Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • 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.

  • The Social Innovation Fund Adds Four New Intermediaries to its Portfolio

    President Obama’s Administration is dedicated to elevating and scaling the most promising innovations that can tackle the toughest challenges.  We know that the most effective models for creating lasting change can be found not in Washington DC, but in communities across the country where entrepreneurs and innovators try new approaches, then evaluate and improve them based on outcomes.  

    The President understands that if we hope to create an economy built to last, we need to invest in what works and spread best practices wherever we can find them.  For this reason, he signed into law the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in April 2009.  After its completion, the President directed the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to launch a cornerstone initiative of the new law, the Social Innovation Fund (SIF).

    The SIF is elevating proven community solutions, helping build scale through philanthropic leverage and evaluation of results to fund programs that work. The first two funding rounds of the SIF leveraged a $95 million federal investment to catalyze additional private and nonfederal funding commitments totaling $250 million.  This investment impacts communities across the country through 16 philanthropic intermediaries and nearly 200 remarkable nonprofit organizations. 

    For example, the SIF grant-making intermediary Venture Philanthropy Partners is reaching thousands of disconnected teens in the lowest income neighborhoods of Washington, DC, with strategies that are resulting in success in high school, college admission, and success in college. Another SIF intermediary, AIDS United, is using mobile engagement teams and telemedicine technology to reach the most chronically ill with specialized interventions that improve quality of life.

     Today, the White House is happy to report that four new intermediaries have been awarded funding in the third round of the Social Innovation Fund

    The four new grantees are listed below:

    • GreenLight Fund will work to close the achievement and opportunity gaps for more youth in Boston, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
    • Twin Cities Strive in partnership with the Greater Twin Cities United Waywill grow youth development programs for children in kindergarten through college in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
    • John A. Hartford Foundation will expand an evidence-based program for treating depression into rural communities in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho.
    • Capital Area United Way will address early childhood development, reaching young people in the Greater Baton Rouge Area.

    These organizations were selected through a rigorous competition from a pool of 31 applicants.  Each of the four awardees will receive $2 million over two years that will enable them to scale community-based solutions with strong evidence that their programs work. 

    I congratulate these four organizations on their awards.  Their work to support communities is already making a significant difference.  I look forward to seeing them expand their impact by growing dynamic nonprofits in the years ahead.

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

  • Fighting HIV/AIDS in Washington, DC

    Washington, DC is host to the 19th International AIDS Conference this week. As leaders from around the world gather to address this global crisis, we reflect on the role of the Social Innovation Fund and our partners in the fight here at home.The Social Innovation Fund was established by the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act in 2009 and is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

    Sarah* had been living with HIV for 10 years when she discontinued her treatment. After witnessing a murder in her neighborhood, she was afraid to leave her house for care.  She was isolated, suffering from post-traumatic stress, and had to cope without HIV treatment for more than three years. 

    A Positive Pathways Community Health Worker discovered Sarah’s situation in July 2011 and reached out to her, calling her more than 10 times before she finally responded. With the support of the Health Worker and a medical case manager, Sarah began addressing her post-traumatic stress, secured safe and regular transportation to a treatment site, re-engaged in HIV care, and even received assistance with her housing needs. 

    Support from Within the Community

    Community Health Workers in Washington, DC

    A group of Community Health Workers with the Washington AIDS Partnership's Positive Pathways Program.

    In Washington, DC, Community Health Workers are frontline support for hard-to-reach women suffering from untreated HIV and AIDS. Washington AIDS Partnership’s innovative Positive Pathways program recruits Health Workers from the city’s high-risk communities and trains them to help their neighbors overcome barriers to treatment. 

    Through the Community Health Worker network, Positive Pathways identifies out-of-care women, builds peer-based trust, teaches them about living with HIV, provides personalized assistance to help them navigate service systems, and supports them throughout the early part of their medical care until they become independently engaged.

    Expanding Care to More People

    Because of this innovative model for connecting with hard-to-reach women, the Washington AIDS Partnership received a $320,000 Social Innovation Fund grant through AIDS United in 2011.  During the first eight months of implementation, the Washington AIDS Partnership contacted 2,367 individuals and enrolled 268 people who had been out of care. With additional funding from the Social Innovation Fund, the program aims to enroll 500 more people.

    Nearly 14,500 people live with HIV or AIDS in Washington, DC. For almost half of these people—around 42 percent—there is no evidence that they are in care. Community Health Workers are making critical strides to enhance their health, quality and length of life, while also strengthening our collective efforts toward prevention.


    Sarah’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.

    *Sarah’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.


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

     

  • Matching Jobseekers to Careers

    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.

    Travis is a single father of two from Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Since 2008, Travis had bounced between part-time and temporary jobs. His wages had peaked at around $10 per hour, though he needed at least $12-$14 an hour to support his family. With limited interviewing and workforce experience, he didn’t think he would ever find full-time work – let alone have a career.

    Travis found a solution when he was referred to Madison Strategies Group’s (MSG) WorkAdvance program in August 2011. 

    Why Does WorkAdvance Work?

    Through WorkAdvance, Travis received career counseling, gained interviewing skills, and was referred to full-time jobs with room for advancement. In less than three months, Travis was working for Southwest United Industries as a shipping and receiving clerk making $12 an hour. With the continued support of WorkAdvance, Travis earned a raise in less than one year on the job. He’s now earning $14.50 an hour in a stable, full-time position. 

    The success of the MSG’s WorkAdvance program lies in its focus on the needs of employers as well as the needs of jobseekers. When WorkAdvance first opened its doors in Tulsa, it identified transportation as a growth industry with significant labor market and skills gaps. MSG worked with transportation companies to understand their needs. In the process, MSG identified high-quality, career-track job opportunities in the sector and developed programs to prepare adults like Travis to be hired and to excel.

