Posted on December 30, 2009
2009: White House Pledges Support for Social Innovation, Public-Private Partnerships
PND -- 2009: White House Pledges Support for Social Innovation, Public-Private Partnerships
Even before Barack Obama became the forty-fourth president of the United States in January, there was a sense in the country that the relationship between the federal government and nonprofits, foundations, and social entrepreneurs was ripe for change. But while some leaders in the social sector expected to be warmly embraced by the first Democratic administration in eight years, the urgent demands of the global economic crisis soon pushed the administration's agenda in a different direction and left many sector leaders feeling frustrated if not hopeful.
The new administration assumed the reins of government on January 20, one day after Martin Luther King Day, which was celebrated as a national day of volunteering and prompted Vice President-elect Biden to declare that the president-elect had "clearly and very specifically made service an agenda for his presidency." Indeed, by April the president had signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which reauthorized and expanded national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, including the AmeriCorps program. Although the bill was hailed by many as reflecting a historic shift toward more government support for volunteerism, others remained disappointed by what they saw as the administration's tendency to talk a good game with respect to the nonprofit sector while being relatively stingy with actual dollars.
The eagerly awaited Social Innovation Fund was an example of the latter. Established as part of the Serve America Act, the fund was authorized at $50 million for FY 2010 — an amount many nonprofit leaders criticized as inadequate to achieve the fund's mission of creating new knowledge about how to solve social challenges. While how the fund might evolve remains the subject of discussion, in the short run it will provide grants of up to $10 million annually to five to seven intermediary organizations, which in turn will make matching grants of at least $100,000 to innovative, community-based nonprofits that can show evidence of results.
In June the administration unveiled another initiative, United We Serve, a twelve-week effort to engage Americans in community service efforts that culminated in a national day of service on September 11, the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The initiative, which was generally well received and leveraged funding from several foundations, nonprofits, and state service commissions, targeted four key areas in which, according to the administration, sustained volunteer work can have a continuing effect on communities: education, health, energy and the environment, and community renewal.
The most important public-private partnership of the year, however, was the one authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and spearheaded by the Department of Education. Armed with $5 billion set aside for education reform through the so-called Race to the Top Fund, DoE pushed states to meet a series of conditions designed to boost their chances of receiving funding. At the same time, one of the nation's most ardent supporters of education reform, Bill Gates, made a number of appearances to promote his foundation's latest education initiative, the development of uniform achievement standards and teacher effectivness metrics, telling lawmakers at the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures in July, "We don't know the answers because we're not even asking the right questions."
Indeed, while Gates and his foundation took some heat for being too involved with and supportive of the administration's reform efforts, Gates defended the partnership, telling the AP, "It's no secret the U.S. education system is failing. We're doing all kinds of experiments that are different. The Race to the Top is going to do many different ones. There's no group-think."
President Obama Signs Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (4/23/09)
National Community Service Initiative Launched, Leveraged by Organizations Across the Country (6/24/09)
Obama Pledges Support for Social Innovation, Encourages Public-Private Partnerships (7/02/09)
Fund to Provide $650 Million in Stimulus Money to Innovative Education Programs (8/25/09)
Gates Foundation Investing Millions to Sway Federal Education Dollars (10/27/09)
Congress Allocates $50 Million for Social Innovation Fund, Cuts Funding for Other Nonprofit Programs (12/20/09)