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Getting Started with the Social Innovation Fund

Students at work in a lab

This blog was originally posted on National and Community Service's Official Blog.

Like all Social Innovation Fund (SIF) aspirants, my team at Jobs for the Future (JFF) and our partners at the Aspen Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund were thrilled to learn in the summer of 2014 that we would receive an award from the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to build pathways to credentials for opportunity youth. We had thought long and hard about applying, knowing—as a prior recipient of Social Innovation Fund resources in 2010 for JFF’s National Fund for Workforce Solutions—how much is involved in rolling out a SIF initiative. We decided to apply because we also saw this as an amazing opportunity to have a positive impact on the life outcomes of vulnerable young people across the country.

The launch meeting for new SIF grantees hosted by CNCS was both an inspiring and sobering experience. It felt great to hear from so many leading innovators—from inside CNCS and other federal agencies, and from the nonprofits managing SIF grants.

But we also needed the reality check provided by CNCS staff and prior recipients, who reinforced for us the importance of paying attention to detail, as we roll out our initiative and the fiscal responsibilities involved in managing and subgranting federal and match funding.

For example, the SIF staff, and other prior grantees, dug hard into the process of carrying out criminal background checks. The sessions helped us to see why it is so critical to pay attention to the details, and do it right. In the end, it’s not a huge proportion of the work but it just needs to get done because the penalties for not getting it right are steep.

Throughout the fall, it has become increasingly clear that our partners at the SIF are incredibly helpfu—walking us through the critical steps to get started, helping us think through where we need to tweak our plans to get a better result, advising us on sticky issues, and providing just-in-time support where necessary.

One of the many things we have discussed with our program officer is the shift from acting as an intermediary, or broker, to acting as a funder. The first task upon receiving the award was to design a Request for Proposal (RFP) that would drive the selection of high-performing nonprofits that could oversee quality implementation of the interventions for opportunity youth, participate in an evaluation, and manage the federal requirements of subgrantees.

Based on our work in the field, we knew that balancing these priorities could be a challenge—for example, the community-based organizations (CBO) with the most direct experience working with opportunity youth may not have managed federal grants in the past. We wanted to be sure to design the RFP to enable smaller CBOs to apply.

In the meantime, we are gearing up to provide support to subgrantees so that we can enable less experienced and smaller CBOs to serve as SIF subgrantees and bring their considerable expertise to our network. Every conversation with our program officer helped us move forward in this tricky terrain.

While we are very much at the start of this multi-year process and know how much work lies ahead, we are excited about the impact we know our partners on the ground will have on the lives of opportunity youth. And we are grateful that we have the support of SIF staff and an amazing resource in the great community of prior awardees to learn from. Through regular calls of Issue Area Groups, the Grantee Council, and the Knowledge Network, we plan to take full advantage of all the support provided in the years ahead!

Photo courtesy Corporation for National and Community Service Official Blog / Tumblr