Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • A Call to Action for Off-Grid Energy in Africa

    The President launched Power Africa in Africa almost one year ago to double access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa. With a private sector orientation and transaction focus, Power Africa has already catalyzed more than 35 private sector partners to commit more than $14 billion for energy investment in Africa. Their engagement is critical and emblematic of the National Impact Initiative that seeks to spread market-based models and private investment to create jobs and economic value while solving social and environmental problems.

    Recognizing that Power Africa cannot achieve its energy access goals through large generation projects alone, the Obama Administration is exploring opportunities to unlock further investment in and growth of small-scale energy systems at the household and village level. Toward that goal, the Administration hosted two events in the last week – one here at the White House and a second roundtable at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California – to engage nearly 60 impact investors and venture philanthropists interested in small-scale energy investment in Africa.

    Consistent with the core modus operandi of Power Africa to date, this new effort will leverage the combined capabilities of 12 U.S. government agencies to deploy the “glue and grease” needed to assist private sector transactions to close. It will also build upon early Power Africa successes, such as:

    • Off-Grid Electric – the pioneering household solar services company initially supported by early-stage grant funding from the Development Innovation Ventures and the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative, an innovative finance program developed by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Trade Development Agency, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
    • Kiwira River Hydro – a 10MW run-of-river hydropower project in Tanzania that received a USAID Development Credit Authority credit guarantee that reduced its financing costs and paved the way to financial close

    With input from individual investors, investment funds, single family offices, and large foundations seeding and scaling innovative off-grid business models, this new effort will also develop new capabilities to strengthen the enabling environment and catalyze further private sector investment into off-grid and mini-grid energy solutions. 

    We know that great ideas and impactful small scale energy investments aren’t limited to the people that joined us at the recent events. Do the activities of your investment fund or foundation align with this new strategy under the President’s Power Africa initiative? Are you actively pursuing small-scale energy deals in the six Power Africa countries that could use a little glue or grease? Do you have thoughts on steps the public sector can take to further unlock investment and growth?

    If you have such thoughts, please email us at innovation@who.eop.gov. Working together, we can increase access to energy, eradicate extreme poverty, and achieve sustained, inclusive economic growth.

  • Social Innovation Fund: New Competition, More Opportunity

    In 2009, when President Obama signed legislation that created the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), we intended to invest in what works and catalyze innovative strategies to help tackle some of our nation’s greatest challenges. 

    Today, the Social Innovation Fund announced its fourth open competition. The Administration is making available $65.8 million in grant funding for intermediary organizations that want to accelerate the growth of effective, evidence-based community solutions. This is the largest grant pool in the history of the program.

    Intermediaries can apply for grants that range from $1 million to $10 million. Such funds are to be used to expand the efforts of high-impact nonprofits focused on some of our toughest challenges, specifically expanding economic opportunity, building healthy futures, and improving youth development.  As a public-private partnership, applicants also can use the prospect of SIF dollars to attract new non-governmental investors to amplify the public funds.

    The 2014 competition has some special features that distinguish it from prior years. It prioritizes applications with strong plans to support Opportunity Youth and that endeavor to leverage the Collective Impact model of community organizing to create social change. The competition also will seek to support key Presidential priorities, particularly those designed to expand opportunity for low income individuals and distressed communities, such as the Promise Zones initiative.

  • Iowa Launches First-in-the-Nation Governor’s Council on National Service

    Iowa can add another “first-in-the-nation” jewel to its crown with today’s announcement by Governor Terry Branstad of the creation of the Governor’s Council on National Service in Iowa.

    Led by the Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, and developed in partnership with the Franklin Project, the Governor’s Council will engage leaders from state agencies, higher education, and the private sector to make recommendations on how to expand national service and volunteer opportunities in Iowa.

    The Council’s goals mirror those of the Task Force on Expanding National Service created by President Obama last summer: identifying policies, developing partnerships, and using technology to expand opportunities for citizens to meet critical needs through service.

    I salute Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds for their leadership in establishing this Council, which builds on our work on the national level and is an example we hope other states will follow.

    Governor Branstad has been a longtime champion of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps as a cost-effective community solution. In a recent Huffington Post column, “National Service is a No-Brainer,” the Governor highlighted AmeriCorps’ key role in meeting local needs and in mobilizing other volunteers, noting that each Iowa AmeriCorps member manages an average of 40 other volunteers. “Volunteers need to be recruited, scheduled, and have their activities planned; national service is making that happen and has fueled Iowa's growth in volunteerism over the last 20 years,” the Governor said.

    One of the key goals of the Iowa Governor’s Council -- and of the President’s Task Force -- is to launch new public-private partnerships to engage citizens in national service, building on the strong foundation created over decades through AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and other CNCS programs.

    That spirit was on full display this morning at the Iowa Capitol. Col. Robert King, Executive Director of Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, spoke of his interest in developing an AmeriCorps VISTA project to help returning veterans find employment. Tina Yoder, a senior executive from MidAmerican Energy, highlighted her company’s investment in Green Iowa AmeriCorps, whose members increase energy efficiency through home weatherization, energy education, and community outreach. And Shannon Cofield from Drake University announced a project to match Drake mentors with low income students to spur interest in STEM careers using AmeriCorps VISTA and Iowa College AmeriCorps. Drake is also developing a post-graduate national service experience in partnership with Des Moines area nonprofits.

    Brandon Gibbs, a Green Iowa AmeriCorps member, caulks the edges of a window frame in a home he is weatherizing in Dubuque, Iowa.

