Can Federal Funds Help Social Service Groups Work Smarter? The Obama administration's Social Innovation Fund has spent millions to help scores of nonprofits develop innovative solutions to pressing social problems. While participating groups say they're helping thousands of people, it's not yet clear what the government is getting for its money.
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Can Federal Funds Help Social Service Groups Work Smarter?

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Can Federal Funds Help Social Service Groups Work Smarter?

Can Federal Funds Help Social Service Groups Work Smarter?

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When President Obama first took office, he promoted an idea called the Social Innovation Fund.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're going to use this fund to find the most promising nonprofits in America.

BLOCK: Nonprofits, he said, that are good at solving social problems. The plan was to give them money so they could grow and spread their ideas. So far, the fund has handed out $138 million to 200 groups. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, the benefits to taxpayers are not yet clear.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The point of all this social innovation is people like Jasmine Chestnut: 20 years old, vulnerable, struggling in school but smart enough to know she when she needed help.

JASMINE CHESTNUT: Once my family found out about my grades, they cut me off completely. I came home for Thanksgiving. I didn't have nowhere to stay. I didn't have any money. I didn't really know what I was going to do.

FESSLER: She was a college freshman in Miami, her first time away from a troubled Washington, D.C. home: no father, sick mother, relatives who didn't seem to want her.

CHESTNUT: All I had at that point in time was Ms. Bradley. She was the only adult that I had.

ZEBUNISSA BRADLEY: My name is Zebunissa Bradley, college support advisor with the KIPP DC KIPP Through College office.

FESSLER: Bradley's job is to help disadvantaged students succeed. Jasmine Chestnut had been in the KIPP charter school system since middle school. Now, they were trying to guide her on the next step: through college. Bradley suspected Chestnut was having trouble when she stopped returning her calls.

BRADLEY: So then one day, I got a call. And it was like, Ms. Zeb, you should sit down for this.

FESSLER: Turns out, things had spiraled out of control. Chestnut was failing her courses, in debt and lost. And her family wouldn't pay for her to come home. Eventually, Bradley flew to Miami, helped the college freshman pack up her things, return to D.C. and figure out what next.

BRADLEY: She thought, I'm done with college.

FESSLER: So here's where the innovation part comes in. KIPP DC is part of something called youthConnect, created with money from President Obama's Social Innovation Fund. It's a coalition of six nonprofits that work with troubled D.C. youth. So Bradley called one of the other partners, Year Up, which helps students train for technology jobs. And Jasmine Chestnut loved technology.

CHESTNUT: We were like, OK, we cannot allow this passion to diminish.

FESSLER: So long story short, Chestnut joined Year Up, got A's in all her classes and is now interning at a Washington think tank, with counseling and housing help from another youthConnect partner.

CHESTNUT: Once I got in, I kind of like regained my focus as far as my education goes, and now I'm here.

MARC SCHINDLER: Given the right supports and the right investments for these young people, they can excel.

FESSLER: Marc Schindler is with Venture Philanthropy Partners, which set up youthConnect using the social innovation funds and private donations. He says they know the kids they deal with have too many problems for any one group to solve.

SCHINDLER: And so we challenged ourselves and them to come together around a table and figure out ways that we could do more together than we could individually.

FESSLER: Just the kind of thing the Social Innovation Fund, also known as SIF, is looking for: pooled resources, shared ideas in areas like education, job training, health care. YouthConnect is also looking at the best way to measure success. Another big part of the fund: getting results you can wrap your hands around like a business. Sounds good. But some critics say they're not really seeing those results.

PAUL LIGHT: I don't think SIF has sparked a great deal of social innovation, and I don't think SIF knows what social innovation is.

FESSLER: Paul Light is a public policy professor at NYU and served on a review panel for the fund. He thinks that some of the nonprofits involved, like KIPP, do really good work, but he says the government has yet to show that the Social Innovation Fund has had much impact other than to boast that it's served 174,000 people in two years.

LIGHT: Congress and the President should not care how many people walked through the front door of these many projects. They should care what happened to those people and whether they walked out the front door again with a job or a better quality of life.

FESSLER: Wendy Spencer agrees that results are crucial. She's CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs the fund. She says one accomplishment is that the fund has attracted $350 million in private matching funds to help nonprofits do their work. She says the plan for the coming year is to study what it means.

WENDY SPENCER: How has it really changed lives? How has it changed communities? And have these nonprofits really been able to thrive and scale? Could they have done it without us?

FESSLER: Important questions as Congress considers whether to provide more money. As for Jasmine Chestnut, her advisor says there's no doubt the young woman's chances of success have improved, but it could be years before they know how much. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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