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the next SIF “controversy”

Over the weekend a kerfuffle surrounding the Social Innovation Fund rose and fell.  Sean Stannard-Stockton, as usual, provides a good breakdown.

This won’t be the last time that SIF decisions, operations, and results are subject to critique.  So what’s next?

The issue likely to generate the most debate, and the one that has the most  meaningful implications, will be whether the sub-grantees selected by SIF intermediaries deliver impact.  The premise of SIF is that a public/private partnership can identify what works better than traditional government funding streams.  That premise will be put to the test as observers reflect on what sub-grantees accomplish and ask the key question: did they outperform other approaches aimed at similar social problems that currently receive significant public dollars?

We can predict that many answers will be offered, and that they will shade in ways that favor the entity doing the answering.  Intermediaries (including Blue Ridge, as part of the intermediary collaboration lead by New Profit) have the incentive to trumpet the successes of groups they select in order to bolster their own reputations for making insightful investments and offering valuable capacity-building.   SIF itself is hoping for tangible impact to cite in seeking re-authorization from Congress — but surely is committed to sharing at least some disappointments and lessons as well.  Researchers and academics will look to raise their profiles through analysis that challenge claims made by grantee evaluators and others.  And, of course, critics of all social spending will seek to undermine the program by arguing that “nothing worked.”

The fact is that many of the answers about impact will be unclear; the debates will not have easy resolution.  Why not?  A few reasons, at least: the challenge of demonstrating impact in less than a year; the difficulty of defining and measuring impact and establishing relevant comparable benchmarks; the technical debates that can accompany any evaluation.

Although the coming debates may not provide many clear answers (though perhaps there will be some), they can serve a very useful function regardless.  They can bring attention to the key questions.  SIF fits into a broad interest in a “more rational social / nonprofit capital market,” a concept that is simple in theory (clear metrics; money follows performance; lower cost to raise capital, etc.) but complex in its details (what are the right metrics; is the most significant change strategy also measurable?  over what timeframe?  how to balance results and values in social spending?  etc.).  Hopefully the debates can get beyond a binary, “it worked / it didn’t work” argument, and serve the sector by articulating the under-appreciated complexity of “impact” and delineating more nuanced ways to assess it.

SIF participants can start now, I think, by being open about the challenges and difficulties we face along the way.  Other observers can offer some specific questions they hope will be addressed by the many SIF-related inquiries to be conducted, including by the intermediary evaluation efforts, the Corporation’s SIF staff, and GEO’s “Scaling What Works” initiative.  Instead of simply waiting to propagandize, criticize, or defend the results this time next year (inevitable as that is), perhaps by being explicit now and throughout about our concerns, skepticism, optimism and uncertainty related to SIF’s social impact, we can help understand it more fully.

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