Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Community Solutions Tour: Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee

    Today I will be making a Community Solutions Tour stop at Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee.  Youth Villages serves more than 15,000 children in ten states with one simple mission:  to help behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully.  When President Obama announced the creation of the Social Innovation Fund, he highlighted Youth Villages as an example of an organization that identifies and supports “the rigorous evaluation and scaling of innovative, promising ideas that are transforming communities.”

    Often, we will use this blog to highlight specific examples of broader principles or mission areas embraced by our Office. One of the principles underpinning our Office’s mission is the belief that “strong programs and organizations measure and evaluate what works and why, continuously improve when presented new information, and invest in the most effective solutions.”   Youth Villages puts that belief into action.

    So just what makes Youth Villages so successful in transforming lives?   The answer stems in large part from their results-driven approach to treatment.  In addition to a residential program for children facing these challenges, Youth Villages has adopted a preference for home-based treatment of children living with their families in their communities, which has shown solid results.

    Youth Villages continually collects and analyzes data from its programs, and drives the knowledge generated from that data back into how they do business.  Tracking youth who receive at least 60 days of service at six, twelve, and twenty-four months after they leave the program, Youth Villages followed up with more than 12,000 children and their families in 2009.  This diligent process has allowed Youth Villages to amass one of the most comprehensive data sets in the country on the treatment of children with emotional and behavioral problems and their families.  More importantly than just collecting the data, they undergo a constant evaluation process that has yielded crucial information and has translated into direct program improvements and improved outcomes for children.

     As one example of continuously improving the information at their disposal, Youth Villages has hired some of the best minds in the country to figure out how their already robust tracking of their alumni can be improved to be even stronger. This will allow them to make more conclusive assessments of what their programs are doing effectively, and what could be done better.

    As the President recently reaffirmed at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship last week, “I learned as a community organizer in Chicago, real change comes from the bottom up, from the grassroots, starting with the dreams and passions of single individual serving their communities.”  Starting as a single residential treatment campus in Memphis, Youth Villages has grown to offering a continuum of programs and services to become a nationally recognized leader in the field of children’s mental health.

    I look forward to visiting Youth Villages today as part of the Community Solutions Tour.  And if you know of organizations that are successfully addressing challenges in your community who are using data in an effective way to drive better outcomes for the communities they serve, please tell us about them.

    Sonal Shah is a Deputy Assistant to the President, and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • White House and Case Foundation Host Summit on Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking

    Ed. note: Beth Noveck and staff from the Office of Science and Technology Policy will be live-blogging from the Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking summit all day on the Open Government Blog.

    Last month, the Administration issued its Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government. The Guidance provides a policy and legal framework for the use of prizes and challenges to promote open government, innovation, and other national priorities. Today the White House and the Case Foundation are hosting a summit on Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking. The day is organized into a combination of presentations and panels, breakout roundtables, and Ignite Sessions all designed to deepen our understanding of how to incorporate prizes and other innovative techniques into the way we solve complex economic and social problems.

    There are over 200 public and private sector participants at this event, learning from one another how to bring innovation to policymaking.

    You can see the program here. While the speeches and panels will be broadcast online next week, today you can watch live interviews with the speakers, including Sonal Shah of the Domestic Policy Council, Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, Bonin Bough of PepsiCo, and Jim Shelton of the Department of Education.

    We welcome your participation in this event. Before and during the sessions, you can submit questions via Twitter, using the hashtag #opengov, via email at or by using the interactive chat window on the Case Foundation website available during the sessions.

    Beth Noveck is United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative.

  • Peace Corps Volunteers are Natural Social Entrepreneurs

    Note: Following is a guest post from Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps. If you didn't catch it, check out the great guest post about Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala on Earth Day last week.

    Earlier this week, I attended "A New Beginning: Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship" with representatives from over fifty countries.  I was honored to present on a panel of leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship from Egypt, France, Indonesia and the United States. As a commitment to continue the work forged at the Summit, I am also proud to announce that Peace Corps will be increasing the number of opportunities for Americans to serve in our 18 predominantly Muslim host countries by 20% over the next two years.

    Social entrepreneurship is a concept Peace Corps Volunteers embrace every day in our 76 host countries around the world.  Although each Volunteer has a unique experience, all value the power of community and cooperation to create grassroots change.  You would be hard pressed to find a Volunteer, whether with Peace Corps or another organization, ever utter the words, “I did it alone.”

    The social entrepreneurship panel led by the White House’s Sonal Shah emphasized the fact that social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, are vital components of strong economies and societies. Social entrepreneurship unifies business principles and social ventures by empowering people to organize and create social change in their communities. It fosters sustainable grassroots development, addresses specific challenges and increases capacity building in local communities around the globe.

    The commitment to work with entrepreneurs around the world, including those in predominantly Muslim countries, was a major component of President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo.  Today, over 1,800 Americans serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in 18 predominantly Muslim host countries and, in the last seven months, Peace Corps has added two new Muslim majority host countries, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Since the inception of the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 44,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in predominantly Muslim nations.

    Peace Corps Volunteers work at the community level on pressing issues including teacher shortages, food security, income generation, environmental challenges and youth engagement. Our Volunteers are adaptive and, through hands-on experience, identify what actions must be taken to support local communities and foster the sustainability of community projects.

    Peace Corps is a people-to-people exchange of ideas, languages and a commitment to creating a stronger community. Find out more about opportunities to serve by visiting

    Aaron Williams is Director of the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967-1970.

  • Check it Out: Prizes and Challenges Conference Friday

    Our Office will be co-hosting a conference tomorrow on the use of Prizes and Challenges in spurring innovation in government with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Case Foundation. Check out the agenda and find out more about how you can participate and stay involved in the discussion at the Case Foundation’s website.

