Social Innovation Fund staff, interviews with 17 of 20 grantmaking intermediaries from the first three years of the program, and interviews with several national experts in evaluation and philanthropy.

Promising Early Results

The five evaluated projects highlighted in the report cover a range of issues including early childhood reading, childhood obesity, low-income savings plans, social enterprise employment, and workforce development. They are:

The projects were evaluated by third-party firms such as MDRC and Mathematica Policy Research using a range of study designs that were rated as either moderate or strong in their rigor by the evaluation staff of the Social Innovation Fund.

Two, Reading Partners and SaveUSA, involved randomized controlled trials, often referred to as the “gold standard” of evidence and typically the most expensive form of evaluation. Of the five, the study of the Reading Partners initiative, which used volunteer tutors to provide literacy training for elementary school students, was the strongest in terms of rigor and reported results.

Caution should be taken with respect to some of the findings, particularly those that are rated as only moderate in their evaluation rigor.  Other final evaluations not reported above include a range of preliminary evidence and mixed results.

These early results are a promising first step. The studies are the first in a pipeline of evaluations that will roll out over the coming months and years.  These results may complement related efforts, such as the development of social impact bonds, which often rely upon evidence-based interventions in their design.

Other Findings

  • High-capacity Nonprofits:  Nonprofits with greater resources and capacities in areas such as performance management and evaluation were substantially more likely to produce positive results. The report found repeated instances where nonprofit capacity and resources spelled the difference between failure and success.
  • Grantmaking Intermediaries:  The program’s reliance on grantmaking intermediaries, a strategy rooted in the concept of venture philanthropy, appears to have played a central role. The grantmaking intermediaries conducted due diligence before selecting their subgrantees and then further invested in their capacities over time.  The program also heightened the capacity of the intermediaries themselves.
  • Federal Role: Federal resources and oversight of evaluations appear to have played a critical role in ensuring evaluation quality and independence.

The report also identified several areas for program improvement.

  • Matching Requirements: High financial matching requirements appear to have caused some projects to be underfunded, particularly those in small regional settings that are philanthropically underserved. As currently designed, the matching requirements also appear to discourage funding from public sources, such as federal, state and local governments, which may be the best source for sustainable support after SIF funding ends.
  • Regulations: Regulatory requirements, most of which are common to most federal grants, have been overly burdensome and should be reduced.
  • Transparency: The intermediary grantmaking process should be made more transparent.
  • Knowledge Dissemination: The program’s efforts to disseminate knowledge and lessons learned should be expanded.
  • Impact on Philanthropy: The program’s impact on philanthropy as a whole has so far been small, although it has had a very significant impact on participating grantmakers and subgrantees, particularly with respect their evaluation capabilities and other related capacities.

See the Full Report.

Media Coverage / Discussion

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