by Howard Husock,
A White House program blurs the line between
government action and private charity.
In 2009, the Obama administration established a new initiative, the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), saying that it would “scale up” existing programs for the poor in three areas—“economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development.” The fund’s novelty was the way that it would “scale up” these programs. The White House would choose an assortment of “intermediary grant making organizations,” such as foundations, which would in turn identify worthy grant recipients. Those recipients would get money from both the government and the intermediaries, and they would also pledge to raise enough money from private donors to match the total that they had received.
So far, the private donors aren’t cooperating. They’ve provided just 40 percent of the $350 million that the SIF projected. Only 31 percent of the grant recipients listed on the fund’s website report having raised their matching funds—even as the nation’s private donors increased their overall charitable giving in 2011 to $298 billion.
The donors’ reluctance to participate in the SIF isn’t so surprising. For one thing, the fund’s mission statement implies that it funds a small number of promising new nonprofits that are based on inventive concepts. In reality, though, dozens of organizations—in 33 states and 100 cities—have received grants, and they include many long-established social-services organizations and even government agencies, such as public-housing authorities and public television. Indeed, the fund’s bureaucratic hurdles, including an evaluation procedure with an 80-page instruction form, likely favor these entrenched groups. It’s hard for potential donors who had read the exciting mission statement to avoid concluding that the SIF is essentially a grab bag of standard social-services grants that public officials and organizations would like to take credit for.
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