    As part of the conference, Sonal will be moderating a discussion called “Challenges & Prizes: Early Public Sector Innovators” with representatives from NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Joyce Foundation.

    She’ll also be participating in what’s called CaseSoup, an interactive Q&A session where you can engage with Sonal live from 1:00-1:30 PM, in addition to other expert discussions on prizes and challenges throughout the day.  If you have a question, you can tweet it using the hashtag #opengov, e-mail it to, or ask it using the live chat function during the session.

    Sonal will be doing the CaseSoup session with Jonathan Bays of McKinsey, who co-authored And the Winner is…: Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes, an excellent report on how to think through when to use prizes and what types to use that has been very helpful in our thinking.

    Charlie Anderson is a Policy Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • From Cairo to D.C.: Advancing Social Entrepreneurship on a Global Scale

    This week, the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship brought together more than 275 participants from over 50 countries around the world—from Morocco to Indonesia, Uganda to Kazakhstan, France to India— to represent their regions, sectors, and communities for two days here in Washington, DC.

    DPC Director Melody Barnes participated  on the Access to Capital panel and articulated the importance of providing capital to both business and social entrepreneurs.   I was fortunate to moderate a panel discussion on social entrepreneurship with Yuyun Ismawati, an entrepreneur from Indonesia who has developed a community-based sanitation model in 300 communities and 1,000 locations; representatives of entrepreneurship support organizations like Iman Bibars, the Arab World Director of Ashoka and Charlotte Hochman of La Ruche that incubates social innovators in Paris; Chris Hughes, a technologist who co-founded Facebook and recently launched Jumo, an online networking tool for international development; and Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps.

    The panel highlighted interesting models of entrepreneurship from around the world, different approaches of each of the organizations and most importantly key things that they have learned in their successes.  The Summit (and the panel) provided us an opportunity to better understand from the panelists and the audience, the obstacles to advancing entrepreneurship and what they see as potential solutions. There were some great lessons learned that we’ll share in more detail on this blog in the coming weeks. And across the Summit, we were amazed by the number of just incredibly moving stories of entrepreneurship – social and business – from people in the audience and on stage alike.

    Wednesday and Thursday, a number of partner events continued the discussion and built upon the progress made at the Summit, and yesterday I enjoyed keynoting and taking some Q&A at the Brookings Institute’s Middle East Youth Initiative’s (MEYI) event on social entrepreneurship, one of the many follow-on activities to the Summit. They’ve just released an excellent report on social entrepreneurship in the Middle East that Secretary Clinton highlighted at the top of her remarks that concluded the Summit.

    Finally, be sure to take a look at all the entrepreneurship initiatives announced at the Summit, as well as the remarks by the President, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Locke, and NEC Director, Larry Summers. It truly was an exciting week for advancing the President’s vision for a new beginning.

    Sonal Shah is Deputy Assistant to the President and Director, Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship: Access to Capital Recap

    In his June 4th, 2009 address in Cairo, President Obama announced that the U.S. would host a Summit on Entrepreneurship to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world. Yesterday and today, entrepreneurs, financiers, and leaders from around the world gathered to deliver on that vision on the first day of the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

    As part of the event, I participated in a ” discussion on the importance of capital for both business and social entrepreneurs and the role of government in creating an environment in which entrepreneurs can succeed.

    There was some question about the importance or role of social entrepreneurs in the economy and as Domestic Policy Advisor, I can assure you that the Administration regards both business and social entrepreneurs as critical to the US economy.  The federal government is focused on creating jobs and supporting small business, and we are actively engaged to ensure that small business owners have the tools they need to succeed.  Similarly, we are also focused on social entrepreneurs who are not just ‘do gooders’, but also an economic force – the sector contributes $600 billion to the US economy and accounts for about 10% of jobs.  They train the next generation workforce, ensure that families are healthy to work and help low-income families find pathways out of poverty when they don’t have access to jobs, job training or an education.

    Social entrepreneurs, similar to business entrepreneurs, need a policy environment that encourages innovation and results; an entrepreneurial support ecosystem that helps leaders develop strategies and build the organization for scaling up; and an education system that gives them the necessary skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

    But in some ways, the hurdles that social entrepreneurs face to getting capital are even tougher to surmount than their business counterparts.

    First, social entrepreneurs measure their returns not in profit, but in impact, a much trickier thing to quantify. And often that impact is to society and does not accrue to the organization generating it.  For instance, if a nonprofit successfully takes a community’s middle school students from dramatic underperformance to on par with their statewide peers, the results have a tremendous value for the community that does not necessarily translate to the organization’s  bottom line.  Just look at the work Geoff Canada has done at the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

    President Obama recognizes that social entrepreneurs take risks and fill gaps that government and the private sector do not address. They are an integral part of our economic future. That is why he created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation housed in the Domestic Policy Council. One of the Office’s three mission areas is to increase investment for innovative solutions that demonstrate results.

    But to do this, we have to find innovative ways to not only get capital to social entrepreneurs but to create a viable marketplace for investors who want to have an impact to be able to find, support, and scale what works. We are beginning that work here, through things like the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Investing in Innovation Fund at the Department of Education.

    We also know that we have much to learn from our global neighbors. Mohammed Yunus’ work to get microfinance to the poor is now being replicated in Omaha and New York.  And, Text4Baby is delivering critical pre-natal information to pregnant women in the U.S. but has its roots in mobile technology delivering information in sub-Saharan Africa.  Good ideas are flowing around the globe.

    As we go forward, together, in the President’s framework of a new beginning based on mutual interest and mutual respect, we aim to continue learning, sharing, and building upon the work that begins at this week’s Summit.

    Melody Barnes is an Assistant to the President and Director of the Domestic Policy Council.