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.”

$650 million “Investing in Innovation” education fund finalists

For some of you, Wednesday’s post about the Harlem Children’s Zone was sort of an education reform buzz kill. If you’re wondering, “What do we do now?,” here’s this: The US Dept. of Education just named the finalists for its $650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) fund–which dwarfs even the $210 million best case scenario for the Promise Neighborhood fund.

The finalists include the fairly well-regarded KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter school company, and the City of New York (public obviously, but also known for its market-based approaches to education). That’s already interesting because for those who consider charter schools to be a threat to public education, consider that there are several KIPP schools in NYC, and both proposals may be be funded.

  • KIPP wants $50 million for a national principal training program that they claim leads to “radically improved student achievement and attainment outcomes.”
  • NYC  wants $5 million for a very fancy sounding computer program that collects data on all students and uses a “state-of-the-art learning algorithm” (like Google!) to create individually customized and adaptive curricula called “playlists” (like Apple!).

It’s “City Week” (at Harvard, not here)

If you were on the campus of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government this week (and next), you’d have the benefit of “City Week.” These three sessions are particularly relevant for Springfield:

  • Innovations in Government: Revitalizing a Community through EducationSeminar with Kingsport, Tennessee’s Higher Education Program. Come hear how Kingsport reversed a downturning manufacturing-based economy and launched a successful ‘Educate and Grow’ campaign to attract new business investment by upgrading the quality of its workforce. This initiative won the Innovations in American Government Award in 2009.
  • Post Racial America: The Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative. IOP Fellow The Honorable Greg Nickels, Former Mayor of Seattle, WA hostsspecial guest Mickey Fearn, Deputy Director of the National Parks Service in Washington, D.C. and former Director, Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative
  • Geography, Venture Capital, and Public Policy: Can Publicly Supported Entrepreneurship Succeed? Josh Lerner, Schiff Professor of Investment Banking, Harvard Business School

“Can Buffalo ever come back?” More lessons for Springfield and Holyoke

Buffalo NYBecause UMass Amherst economist Nancy Folbre mentioned him in her NY Times blog post about The Springfield Institute and community-based economic development, I started looking into conservative Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and came upon his piece, “Can Buffalo ever come back?” (City Journal, Autumn 07).

Glaeser asks why other cities have been able to create post-industrial futures for themselves while Buffalo has not: “The other old, cold cities that staved off decline, like Boston and Minneapolis, similarly reinvented themselves, with the density that once served to move cargo onto ships now helping spread the latest ideas. The key ingredient: human capital. The cities that bounced back did so thanks to smart entrepreneurs, who figured out new ways for their cities to thrive.

But in places like Buffalo, “Scores of close to worthless urban projects have received government funding not because any cost-benefit analysis has justified them but because of hazy claims that they would make some once-great area thrive again.

Glaeser recommends “people-based policies that improve the economic futures of the children growing up there…. If the children of upstate cities were better educated, then they would earn more as adults—whether they stayed in their hometowns or moved to Las Vegas. And people-based policies may actually motivate states and cities to spend more wisely, in order to retain their newly educated and mobile residents.

But even then, Glaeser warns that fixing education and cultivating entrepreneurship “would not restore the boomtown of the early twentieth century; the economic trends working against such a prospect are simply too great. The best scenario would be for Buffalo to become a much smaller but more vibrant community—shrinking to greatness, in effect.

A few of my own reactions:

  • Glaeser alludes to a critical young adult demographic that Governor Patrick has recently named as a priority. And where retaining and attracting young people is a priority throughout the Commonwealth, it is particularly important in Springfield and Holyoke.
  • At this point, fixing education in Springfield and Holyoke is already a priority. But we’re not seeing results. How to transform this system is a formidable question in its own right.
  • Understanding Buffalo and the ideas of people like Edward Glaeser and Nancy Folbre is an important step toward breaking down the isolation that Springfield and Holyoke have suffered from, and inserting these cities into a national conversation about the future of metropolitan America.

Youngstown: “There’s a radical transformation going on here right now”

“Where to be an entrepreneur: The dreamer: Youngstown, Ohio”, Entrepreneur Magazine, August 2009:

“Youngstown fell so far, traditional community leaders threw up their hands and told the younger generation, ‘You guys try'”

“The new generation is envisioning things we wouldn’t have talked about 10 years ago.”

Youngstown, Ohio

Youngstown, Ohio