News and analysis
May 27, 2010

Nearly $50-Million From Foundations Added to White House Social Innovation Fund

The White House put the Social Innovation Fund on center stage Thursday, sponsoring an event to announce that grant makers have pledged almost $50-million to support the new federal grants program for promising nonprofit groups.

"Just as the best ideas don't come from Washington alone, we believe Washington shouldn't be alone in funding them either," said First Lady Michelle Obama, who made the announcement at a White House gathering attended by a variety of philanthropic and nonprofit leaders.

Five grant makers -- the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, John and Ann Doerr's family foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Institute's Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation, and the Skoll Foundation -- have pledged a total of $45-million over two years.

That money will be available to provide matching funds for recipients of social-innovation grants or for other activities that support the program's goals of pumping private and government money into projects that are effectively tackling pressing social problems.

In addition, a coalition or more than 20 foundations and venture-philanthropy groups have agreed to spend almost $5-million over three years to broaden the impact of the Social Innovation Fund, for example by helping organizations that receive federal funds share the lessons they have learned. (See The Chronicle's previous report on the coalition.)

'Community-Based Solutions'

The Council on Foundations also released a letter, timed for the event, signed by 140 community foundations that endorsed the Social Innovation Fund "as a tool to find and invest in more community-based solutions."

Community foundations -- along with United Ways, private foundations, and venture-philanthropy groups -- are among the organizations that have applied for money from the $50 million fund.

The Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates the program, plans to award grants in July to "intermediary" grant makers, which will in turn award money to nonprofit groups with proven results in the areas of economic opportunity, youth development, and healthy habits. Both the grant makers and the nonprofit groups must provide matching funds.

Paul L. Carttar, director of the Social Innovation Fund, said in an interview that the new financial commitments are an encouraging sign that the federal program is meeting one of its key goals.

"The [fund] is not about doing it by itself," he said. "It's about being the catalyst for the collaboration of a lot of different parties at a lot of different levels who want the same ambition of improving American communities -- and have different capabilities, assets, or resources to bring to bear."

New Models

Ms. Obama praised three nonprofit groups during her presentation -- the Building Educated Leaders for Life, in Boston; the Family Independence Initiative, an antipoverty group in San Francisco; and J.U.I.C.E., a group that promotes health education and exercise in urban St. Louis.

The first lady said the Social Innovation Fund could create a "powerful new model" for overcoming the country's social problems, and she hopes it will outlast the Obama administration. She also encouraged other philanthropists to step forward. "We want to grow this thing," she said, "so talk to your friends. We need to get this done."

A fact sheet about the philanthropic commitments is available on the national-service agency's Web site.