    Brandon Gibbs, a Green Iowa AmeriCorps member, caulks the edges of a window frame in a home he is weatherizing in Dubuque, Iowa. (by Jeremy Portje, Telegraph Herald)

    Today’s announcement reminds us of another key player in America’s service and volunteering infrastructure: State Service Commissions. Whether managing AmeriCorps programs, coordinating volunteers after natural disasters, leading days of service, or serving as laboratories of innovation, these Governor-appointed State Commissions play an indispensable role in fostering service and community solutions in our nation.

    From the halls of Congress to state capitols to city halls across the country, elected leaders from all backgrounds are recognizing that national service is a smart investment. As Governor Branstad said, “Service is an issue that Republicans and Democrats should both wholeheartedly embrace, especially during times of austere budgets.” We applaud the Governor and all those who are working to expand opportunities for Americans to make our nation stronger through service.

    Wendy Spencer is the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service and serves as co-chair of the Task Force on Expanding National Service.

  • Announcing the Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services

    President Obama long has said that, as Americans, we must look out for each other and exemplify the values expressed in the adage – I am my brother’s keeper.  

    That is why Vice President Biden announced last December that the Administration is undertaking a targeted effort to support the needs of Holocaust survivors living in the United States. 

    This is a community of elderly Americans who are seeking to live their lives with the comfort and dignity that they deserve, but they face significant struggles. They are disproportionally likely to be living in poverty: 25 percent of Holocaust survivors residing in the United States live at or below the Federal poverty line, compared to nine percent of the overall population of individuals 65 and older.

    Part of the Administration’s targeted effort to support the community is the creation of a new position at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to assist victims of Nazi persecution living in the United States. 

    Today, we are announcing that Aviva Sufian, who serves in the Administration for Community Living (ACL) at HHS, will serve as the first “Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services.” As the Director of Regional Operations at ACL, Aviva is focused on helping to maximize the independence, well-being and health of older adults, people with disabilities and their families and caregivers. In her role as Special Envoy, Aviva will also act as an advocate for the specific needs of Holocaust survivors.

  • Building the Evidence Base for What Works

    In his FY 2014 budget message, President Obama called for “the use of evidence and evaluation to ensure we are making smart investments with our scarce taxpayer dollars.” His message reflects a broad Administration commitment to promote evidence-based policy reform. A number of signature policy initiatives reflect this focus, including innovation funds such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Investing in Innovation Fund; Pay for Success investment models; and efforts to increase funding for programs rooted in evidence such as high-quality home visiting programs or new models of teen pregnancy prevention.

    In July, the Office of Management and Budget and other White House offices delivered a memorandum to the heads of Federal agencies entitled Next Steps in the Evidence and Innovation Agenda. The memo provides guidance for advancing evidence-based practices across the Federal Government as part of the FY 2015 budget process and underscores the importance of “strengthening agencies’ abilities to continually improve program performance by applying existing evidence about what works.”

    For these efforts to succeed, policy officials need scientifically valid, rigorous methods to evaluate the effectiveness of social programs. For example, the Administration’s “tiered evidence” initiatives provide small grants for new ideas worth trying, medium-sized grants to rigorously evaluate promising approaches, and large grants that scale-up interventions built on a strong evidence base.  The pursuit of evidence-based policy requires that the Federal Government produce accurate, unbiased answers about whether a program or practice is producing its intended effect—whether the goal is to improve student educational outcomes, reduce homelessness, lower recidivism rates, or any of a number of other desired outcomes. Equally important, these methods must be practical to use and without major administrative burdens or costs, so they can help solve a broad range of societal problems without undue burden on taxpayers.

    Well-conducted randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are widely regarded as the most scientifically-credible means of evaluating the impact of programs operating at scale. That’s why we’re excited about a competition the nonprofit, nonpartisan Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy is running, with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The competition aims to identify and fund the strongest approaches to conducting low-cost RCTs that have demonstrated potential to help pave the way to a more effective, less costly government.

  • Helping Social Entrepreneurs Tackle Global Development Challenges

    Last Monday, in the midst of National Entrepreneurship Month and as countries around the world celebrated Global Entrepreneurship Week, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Government of Sweden rolled out a new $15 million competition to support entrepreneurs who are strengthening global food security and alleviating poverty through market-based solutions that reduce water scarcity in the food supply chain. 

    The Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge for Development offers catalytic financial support and acceleration services – such as business development services, investment facilitation, and market linkages – for entrepreneurs at either of two stages of project development.  Stage 1 is for entrepreneurs with a successful prototype and pilot under their belt now looking to demonstrate the viability of their innovation and business model in an emerging market. Stage 2 is for entrepreneurs who have already demonstrated technical feasibility, market acceptance, and revenue generation in developing country markets and who need help overcoming barriers for further commercial growth.  

    The Securing Water for Food call for proposals is the latest milestone in the Administration’s National Impact Initiative that was launched around the 2013 G8 meeting to grow the community of investors, companies, and social entrepreneurs tackling significant national and global challenges through commercially viable, market-based solutions that intentionally generate both economic return and social impact.  The President believes that social enterprise has a critical role to play as part of a holistic approach to accelerate economic recovery and boost job creation in the United States.  In addition, social enterprise can leverage new capital, skills, and pathways to scale in support of the Administration’s global development commitments, including Power Africa, Feed the Future, and the Global Health Initiative.  The Administration has already taken a number of steps to realize the full potential of impact investing and social enterprise, including creating the Small Business Investment Company Impact Investment Fund, clarifying the rules that allow foundations to invest in social enterprises, and increasing impact investments made by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation,  which committed $333 million to impact investing in 2012 in sectors including healthcare, education, renewable resources, and water.