A Little Faith in Social Service Innovation

Social innovation as a concept is rooted in a relentless focus on results -- on getting help to those in need in the most effective manner possible.
by , | July 14, 2010

In 1993, Springfield, Ohio, faced crises of growing poverty and an astounding divorce rate. A new group of concerned citizens and civic leaders, calling themselves The Nehemiah Foundation, came together to change that. Using their collective leverage as a source of philanthropic funds, they worked to promote cooperation among Springfield's faith-based food banks, youth workers and more. Across the city these grassroots providers became known as "street saints" and today they reach 6,000 families every week.

As director of the Ohio Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Krista Sisterhen worked closely with the Nehemiah Foundation's CEO Wally Martinson. She calls his effort "the best model I have seen of a faith-based intermediary working with government and other private funders to make life better in their community."

In our new book The Power of Social Innovation, we studied dozens of innovative organizations like the Nehemiah Foundation. We set out to learn how these social innovators -- some faith-based, many secular -- interact with public systems to produce social good. We also sought to understand the role that local government plays in social innovation -- both as impediment and as champion.

Especially at this time of fiscal distress, the concept of social innovation offers great promise for government officials looking to create more public value. Collaboration between the nonprofit, philanthropic and public sectors is routine, of course. But with its potential to transform entrenched service networks and deliver results, social innovation promises something more.

The social innovation trend follows on the heels of the effort to leverage the potential of faith-based providers that started roughly two decades ago.

In the 1990s, lead author Stephen Goldsmith gained national attention for promoting collaboration between city government and the faith community as mayor of Indianapolis. His Front Porch Alliance was based on the belief that religious congregations can transform lives and communities in ways that government cannot. Goldsmith actively solicited feedback from religious leaders, forced city agencies to create new partnerships with faith providers and used the bully pulpit to encourage foundations and businesses to do the same.

The Front Porch Alliance did much to increase the collective impact of local faith providers. What it didn't do, however, was transform the underperforming network of established providers in the existing social service system.

Just a few years later, newly-elected President Bush adopted increased federal support for faith providers as a flagship issue. With Goldsmith as advisor, one of the president's earliest actions was to issue an executive order "to guarantee a level playing field for faith-based organizations."

John DiIulio, the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (OFBCI), soon released Unlevel Playing Field. The study shed a light on the extent to which the "armies of compassion" were providing important services in communities across the country. Yet opaque and burdensome application procedures and eligibility requirements led to a disproportionately small percentage of applicable government funding support of faith-based organizations (FBOs). The report also showed how so many federal dollars were going to the same incumbent providers year after year with little evidence that they worked.

DiIulio set out to unleash the potential of FBOs by making the funding application process more accessible and inclusive; supporting the capacity of small providers to access federal dollars, which tend to get distributed in huge chunks; and forcing a cultural change both across federal agencies and down into states and cities. Here's how they fared in each area:

More inclusive process. The OFBCI reviewed and revised rules regulating who was eligible for federal dollars. They simplified the application process and encouraged the use of intermediaries to distribute federal dollars, making it easier for small providers to participate.

Capacity building. The OFBCI established the Compassion Capital Fund, which distributed $300 million to regional and state-level intermediaries. These organizations, in turn, provided training, one-on-one technical assistance and small grants to faith-based providers to increase their reach.

Cultural change. Staff of the OFBCI knew there was only so much they could do from inside the White House. So they reached into federal cabinet agencies and helped each set up its own office of faith-based and community initiatives. The White House charged each agency with revising its grant application processes, including retraining staff and informing FBOs of their rights and responsibilities as grantees.

Today, the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation's efforts resemble the Bush administration's support of faith-based providers. It has designed a $50 million social innovation fund in a way that employs intermediaries, relieving some of the burden that smaller providers would otherwise face.

Like Goldsmith in Indianapolis, the Obama administration has also encouraged private philanthropists to support social innovation through a matching fund program, recently securing a $50 million commitment from three leading foundations. The President and First Lady have both used the bully pulpit to increase expectations for performance and for encouraging innovation and reform.

Social innovation as a concept is rooted in a relentless focus on results -- on getting help to those in need in the most effective manner possible. These lessons apply at every level of government, but are particularly applicable to the municipal level, where much of the actual service work is done. Many earnest local officials are looking to increase the impact of their shrinking social service dollars, and applying the strategies of these faith-based initiatives to a broader social innovation initiative could prove to be a powerful tool in that effort.

The Government Innovator's Network at Harvard Kennedy School will host a free webinar on Engaging the Citizen as Co-Producer of Social Good on Thursday, July 15 at 2 p.m. ET. For more information on the Power of Social Innovation webinar series, please click here.

Gigi Georges | Contributor