Operating as a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a U.S. federal agency, the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) holds annual grant competitions to match federal dollars with money from foundations and other private sources, providing funding for non-profit programs targeting youth development, economic opportunity and health promotion.
SIF calculates that it has brought together $340 million in “federal investments” with “$672 million in nonfederal and private sector match commitments” through its grant competitions since inception.
The SIF was formally created when President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in law on April 1, 2009.
On April 7, 2010, Paul Carttar was named as SIF’s Director.
In May 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that five foundations had committed matching grants totaling $45 million to match SIF’s grants. They were: the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation; the Omidyar Network; the Skoll Foundation; George Soros’ Open Society Institute; and the Benificus Foundation.
Controversy Over 2010 Grantees
One of the SIF reviewers, New York University professor Paul Light, described SIF’s refusal to disclose more information as “stonewalling,” adding that “SIF is not a secret agency and these are not national security grants.”
Light noted that one organization, which he did not name, won a grant even though it received a low rating from his panel in the first round of the application process. He observed that the group had engaged in “an impressive lobbying effort.” However, in Light’s opinion the applicant provided insufficient information, “showed serious weaknesses in its capacity to manage federal dollars, and submitted meager assurances on cost-effectiveness and budget accuracy. I have no idea how this applicant reached the winner’s circle.”
SIF officials posted online the complete applications received from the 11 winning organizations. It also released the names of all 43 grant applicants and the 63 reviewers.
Light’s remarks were subsequently interpreted as criticism of New Profit, a youth-development-focused nonprofit based in Cambridge, MA, that received $5 million from SIF. The SIF grant helped New Profit launch the Pathways Fund, which furthered New Profit’s efforts to help low-income youth make the transition from school to the workforce.
News reports indicated that Paul Carttar, SIF’s Director, who recused himself from the selection process, had been a partner at New Profit. New Profit founder Vanessa Kirsch subsequently denied that SIF had ever asked her organization “to resubmit or strengthen its application in any way.”
An October 2009 American Prospect article on SIF documents Kirsch’s ties with President Obama and the First Lady, noting that “both Barack and Michelle Obama go way back with Kirsch. Barack served on the founding advisory board of Public Allies, nonprofit Kirsch co-founded in Washington, D.C., in 1992, with the goal of directing low-income teens toward public-service careers. In 1993, Michelle [Obama] left her corporate law firm job to found a Public Allies branch in Chicago and later joined the organization’s board of directors.”
Proposals for Elimination
President Donald Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget request to Congress, as acknowledged in a CNCS statement, proposes CNCS’s elimination in FY 2018.