When President Obama first took office in 2009, he had an idea called the Social Innovation Fund.
"We're going to use this fund to find the most promising nonprofits in America," he said when announcing the plan. "We'll examine their data and rigorously evaluate their outcomes. We'll invest in those with the best results that are the most likely to provide a good return on our taxpayer dollars."
The hope was that federal seed money would help the nonprofits grow and spread creative ideas about how to solve social problems.
Since then, the fund has handed out $138 million to almost 200 nonprofits, with private matching funds of more than twice that amount. The groups do work in areas like education, job training and health care.
But the fund is still very much a work in progress. It's not clear yet what taxpayers have gotten for the money.
'Done With College'
Among the many projects funded so far is something called youthCONNECT, a network of six nonprofits that help disadvantaged youth in the Washington, D.C., area.
One of those young people is 20-year-old Jasmine Chestnut, who went through the KIPP charter school system in Washington and is now being helped by a program called KIPP Through College, a youthCONNECT partner.
Chestnut started having problems more than a year ago, when she was a freshman at Florida International University in Miami. She was away from home for the first time, struggling in her classes and in debt. She didn't know what to do.
"Once my family found out about my grades, they cut me off completely," she says. "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."
Chestnut came from a troubled home, without a father and with a very sick mother. And she had bad relations with other adults in the family.
"All I had at that point in time was Ms. Bradley. She was the only adult that I had," Chestnut says. She's referring to Zebunissa Bradley, a college support adviser with the KIPP Through College office in Washington. Bradley's job is to help disadvantaged students like Chestnut become successful adults.
Bradley suspected that Chestnut was having trouble at school when the college freshman stopped returning her calls.
"So then one day, I got a call," recalls Bradley. "And it was like, 'Miss Zeb, you should sit down for this.' "
It turns out that things were spiraling out of control. Chestnut was flunking out, and her family wouldn't pay for her to come back home. Eventually, Bradley flew to Miami and helped Chestnut pack up her things, return to D.C. and figure out what next.
At that point, Bradley says, Chestnut thought she was "done with college."
Here's where the innovation part comes in: Bradley called one of the other youthCONNECT partners, Year Up, which helps at-risk students train for careers in technology. She knew that Chestnut had loved technology ever since middle school. "We were like, 'OK, we cannot allow this passion to diminish,' " Bradley says.
To make a long story short, Chestnut joined Year Up, got A's in all her classes at a local college, and is now interning in the IT department at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. She got counseling and housing help from another youthCONNECT partner, and plans to continue her college education in the fall.
"Once I got in [to Year Up], I kind of like regained my focus as far as my education goes," Chestnut says.
Marc Schindler is a partner with Venture Philanthropy Partners in Washington, D.C., which set up youthCONNECT, using $6 million in social innovation funds and more than $7 million in matching funds provided by corporate and private donors.
Schindler says all the groups involved in the network know that the young people they deal with have too many problems for any one group to solve on its own. "Given the right supports and the right investments for these young people, they can excel," he says. "And so we challenged ourselves and [the groups] to come together around a table and figure out ways that we could do more together than we could individually."
It's just the kind of thing the Social Innovation Fund is looking for — pooled resources and shared ideas. YouthCONNECT is also looking at the best way to measure success. That's another major focus of the fund: getting results you can wrap your hands around, like a business.
Thousands Served, But Have They Been Helped?
Still, some critics say they aren't seeing the concrete results they had hoped to see from the Social Innovation Fund program.
"I don't think SIF has sparked a great deal of social innovation and I don't think SIF knows what social innovation is," says Paul Light, a public policy professor at New York University who served on a review panel for the fund.
Light thinks 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 really had much impact, other than to say that the groups funded have served an additional 174,000 people over two years. But Light says those numbers don't say very much.
"Congress and the president should not care how many people walked through the front door of these many projects," Light says. "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."
Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs the Social Innovation Fund, agrees that results are crucial. She says the biggest innovation so far is that the fund has been able to attract $350 million in private matching funds to help the nonprofits involved do their work.
Spencer says the agency will be evaluating the impact of all this spending over the coming year. "How has it really changed lives? How's it changed communities? And have these nonprofits really been able to thrive and scale? Could they have done it without us?" she says.
Those are all questions Congress will have as it considers whether, and how much, to fund the program in the future.
As for Jasmine Chestnut, there's no doubt the young woman's chances of success have improved with all this help, says her adviser, Zebunissa Bradley. But it could be years before they know how much.