Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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.

  • Why Taking Tax Rates Off the Table Threatens Non-Profits and Charitable Giving

    Right now, America faces a series of critical fiscal choices that will affect the economy for years to come. One of the most critical steps we can take is to reduce the deficit in a balanced way in order to lay the foundation for long-term middle-class job growth. But we need to do that in a way that’s consistent with our values. 

    As part of his balanced approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion, President Obama proposes to raise $1.6 trillion in new revenue over 10 years for deficit reduction, including $1 trillion from the expiration of the Bush high-income and estate tax cuts. The President’s plan asks the wealthy to pay their fair share by raising tax rates for the wealthiest 2% to the level they were at under President Clinton—39.6%—which was a time when we created 23 million new jobs.  It also prevents an income tax increase for 98% of Americans and 97% of small businesses. 

    Some have suggested that, rather than raising tax rates for the most fortunate, policymakers should make up the revenue by cutting high-income tax benefits – in particular, by imposing a dollar cap on itemized deductions, including charitable contributions.

    But what is clear is that proposals that take tax rates off the table would threaten donations to universities, non-profit hospitals, social services providers, arts and cultural institutions and other nonprofit organizations.  This is because – to make the math work – these proposals rely on hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue that would result from drastically cutting or eliminating the charitable deduction as we now know it.

    Currently, the tax code encourages gifts to charity by allowing taxpayers to claim itemized deductions for charitable giving. But – as a new report by the National Economic Council (NEC) shows, the most prominent dollar cap proposals would effectively eliminate the charitable deduction for up to 13 million households and for as much as 60 percent of currently deductible giving.

  • Serving to Honor the Memory of 9/11

    America always rises to the challenges of the times.   We have a remarkable capacity for unity in the response to tragedy.  This was truly evident in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. 

    As President Obama said in his weekly radio address this weekend:

    “Instead of turning inward with grief, we’ve honored the memory of those we lost by giving back to our communities, serving those in need, and reaffirming the values at the heart of who we are as a people.  That’s why we mark September 11th as a National Day of Service and Remembrance.  Because we are one American family.  And we look out for each other – not just on the difficult days, but every day.”

    Yesterday, President Obama spent time visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He and First Lady Michelle Obama addressed9/11 Families and survivors at a session at the Pentagon. Vice President Biden and Interior Secretary Salazar visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, PA, where 40 passengers and crew heroically resisted a team of hijackers, losing their lives but averting an even greater calamity in the process.  And Secretary Napolitano traveled to New York City to attend a memorial service at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

    In addition, in coordination with the Corporation for National and Community Service and The Mission Continues, Administration officials participated in a service activity in the Washington DC area, working alongside veterans, active-duty service members and military families.

    9/11 is seared into our national consciousness.   Yet, when we give our talent and time to help others, we honor the memories of those that were lost and preserve the spirit of solidarity that flourished in the aftermath of the attack.  Through service, we can maintain this flame and ensure that their legacy lives on indefinitely. 

    Jonathan Greenblatt is Special Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • Mobilizing Capital in Places that Need it Most

    Ed. Note: This is cross-posted from Treasury Notes

    Access to capital is the lifeblood of a vibrant community.  In economically distressed areas, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) play a vital role in bringing much-needed capital to local businesses.  CDFI investments create jobs and spur economic development by connecting investors with opportunities. 

    CDFIs are a diverse and growing industry.  They come in many forms, including regulated banks and credit unions, venture capital firms, and microenterprise funds.  Some are nonprofit organizations, while others operate as conventional businesses.  Regardless of their form, CDFIs all share a common mission: to improve the lives of low-income people and communities by providing better access to capital. Recently, the Treasury Department announced $186 million in new CDFI investments to 210 organizations. This represents the largest single announcement of award dollars and award recipients in the history of the CDFI Fund.  These historic awards include $152 million through the CDFI Program and $23 million under the Healthy Food Financing Initiative(HFFI), a new Obama Administration initiative that increases access to low-cost healthy food in urban and rural neighborhoods that lack grocery stores, co-ops, or other affordable food options.  Under HFFI, the CDFI Fund has provided $48 million through 25 awards since its inauguration two years ago.

    CDFI Announcement

    (by U.S. Department of the Treasury)

    Certified and emerging Native CDFIs also received $11 million under the Native American CDFI Assistance Program.  These funds will be used to provide loans, investments, financial services and technical assistance to underserved populations and communities across the nation.  These funds scale companies and change lives.  For example, the Lakota Fund, a Native CDFI operating on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, used a CDFI award to provided growth capital to Murdock Electric, a Native American-owned company with 100 percent Native American employees.  This fast growing, family-owned business originally was launched in the back of its founder’s truck.  As a result of the loan from Lakota Fund, Murdock today is a thriving enterprise with a modern facility, 20 employees and 11 apprentices.  It is an important element of the economic health and social well-being of the Pine Ridge community.

  • San Diego Center Gives Hope, Aid to Refugees

    This story highlights the work of the Social Innovation Fund, established by the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009 and administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

    Arriving in the United States is just the start of the journey for refugees like Alaa, an engineer from Iraq. Unable to find a job, his first few months in America were a struggle, as he tried to cover his most basic needs. Alaa was eager for a job – any job – to become self-sufficient while he studied to resume work as an engineer in a new country.

    Generations of immigrants have faced similar challenges, but luckily Alaa found a public-private partnership that helps people like him gain financial stability: the San Diego International Rescue Committee (IRC) Financial Opportunity Center. The San Diego IRC received a $135,000 Social Innovation Fund (SIF) grant through the Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC), which developed the innovative “Financial Opportunity Center” model. This model combines financial services across three areas: employment placement and career improvement, financial education and coaching, and public benefits access. The IRC applies this model to integrate traditional refugee services with financial management support. 

    IRC Refugee

    Alaa, above, received financial management support from the San Diego International Rescue Committee (IRC).

    The Right Kind of Help

    The IRC Financial Opportunity Center provided Alaa with regular one-on-one job search assistance, helped get his University of Baghdad transcripts evaluated for equivalency in the United States, and assisted in his enrollment in community college courses on Microsoft Office and AutoCAD, an engineering software program. The organization also supplied him with a $100 loan to help him build his credit. A financial counselor even accompanied him to the bank to open his first account. 

    Alaa had his first taste of success in October 2011, eight months after his arrival in the U.S., when he secured a job as a sales associate at The Home Depot. He still needs more money to take additional classes in his field, but the IRC is committed to standing by Alaa both as an advocate and collaborator until he reaches his goal of financial independence. 

    Spreading Services that Work

    The IRC has been able to help nearly 200 refugees like Alaa thrive in their new homes, and it is just one of many organizations supported by LISC. Over two years, LISC has received $8.4 million from the SIF and commitments of another $8.4 million from philanthropic partners to set up Financial Opportunity Centers with 46 other community-based organizations.

    LISC has been able to expand its work to six new cities and, in the first year of operation, reach over 15,000 individuals and families. As LISC and its partners continue to spread this model across the country, thousands more Americans will gain new jobs and higher credit scores—not only making ends meet, but also establishing the foundation for stronger economic futures.


    Alaa’s story is part of our ongoing effort to highlight how social innovators are strengthening our communities and addressing social needs across the country. We hope stories like this inspire you to think creatively and take action in your own community.


    Jonathan Greenblatt is Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.