Could social innovation come in a black box?: Challenges for pubic and private funders

When a good proposal is rejected, do you ever wonder if merit had anything to do with it? According to Saturday’s NY Times, many of the winning proposals submitted to the $50 million Social Innovation Fund (not to be confused with the $650 million Investing in Innovation fund we covered on 8/6) received low scores from the 48 independent reviewers. There were also conflicts of interest.

I have a personal interest in this issue. A couple weeks ago I completed my work as the chair of a review committee for a US Dept. of Health and Human Services grant worth about $1 million. We signed this and other forms related to conflict of interest and confidentiality. The oversight was good, we really stuck to the objective criteria from the RFP, and we had to defend our scores with specific examples. Now I’m eager to see how funding decisions match up with our evaluations….

Lest you think the problem is contained to Washington, let me share an experience with a private foundation in this area. An hour after submitting a proposal, we received this email:

“Thank you for submitting a Grant Application on the World Wide Website of [funder name omitted]. A thorough review of the application was made, and we regret to inform you that the application was rejected….”

Incredulous, I responded asking if this was a mistake. The funder’s response:

“There is no mistake.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T.”

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