As previously reported, the Corporation for National Community Service (CNCS) announced that the $50 million federal program known as the Social Innovation Fund had initiated it’s first round of grants. The Social Innovation Fund was established for the improvement of nonprofits and replication of proven nonprofit programs. The funds provided to the eleven nonprofits chosen for the first round of grants were provided specifically for venture funding.
However, the Social Innovation Fund or SIF, implemented as part of the Obama administration’s agenda to tackle social challenges through a focus on innovation, evidence, service, and cooperation between the public and private sectors, has found itself tangled in a controversy over conflict of interest and the review process for the selection of the nonprofit’s that received grants.
In the selection process for the first round of SIF grants, 48 independent individuals reviewed 54 applications for grants. Of these 48 reviewers, many expressed their surprise at some of the nonprofits selected because they had not been given the highest scores. Conflict of interest plays in when critics discovered that the executive director of the Social Innovation Fund, Paul Carttar, worked at New Profit Inc., a $5 million dollar SIF grantee. Additionally, a $4.2 million grant receiver, Local Initiatives Support Corporation or LISC, was a previous place of work for Patrick Covington, the official overseeing the Corporation for National Community Service where the SIF resides.
Firing back at critics, Marta Urquilla, SIF’s senior adviser, said that both Covington and Carttar were not involved in the grantee selection process. Defending the integrity of the fund Urquilla said, “We knew the things people are saying now would be said and we made sure each application got its fair chance and stood on its own merits.” However, information usually provided by government grant-making agencies such as who reviewed the grantee applications and what organizations applied for them has not been provided by the SIF.
Some of the grant reviewers have questioned the secrecy of the SIF selection process, especially since it is being implemented by an administration that has openly advocated for government transparency. New York University professor and federal grant reviewer, Paul C. Light says, “This is not a private, grant-making institution, it’s the federal government.”
This criticism has led the SIF to publish redacted versions of the applications from the nonprofits that were awarded grants in coming weeks and how they compare to the applications that did not win. Urquilla says, “We fully embrace open government and the trend toward greater transparency. We just want to make sure we do it in a deliberative and responsive way.” Whether or not these disclosures will satisfy the critics of the fund is yet to be seen.