By Kirsten Breckinridge
When the Social lnnovation Fund (SIF) first launched in 2010, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) staff had a feeling that it would be a great opportunity to expand their Financial Opportunity Center model.
Not only would SIF leverage significant additional funds, it would also play to a LISC organizational strength: managing federal grants. While other philanthropies and nonprofits have familiarized themselves with the requirements, regulations, and compliance systems of federal grants, LISC’s prior experience with AmeriCorps and other federal programs put staff in familiar territory.
“We knew what we were getting into,” said LISC Program Officer Laura D’Alessandro. “Being an AmeriCorps grantee was really helpful in both understanding the application process and working with CNCS over the course of the grant. It’s allowed us to manage the program in the best possible way.”
LISC has been an AmeriCorps recipient almost continuously since 1994, a partnership that began with its early work in affordable housing before branching out into a building sustainable communities strategy. LISC’s Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) model supports community sustainability by providing integrated services (employment counseling, financial coaching and access to income supports) to low-income neighborhood residents. AmeriCorps members are critical in delivering these services through group trainings, curriculum design, resume building for clients, social media outreach, and even one-on-one coaching that makes up the core service.
“In the first year of SIF, over 50 percent of our sites used AmeriCorps members as a strategy to help SIF grantees get off to a strong start,” said Seung Kim, director of LISC’s Family Income and Wealth Building program. Pairing the two programs has created deeper impact in these sites.
Stacey Rapp, the director of LISC’s AmeriCorps program, adds “We’ve seen AmeriCorps members prove so valuable that they get hired on as permanent staff at the FOC when their service period is over. It’s a great way of infusing young talent into community-based nonprofit organizations around the country.”
LISC’s prior AmeriCorps and federal grant expertise helped with the SIF work in two main ways: 1) its familiarity with federal regulations and compliance standards; and 2) its experience delivering technical assistance in support of subgrantees.
“We already had systems in place for doing background checks and other aspects of compliance,” said D’Alessandro. “In fact, when we were thinking about applying to SIF we sat down with our federal grant management team and our compliance staff and made sure we had everything needed to participate successfully and efficiently—things like timesheets and other financial tracking systems, processes for monitoring subgrants, the background check piece, and so forth. Having all that in place from our AmeriCorps work over the years was really helpful given the ‘quick-start’ element of SIF. We had far less to figure out than some of the other intermediaries who were new to this type of federal grant.”
Kim emphasized that LISC’s 20 years providing capacity building subgrants to community development corporations through a Department of Housing and Urban Development program was a crucial asset in SIF implementation.
“With our history as a community development intermediary, LISC brought the strength of our mission, our experience, and our on-the-ground presence in all 10 subgrantee cities to the table for SIF,” she said. “We were ideally positioned to offer subgrantees the programmatic support and technical assistance they needed to help low-income families access economic opportunity.”
D’Alessandro and Kim both encourage other national nonprofits with AmeriCorps experience to consider the opportunity that SIF provides.
“I’m not sure that combining AmeriCorps and the SIF is always doable,” said D’Alessandro. “It can be challenging to mesh two federal program streams, even when they’re both administered by the same agency. But for LISC’s Financial Opportunity Center work, it was really a natural fit. Having those AmeriCorps members was a huge injection of ‘people power,’ energy, and enthusiasm to our sites. It really made our scaling possible given the sheer number of subgrantees that quickly needed to beef up their staffing.”
Added Kim: “We have great gratitude to the CNCS staff for supporting us on both the SIF and AmeriCorps ends. They have been great partners in this work and by building on that history with them, we were able to start this work on the right foot.”
In 2013, the results were impressive: LISC’s FOC subgrantees provided 15,725 people with bundled services. As a result, 4,169 clients obtained employment; 4,247 clients increased their net income; 3,436 improved their net worth; and 3,528 improved their credit score.