Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Social Innovation: A Strategy for Expanding Opportunity

    This week, I had the pleasure of attending the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Chicago, IL. This annual gathering of the nonprofit sector brings together activists and organizers, government officials and nonprofit leaders from around the country. These individuals shared best practices, swapped ideas and shined a spotlight on stories of service and innovation in our communities.

    This year, many conference attendees were talking about how to use financial capital to spread successful solutions from one community to others all across the country. One of the most important developments in this area is the Social Innovation Fund (SIF). Launched in 2010 and managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), SIF invests money in nonprofits and foundations, so they can accelerate the work of high-impact organizations and replicate their approaches in new localities and markets. 

    SIF recently announced grants to 49 nonprofit groups and local public agencies. Every dollar the SIF spends is matched with private money, three to one.  With these new grants, SIF is now supporting nearly 200 innovative organizations in 34 states and the District of Columbia. It is financing the expansion of initiatives focused on youth development, economic opportunity, and healthy futures while touching the lives of thousands of families and improving the prospects of tens of thousands of Americans. 

  • Opening the Door for Program Related Investments

    Recently, the Obama Administration took a simple but important step that has the potential to do a lot of good in communities across the country – anything from improving education, creating opportunity in low-income communities, or keeping our water and air safe.

    Traditionally, foundations have tackled our most vexing problems primarily by making grants to organizations. Foundations are required to make annual charitable contributions of at least five percent of their total assets. These overwhelmingly are done via grants and most stay very close to the five percent minimum. The remaining 95 percent of assets are maintained in an endowment and typically invested in a diversified portfolio in order to preserve or increase value to enable continued giving in the future.  The proposed rule issued by the Treasury Department and IRS would make it easier for philanthropies to make what are called Program Related Investments (PRIs).

    PRIs allow foundations to put more of their resources to work to advance their charitable mission through means other than grant-making – like equity investments, loans, loan guarantees, or other investments. Despite their flexibility, PRIs historically have not been used with much frequency because of confusion as to how they work and the high costs associated with them.  For example, many foundations find it necessary to proactively seek legal counsel to confirm that an investment would qualify under the definition of charitable purpose even before using a PRI.  

  • Service Members Help Meet the Needs of Young Children

    Jumpstart children and Corps Member read "Make Way for Ducklings"

    Jumpstart children and Corps member read Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey during a classroom session.

    Ed. note: To recognize the impact service members have on young children, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation introduces readers to Naila Bolus, President and Chief Executive Officer of Jumpstart, one of the largest part-time AmeriCorps programs.

    When asked how service members expand educational opportunities for preschool children in low-income communities, Naila writes:

    In North Philadelphia, 50 Temple University students – all Jumpstart Corps members – have spent the past two semesters immersed in preschool classrooms in one of this city’s most under-resourced communities. Twice each week they trod past garbage-strewn abandoned lots, broken sidewalks and shuttered buildings into classrooms infested with cockroaches. But they can see what many people cannot – the wealth of opportunity in the community and the tremendous potential in the young children they serve. As I sat with a group of eight Jumpstart Corps members this week, they were reflecting on their year of service and the incredible progress made by their “partner” children – e.g. a reticent child now one of the most outspoken; a child who couldn’t recognize the letters in her name now able to write them clearly. As these Jumpstart Corps members prepare to take their final exams, they do so with the pride of knowing that they have helped dozens of children master the language and literacy skills they need to succeed in school and in life.

    For too many young children, the neighborhood in which they live remains the greatest predictor for their future success. Indeed, children in low-income neighborhoods start kindergarten 60% behind their wealthier peers[1], and in the absence of high-quality programs – like Jumpstart – this gap only continues to widen as children advance through school and life. Conversely, research tells us that investing in high-quality early education is the best way to increase lifetime productivity and graduation rates while decreasing crime and other societal ills. In fact, as Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago professor James Heckman has shown, every dollar invested in early education produces a return on investment of at least 7% and in some studies as high as 15%.

