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Harvard Family Research Project describes the functions of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and its oversight of the federal Social Innovation Fund.

In response to the perceived lack of innovation and use of rigorous approaches to identifying “what works” in the nonprofit sector, last year President Obama created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The office is a part of the Domestic Policy Council, the entity that coordinates domestic policy making in the White House.

In April 2009, Sonal Shah, who previously headed Google’s global development team, the search engine’s philanthropic arm, was appointed to lead the new office. Prior to Google, she had worked for think tanks including the Center for Global Development and the Center for American Progress as well as for the U.S. government in the Department of Treasury.

The new office seeks to address the need to identify and scale up successful nonprofit initiatives and has four primary goals. First, it aims to develop partnerships between the government and nonprofits, businesses, and philanthropists. Second, it works to support the rigorous evaluation and scaling of innovative, promising practices. Third, it supports the use of new media tools to encourage greater civic participation. Lastly, it promotes national service.

The office emphasizes the value of government funding for bottom-up initiatives—that is, nonprofit initiatives that are driven by those outside of government. Speaking at the 2009 Global Philanthropy Forum Conference, Shah told donors and grantmakers, “Partnerships matter a lot to us. It’s not just that the government does, and everybody else follows. It really is about where can we learn and what can we do differently.” 1

The office welcomes ideas and innovations from new and long-standing organizations alike, as Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council, stressed in an interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Often when there’s change, people believe we are leaving what’s been working over time behind. The idea is to add capacity and to bring new ideas and new people and new models to the fore and to the task of addressing these big challenges. This shouldn’t be seen as the White House turning its back on the more traditional allies and moving on to something new. An organization that’s been around for 80 years can have an innovative idea, an idea that will have significant impact and build capacity.” 2

Related Resources

The press release about the creation of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation can be found online at:

Information on the Social Innovation Fund can be found on the Corporation for National and Community Service’s website at: This website includes press releases, official statements, and updates on the Fund, including information about the status of the Notice of Funding Availability. is an online resource managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service to help citizens find volunteer opportunities and to facilitate the creation of new ones. It is part of United We Serve, a national service initiative. For more information, visit: On this website, you can create your own project, recruit volunteers, find volunteer opportunities, and read and share stories of people’s experiences in volunteer service.

Social Innovation Fund
The Social Innovation Fund is a priority for the new office. The office is working in collaboration with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs national service programs, to set up the Social Innovation Fund pilot program. This program was authorized in the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009, which expanded the national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service. According to Nicola Goren, acting CEO of the corporation, “The goal is to build a pipeline of organizations and practices with strong evidence, and the capacity to grow and increase the impact of their work. The Social Innovation Fund will provide the support needed to help move organizations from the promising stage to the stage where they have more concrete evidence that what they do works.”3

In the FY2010 budget, President Obama requested $50 million for the Social Innovation Fund program. The draft Notice of Funding Availability for this fund was made available to the public for review in December 2009. According to the press release for the Fund, every dollar in federal funding must be matched by three dollars in private funds. The plan is to provide 5-year grants, ranging from $5 million to $10 million, to between five and seven intermediaries (i.e., grantmaking organizations) in FY2010. These intermediaries will then provide subgrants to community organizations to identify and scale promising, results-oriented nonprofit programs. In addition, the intermediaries that receive federal funding are required to provide other supports (besides funding) to the identified promising programs, including assistance with management, fundraising, and evaluation needs.

Harvard Family Research Project

1. Wilhelm, I. (2009). White House Social Innovation office to have three goals. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved January 14, 2010, from:

2. Perry, S. (2009). White House officials discuss plans for Social-Innovation Office. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved January 14, 2010, from:

3. Goren, N. (October 8, 2009). Replicating success. White House Blog. Retrieved January 14, 2010, from:

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