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.”

Brookings: Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools “about average,” Obama’s Promise Neighborhood funds may be cut

Brookings released a report on July 20th showing that the Harlem Children’s Zone’s (HCZ) charter school, called The Promise Academy, performs no better than other NYC charter schools, and suggesting that the significant extra expense of wrap around social support services may not be worth it. (You can follow the back-and-forth that ensued between HCZ’s iconic head, Geoffrey Canada, and the report authors via this excellent summary from City Limits.) At the same time, Congress is considering cutting the Obama’s Administration’s Promise Neighborhood initiative (which is based on the HCZ model) from $210 million to $20 million. HCZ and its partner, PolicyLink, launched a campaign to save the funding.

About a year ago, an ad hoc group formed in Springfield and Holyoke to figure out how to apply the HCZ model in this region. Two delegations were sent to the HCZ conference, but in the end the group decided it was not prepared to submit a competitive proposal for Promise Neighborhood funding. You can see here that there were 339 applicants, including Boston, Lawrence, Worcester, Somerville, Fall River, Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport. Part of the reluctance to submit a proposal was that Geoff Canada has over $70 million to spend every year on a section of Harlem that is the size of a single neighborhood in Springfield. No one in Springfield has that kind of money, and a $210 million fund for the entire country is no substitute for HCZ’s incredible hedge fund/Wall Street funding base.

We have made these points about funding and inconclusive evidence for HCZ’s basic claims in previous posts. But questions about the value of HCZ’s holistic approach don’t sit well with us. We know for ourselves, and we hear from stakeholders in and outside the schools, that poverty and neighborhood instability are the best predictors of even narrowly defined academic performance (e.g., MCAS scores). To improve school performance, we need jobs, access to health care and healthy food, democratic participation, and a built environment that is conducive to healthy, happy families.

As a result of the state’s recent level 4 chronically underperforming school determinations (10 out of 35 are in Springfield), many different groups have a renewed interest in bold approaches. And the Springfield school department is legally obligated to make big changes. At The Springfield Institute, our job is to help a broad range of stakeholders organize, track leading edge research and policy analysis, and deploy bold and highly accountable approaches to help ensure that these efforts and financial resources yield results.

CORI Reform Roundtable, CORI Independence Day (6/30)

If you liked this video of Orlando Ramos discussing CORI reform, you’ll love this roundtable discussion with Orlando, Frances Smith (who’s off to the US Social Forum in Detroit), Gilberto Rolon, and Betty Agin from the Health Disparities Project (above). And we’ve added a short Spanish language version (below). This is all leading up to CORI Independence Day on June 30th, from 10-6, at Blunt Park in Springfield. Pro bono attorneys will help you seal your record. Download flyer here.