  • Volunteers to the Rescue

    Volunteers Help Out in Salisbury

    Two volunteers in Salisbury, NC help rebuild an abandoned home on Make A Difference Day 2011.

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is celebrating National Volunteer Week on April 15th– 21stto recognize individuals who serve their communities. This blog post introduces readers to Paul Woodson, Mayor of Salisbury, NC. The City of Salisbury transformed two neglected blocks of South Shaver Street and is an honoree for the Make A Difference Day city awards. When asked about the impact volunteering has had on communities, Mayor Woodson writes:

    Like many Piedmont North Carolina communities, Salisbury was hit hard by closures of textile mills in the ‘90s followed by two deep recessions. The resulting decline in private-sector revenues dug a deep hole in public and non-profit budgets, causing the city government to struggle to provide the same services without a tax increase.

    Founded in 1753, Salisbury is an older city with an aging housing stock. To compound the challenge, the housing crisis of 2008 left many homeowners stranded, either battling foreclosure or without disposable income to make needed repairs to their homes. This left a ripple of deterioration throughout many city neighborhoods.  

    The Salisbury Community Appearance Commission (CAC), a City Council advisory board, spearheaded a partnership with the Council to develop a cohesive concept that would help foster accountability among residents and communities for cleaner, safer neighborhoods -- one block at a time. With Council support, the CAC implemented a unique initiative called BlockWork.

  • The BIG DIG Inspires Community Pride

    Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is celebrating National Volunteer Week on April 15th – 21st to recognize individuals who serve their communities. This blog post introduces readers to Jerramiah T. Healy, Mayor of Jersey City, NJ. In 2011, over 600 volunteers beautified 80 sites in one day and due to their efforts, Jersey City is an honoree for the Make A Difference Day city awards. When asked about the impact volunteering has had on communities, Mayor Healy writes:

    As the second largest city in the state, Jersey City is known as Wall Street West for the hundreds of financial services corporations that are located here. Our city of 250,000 people is one of the most diverse in the nation and we pride ourselves on celebrating both our diversity and our civic pride. 

    For the past three years, Jersey City has demonstrated this civic pride by participating in Make A Difference Day, the annual volunteer effort sponsored by USA Weekend Magazine and supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency for volunteering and service.

    Volunteers Help Out in Jersey CIty

    Youth volunteers help plant tulip and daffodil bulbs on Make A Difference Day 2011 as part of Jersey City’s ‘The Big Dig’ project.

    For Make a Difference Day 2011, The Jersey City Parks Coalition, conceptualized a citywide planting project named the ‘BIG DIG’.  Volunteers would plant hearty tulip and daffodil bulbs in parks and patches of grass throughout the city.  Come spring, the fruits of our mutual labor would be reaped.

  • Expanding Opportunity through Active Volunteering

    While the economy continues to show signs of improvement, there are still many workers who are facing challenges in connecting to new careers. The Department of Labor has encouraged dislocated workers to pursue education and training to improve their skills and better position them to compete for employment opportunities.  Many workers have taken advantage of these opportunities, but it is also important to lay a path forward for those workers who have not enrolled in training and seek other options to build their skills and increase their chances to find employment.

    Today, the Department has issued guidance—in the form of an Unemployment Insurance Program Letter (UIPL)—recognizing that active volunteering can help expand opportunity for unemployed individuals by enabling them to develop and maintain skills, expand their professional networks, and enhance their resumes while helping in their community.  Activities such as coordinating an after-school program, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or assisting individuals in filing Earned Income Tax Credit claims all create immediate benefit for individuals in need and underserved communities.  Such activities also help the participants to sharpen the soft skills that many employers demand.

    We also know that, as more businesses stress the importance of corporate citizenship and shared value, many more are encouraging their workers to volunteer.   In many ways, this is not a new development.  A wide range of companies such as AT&T and IBM have long standing programs that encourage employees to volunteer.  As this trend continues to spread, knowing that a job seeker is already committed to the community may be another positive attribute from the employer’s perspective when assessing potential candidates.