5 Reasons to Consider Applying to the Social Innovation Fund

By Margaret Hall, GreenLight Fund

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A couple of weeks ago, the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) announced its fourth, and largest, funding round. Since 2010, the SIF, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, has funded 20 intermediary organizations to select and support subgrantees, nonprofits that have innovative approaches to social change and potential to make a significant, measurable difference across the country. The GreenLight Fund received a SIF award in 2012.

As with the past three funding rounds, the application period is short, with applications due on April 22. So organizations considering applying must decide quickly. As you weigh the pros and cons, here are five reasons to apply, based on GreenLight’s experience.

1. Getting a SIF award could be a game changer

For the GreenLight Fund, receiving the SIF award gave us a national platform and spotlight we didn’t have and couldn’t have built nearly as quickly. Though we had recently expanded GreenLight from Boston, where we started it in 2004, to Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area, we were hardly known outside our home city. The award gave us important credibility in these new sites as we were building our networks there.

2. Not getting it could be a game changer

2012 was not the first time GreenLight applied to the Social Innovation Fund. In SIF’s first round in 2010, we applied to operate the GreenLight model in eight communities around the country in partnership with community foundations. We didn’t get it, in large part because at the time GreenLight was just in Boston and we hadn’t yet built the capacity to operate in or support multiple sites. As we learned, the SIF’s interest was in growing great nonprofits with proven results, not in building the intermediary organizations it funds to find and support these great organizations.

Though we weren’t successful on that first try, the application process itself catalyzed major change and growth for GreenLight. We built relationships all over the country that have been helpful to us in many ways since then. We envisioned GreenLight in eight other communities and pushed our thinking on what this could look like and how we would implement and support such a network.

Most significantly, as it turned out, the application process created the springboard for expanding GreenLight to other cities, always part of our greater vision for GreenLight. The Bank of America Charitable Foundation, which had committed matching funds if we had won a SIF award, allowed us to use those funds to grow GreenLight to two new sites. Two years later, we launched GreenLight Philadelphia and GreenLight Bay Area in early 2012. We applied again to SIF later that year and this time were one of four organizations nationally to receive a SIF award.

3. It will likely deepen your knowledge of rigorous evaluation

The Social Innovation Fund takes evidence and evaluation seriously. Though the GreenLight Fund has always required results from our portfolio organizations, the SIF is giving us the opportunity to go deeper with organizations and build our own knowledge about effective, rigorous evaluation. Because of our participation in the SIF, we will be better able to support all of our portfolio organizations – not just our SIF subgrantees – as they evaluate their programs in our cities.

4. It models some of the best philanthropic practices

I just attended the biennial conference of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. I was struck by how many times key practices of the SIF came up in sessions – not in discussions about the SIF, but in discussions about what nonprofits need from funders to be effective.

For example, nonprofits need multi-year funding to provide more stability and predictability as they make long-term commitments to their clients. SIF funds for five years allowing GreenLight and other intermediaries to fund their subgrantees for five years.

Nonprofits need funders who know them well, are willing to engage with them to address organizational challenges, and champion them to others. The SIF staff engages regularly with GreenLight’s staff. I’ve been impressed with the quality of their engagement with us and their flexibility. And I’ll take passionate SIF Director Michael Smith cheerleading for GreenLight any day. Likewise, the nature of the SIF requires deep engagement between GreenLight and our SIF subgrantees. High engagement is business-as-usual for GreenLight, which works closely with all of our portfolio organizations, taking a seat on local Boards, and partnering with the local leadership to launch their programs in our cities and address challenges that arise. For organizations that have not had such high engagement with their grantees, the SIF is a chance to work with nonprofits in a deeper way.

Nonprofits need flexible funding that supports the whole organization to achieve results. This one may surprise you and, depending on your organization, SIF funds may seem more or less flexible. For foundations that have never had to report to a funder, I’m sure the Federal compliance requirements feel burdensome and limiting. But for GreenLight, which imports high-performing nonprofits into our cities, SIF has allowed us to fund comprehensive costs of our subgrantees’ expansions, while reporting on the overall results they are achieving.

5. You will be able to make a significant, measurable difference for thousands of children and young people in communities you care about

At GreenLight, we spend our days working with the staff and boards of nonprofit organizations, but we never forget the real purpose of our work – to transform the lives of children, youth and families living in high poverty areas of our cities. With our SIF grant, we will be reaching at least 10,000 children and youth every year in Boston, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area by 2018 through our subgrantees. In Boston, that’s College Advising Corps and Blueprint Schools Network. In Philadelphia, that’s Year Up and Single Stop USA. In the Bay Area, that’s Genesys Works and uAspire.

The SIF is not your father’s Federal grant program, to be sure. Adhering to the administrative and financial compliance requirements takes resources and patience. Raising the 1:1 match for SIF dollars can be a challenge. But for the GreenLight Fund, the SIF has been a booster rocket for expanding our reach and impact, improving our evaluation knowledge and skills and introducing us to an incredible community of peers, who collectively are making a powerful difference across the country.

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