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Mind the Gap: How Innovative Partnerships Can Help Fill the Funding Gap

In my introductory posting in the “jennovation” series for Govloop and Phase One Consulting Group’s Transformation in the Federal Sector Blog, I introduced you to an innovative platform known as the Department of Education’s Innovation Portal.

This week I want to describe a little more about how that portal, in combination with data.ed.gov and the i3 Foundation Registry, demonstrates how government 2.0 technologies can help to create secondary markets to fill funding gaps. This is making a bit of a jump from my last posting, where I focused on Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in infrastructure development. However, both examples, whether it be building a road through a PPP or funding innovative education solutions, demonstrate how in many instances private capital must supplement federal funding to solve the grand challenges of our time.

The Department of Education was appropriated $650M through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program to “provide competitive grants that expand the implementation of, and investment in, innovative and evidence-based practices, programs and strategies that significantly:

  • improve K-12 achievement and close achievement gaps;
  • decrease dropout rates;
  • increase high school graduation rates; and
  • improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.

[The funds are intended] to accelerate the creation of an education sector that supports the rapid development and adoption of effective solutions.” [1]

Instead of disbursing the funds through an entirely traditional grant program, the Department of Education has leveraged the principles of Open Government in several innovative ways to pilot “open grant making”. Their approach has opened up the entire process of grant making to make federal funding demand more visible, to encourage a more transparent award process, and to create a secondary market for unfunded applications. They are piloting how to do this through several innovative websites that provide different functions:

  • Data Visualization: The data.ed.gov portal visualizes important information about the grant applications (no awards have been made yet): location of applications, amount requested, summaries of the projects, and the ability to filter by priority area and project type (development, validation and scale-up). This is a relatively novel way of displaying pre-award grant information. Currently USASpending and the Federal Assistance Award Data System display award information but not pre-award information. Why is this important? It’s hard for us to do the research to know who applied for funds but didn’t receive them in a systemic way. Data.ed.gov allows the public to understand trends in applications for federal funds, not just the awards, and thus get a better view at the demand for federal funds in this issue area.
  • Ideation and Challenges: The open innovation portal provides a second crucial functionality to education’s innovation agenda. This portal allows anyone to post challenges on education issues (once they are moderated). In addition, this portal acts as a gathering place for the education community to submit ideas about how to improve our nation’s education system. This platform will plug into www.challenges.gov once that new government-wide challenges portal is launched in August. This portal allows new issue areas to be identified and collaborated on in a transparent fashion.
  • Secondary Market for Education Solutions: The i3 Foundation Registry, in my mind, is the REALLY cool part of this innovation triad. Typically grant programs receive applications, review and score those applications, and then award funds based on the scoring of the applications and the total amount of funding available. There are usually quite a few applications that score relatively well but can’t be funded due to insufficient funds. It’s not a revolutionary concept that federal funds are often not able to meet the demand for funding in many fields. What makes the foundation registry so cool is that it allows foundations that would be likely to fund innovative solutions in this issue area to find grant applications that weren’t successful in receiving federal funds. This site creates a secondary market for innovative education solutions.

You may have heard of kiva.org, a non-profit that connects people, through lending, for the sake of alleviating poverty (see how kiva works). “Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By combining microfinance with the internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending.” [2] On this site, anyone can donate to an entrepreneur a world away that might just need $200 to start their business. Lenders are paid back in full 98.78% of the time [2]. Often time, the entrepreneur just needs some start-up capital that doesn’t have prohibitive interest rates. Kiva allows multiple lenders to combine their resources to fund one entrepreneur. Some quick stats:

· Total value of all loans made through Kiva: $150,250,250

· Number of Kiva Users who have funded a loan: 468,971 [2]

Kiva created a way for lenders to find projects they’d be likely to fund through the power of the internet. The i3 foundation registry has done something very similar, albeit for projects that require much more funding. By displaying the grant applications that could not be funded, foundations that would be likely to fund these types of projects are able to find possible investment opportunities. Partnerships will be possible that would likely never have been possible before. Foundations are able to identify projects that might not have been on their radar before.

The i3 grant program is a pilot in innovative and open grant making—sharing more information throughout the grant process to leverage secondary markets to fill the funding gap between the federal supply of funds and the demand for funding.

This concept has recently had me thinking a lot about other critical issue areas where this model might work:

  • Health research
  • Transportation solutions
  • Sustainable community development
  • Energy research

The challenge in many of these problem areas however is who would constitute to secondary market. At least in transportation, many of the interested parties would largely be for-profit entities, not non-profit foundations like in education. So I turn the question around on you: In what other major issue areas for the U.S. government could open grant making principles be leveraged? What would the challenges be? Where could possible funders be better connected with those innovative solution providers out there?

As always, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] at any time during this series to continue to conversation.


[1] http://www2.ed.gov/programs/innovation/factsheet.html

[2] http://www.kiva.org/about/facts

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