    The WorkAdvance model was developed by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), and from research results from several national studies. The model builds on evidence showing that an industry-focused approach to workforce development can improve job placement rates and wages.

  • Helping People with Mental Illnesses Thrive

    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.

    Josh, 45, was one of the millions of Americans suffering from a mental illness, but he was not receiving treatment. He was unemployed and living in a halfway house, and he could hardly find the motivation to do the dishes or leave his room.

    "I felt I wasn't going anywhere," he said. “I hadn’t had a job for a year, and I wasn’t a part of anything. I decided I needed to get out and be more active.”

    That is when Josh turned to Buckelew Programs, a nonprofit organization that, for 40 years, has provided homes, jobs, and hope to people with mental illness. 

    Working Their Way Back Into Society

    An estimated one in four adults in the United States experiences a mental health disorder [1], In addition to the immense personal struggles individuals face, the economic cost of mental illness to the nation is also substantial, including the costs associated with lost productivity

    That’s why in addition to providing traditional clinical services, Buckelew helps people with mental illnesses build the personal and professional skills they need to succeed and keep steady jobs. Buckelew also hires people like Josh to work for their social enterprises. Josh gained experience as a cleaning professional through Buckelew’s Blue Skies Cleaning Service, which specializes in environmentally-friendly office cleaning. This experience positioned him to find a job at Northgate Mall in Marin County, California, and eventually enabled him to move out of the halfway house and into a permanent home. 

    “I’ve learned responsibility and how to work with others,” Josh reflects. “It’s a good work environment, and I like the effort it takes.…I feel useful—a part of something—and that makes me feel good.”

  • The Promise of Crowdfunding for Social Enterprise

    Earlier this month, the White House hosted a briefing for the American Sustainable Business Council, a national network serving social enterprises from early-stage startups to established success stories, like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s.  Senior White House staff took time to meet with chief executives and thought leaders, such as Seventh Generation founder Jeffrey Hollender and Stonyfield Farms pioneer Gary Hirshberg, to discuss many aspects of the President’s agenda to support overall economic growth, including the Impact Economy

    As part of the conversation, the discussion focused on the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act.  The JOBS Act is a bipartisan bill signed by the President into law in April that will allow small businesses and startups to raise capital from investors more efficiently, leading to faster growth and hiring. 

    One of the key features of the JOBS Act is to enable “crowdfunding” – letting companies raise up to $1 million in small increments from many investors.  As the President said, this is “a potential game changer”:

    Right now, you can only turn to a limited group of investors -- including banks and wealthy individuals -- to get funding.  Laws that are nearly eight decades old make it impossible for others to invest.  But a lot has changed in 80 years, and it’s time our laws did as well.  Because of this bill, start-ups and small business will now have access to a big, new pool of potential investors -- namely, the American people.  For the first time, ordinary Americans will be able to go online and invest in entrepreneurs that they believe in.

    In many ways, nonprofits and social enterprises are already adept at raising money through crowdfunding – think of donation-based tools like Network for Good or zero-interest microfinance platforms like Kiva.  What the JOBS Act will do is allow micro-investors to purchase a stake in the venture.

    Many social enterprises already have benefited from donation-based crowdfunding platforms, and they are looking forward this new opportunity to attract impact-minded investors.  Two such companies guest-posted on the White House blog, and their founders attended the JOBS Act signing ceremony:  Stockbox Grocers builds tiny grocery stores in urban “food deserts,” while LuminAID Lab manufactures solar-powered lights for disaster relief.  Both companies stress the power of crowdfunding to connect social enterprises with their communities and customers.

    At a time when nonprofits are struggling for revenue, as charitable donations have slowed and government budgets are tight, the social sector needs to find new strategies to attract resources.  The Obama Administration has taken some important steps toward this end, developing policies and programs to unlock capital and to increase investment.  For example, the Administration launched the Social Innovation Fund to provide growth capital to high impact nonprofits. In two years, it has catalyzed nearly $400 million toward communities’ solutions. The Treasury Department recently updated the example Program Related Investments, providing guidance that should facilitate the flow of impact investing from foundations and philanthropists to support businesses and nonprofits pursuing charitable purposes.

    Building on this momentum, crowdfunding offers tremendous promise.  Some believe that it has the potential to revitalize underserved communities by improving access to capital for small businesses.  As the leader of a major group representing Main Street microenterprises recently wrote, “Given the tremendous demand for credit among microbusinesses and entrepreneurs, crowdfunding offers real promise for underserved business entrepreneurs and may allow the organizations that serve them the ability to reach even deeper into the entrepreneurial community.”

    To be clear, investment-based crowdfunding is not legal just yet. Congress required the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to write new rules of the road for crowdfunding, which will be finalized in 2013. Some open questions include the following:

    • Any company raising money through crowdfunding must use an SEC-regulated intermediary.  How should these intermediaries be required to educate investors, safeguard investor privacy, reduce the risk of fraud, and ensure other investor protections?
    • In any given year, investors are limited in the total amount they can invest across all crowdfunding investments (5% of annual income or net worth if less than $100,000, or 10% of annual income or net worth if greater than $100,000).  How should intermediaries be required to verify that investors stay within these limits?
    • What disclosures should be required of the companies raising money through crowdfunding, above and beyond those spelled out by Congress?

    The SEC has invited members of the public to submit comments to inform their rulemaking.  These comments could include considerations unique to social enterprises, along with those investors willing to trade some financial return for greater social or environmental benefits.

    To provide comments on crowdfunding, read the JOBS Act and visit the SEC comment page.

    Doug Rand is a Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.