Social Innovation or Inherent Irrelevancy?

By Gina LaCerva

These days, it seems as though the White House is most adept at creating new offices. One such office, the newly minted White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, is causing quite the stir in the non-profit sector. But does it have the potential to create long-lasting transformation progress or will the associated bureaucracy confine it to small incremental change?

The goal of the office is to help "innovative, successful nonprofits expand their reach" by investing "at least $360 million over the next five years". In particular, the fund would like to focus on poverty reduction, economic development, and health, education and programming for children and teenagers. Each of the chosen organizations will receive a minimum of $100,000 annually, as well as the prestige associated with being involved in the fund, a factor that may help these organizations raise more funding from private donors and other philanthropy organizations. The fund will be administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a government run, public-private partnership, currently responsible for such programs as AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, both of which are relatively successful. The corporation is the self-described "nation's largest grantmaker supporting service and volunteering" and is responsible for playing "a vital role in supporting the American culture of citizenship, service and responsibility."

Given the current state of the economy, this office has the potential to fill critical gaps in funding that many non-profits have faced as they try to scale back operations and fix gaping budgetary holes. However, given the scope of needy organizations, and the relatively small amount of money this fund has to allocate ($50 million in its first year, although the House appropriators have so far only allocated $35 million), the Office of Social Innovation may prove to be nothing more than a good marketing slogan for an administration that must continually charm their grassroots supporters without straying too far off the "business-as-usual" path. Moreover, the complex funding structure and the requirement that recipients raise matching funds could mean that smaller organizations (where the funds could have a larger impact) are over-looked, and larger more established groups are unintentionally favored. As a result, this office may further build barriers to access rather than support the multitude of grass-roots efforts that daily sprout up all over the country.

With all the challenges and complexities associated with this new office, it is no wonder that there will continue to be controversy surrounding the project. The fund is focused on organizations that hold promise of transformational progress, not just incremental change. But who is to determine how best to create this progress and what is the criteria to determine which organizations have the most potential? How are we to gauge that positive change is occurring, that this funding is having any measurable impact? Do small injections of funding to critical non-profits really make a difference in communities? Given that there are so many organizations with needs and not nearly enough money to go around, the real question may be, does the standard philanthropic model even work?

Perhaps what is more promising than the creation of the office itself, is the momentum that prompted its formation. It has the full support of the President and the First Lady, which makes sense given their backgrounds as community organizers. Furthermore, the fund is a testament to the increasing mind-set of civic leaders: one that is focused on service, community engagement, and capacity building. The mere creation of such an office has produced an opportunity for dialogue about how we define, grow, and support social change. The non-profit sector is changing in leaps and bounds, in part as a survival response to the recession, and in ways inventive and surprising. We are in an age of social networking, crowd-sourced media, and micro-funding campaigns, a time when people are starting non-profits sitting on the couch in their pajamas. Despite being tied up in pretty bows of bureaucracy, it will be important for this new white house organization to rewrite how we define "social innovation" or it faces the potential of quickly becoming irrelevant.

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Twitter Post:

Does a gov. dept. w/ an old model of non-profit funding deserve the title of Office of Social Innovation?

Gina LaCerva studied geology and geography in college and has come to realize that she is terribly interested in the interactions between people and the environment. She has worked in the non-profit sector, for government environmental agencies, as a scientist, and most recently in the green building industry as the Director of Sustainability for a national commercial real estate company. She is particularly excited about the possibility of leveraging policy and business to achieve environmental goals.

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