• October 31, 2014

President Obama Seeks the 'Most-Promising Nonprofits in America'

Note: The White House has clarified some details about the timing of the Social Innovation Fund grants and the purpose of the president’s travels. See The Chronicle’s update.

President Obama announced today that White House officials will travel across the country to find “the most promising nonprofits in America” as the administration decides how to spend a new $50-million fund to help charities expand innovative social projects.

Surrounded by more than 100 philanthropic leaders in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama said he was glad there were some “deep pockets” in the audience, as he also wants corporations and foundations to chip in to help the administration create a “new kind of partnership between government and the nonprofit sector.”

“Our nonprofits can provide the solutions,” he said. “Our government can rigorously evaluate these solutions and invest limited taxpayer dollars in ones that work.” But, he said, private donors are needed to provide seed capital, matching funds, and strategic advice.

“If we work together, if we go all-in here, think about the difference we can make,” he said.

‘Grass-Roots’ Innovation

President Obama spoke after representatives of four nonprofit groups — Bonnie CLAC (Car Loans and Counseling), Harlem Children’s Zone, Genesys Works, and HopeLab — described their projects.

He said those groups showed that “solutions to America’s challenges are being developed every day at the grass roots — and government shouldn’t be supplanting those efforts, it should be supporting those efforts.”

The $50-million Social Innovation Fund, managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service, was created by the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which was signed into law this spring. (It is still waiting a formal Congressional decision to appropriate the money.)

Mr. Obama said Melody Barnes, his domestic-policy adviser, and members of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation would fan out to every region in the country to search for grant candidates.

“We won’t just be seeking the programs that everybody already knows about, but we also want to find those hidden gems that haven’t yet gotten the attention they deserve,” he said.

The president said the administration would apply this “new way of doing business” across the government, citing two examples: the Education Department’s $650-million “What Works” fund and a new project by the Health and Human Services Department to send nurses and other professionals into the homes of troubled families, which is seeking programs with “the strongest record of success.”

In the Spotlight

The nonprofit representatives who spoke included:

Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone, an antipoverty group that provides a comprehensive set of educational, medical, and social services in a 100-block area of Harlem. President Obama has proposed developing “promise neighborhoods” across the country modeled after the Harlem project. Mr. Canada told the group that Mr. Obama’s approach to government grants meant nonprofit groups would be held accountable for results. “If we don’t do a good job, we shouldn’t get the money.” (Read an article from the Chronicle’s archive about Mr. Canada.) Robert Chambers, founder of Bonnie CLAC, in New Hampshire, which provides low-interest car loans and financial-literacy training to low-income buyers. Mr. Chambers in 2006 won a $10,000 Purpose Prize, an award sponsored by the nonprofit group Civic Ventures that honors people age 60 and above who devise innovative ways to help society. Bonnie CLAC has since expanded from one to eight locations in New Hampshire. He told the audience he has heard from people in 42 states who are interested in setting up groups like his. (Read an article from the Chronicle archive about Mr. Chambers.) Vanessa Nunez, 19, a graduate of a training program offered by Genesys Works, in Houston and St. Paul, which prepares economically disadvantaged high-school students for professional jobs. Ms. Nunez, who just finished her freshman year in college, said the program taught her she could succeed in the corporate world, “a world I never imagined I could be a part of.” Pat Christen, president of HopeLab, in Redwood City, Calif., which uses scientific research to develop technology to help children with chronic illnesses, and Richard Ross, 12, one of the group’s “kid testers.” Richard described how he is competing with his sister as he tests out a new anti-obesity product called gDitty, a gadget that awards points to kids for physical activity. “I ended up whupping her,” he said of a recent competition. (Read more about Pam Omidyar, who helped found HopeLab, in an article from the Chronicle’s archive.)

President Obama also praised the work of two other nonprofit leaders in the audience — Jim McCorkill, of Admission Possible, in St. Paul, which helps young people from low-income families attend college; and Alfa Demmellash, of Rising Tide Capital, in Jersey City, N.J., which helps small-scale entrepreneurs, many of them single mothers, get loans, run their businesses, and improve their profit margins.

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