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My Day in Washington: First Lady Michelle Obama Talks Innovation

The following post originally appeared on Fuel for the Field, the blog of TPI Board member Carla Javits, President of REDF.  

A White House invitation spurred a quick trip to Washington, D.C. for an inspiring meeting convened by First Lady Michele Obama, with Patrick Corvington, who heads up the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), and Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council. It was heartening to witness the commitment of the First Lady, and the high-powered group of attendees to the White House-initiated social innovation effort.

Mindy Tarlow from CEO and I visit the podium before the First Lady speaks.

The room of about 100 people buzzed before Mrs. Obama arrived to announce the initial matching commitment of $50 million by philanthropy to the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) and a companion effort with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations on scaling social innovation.

 Mrs. Obama acknowledged philanthropic leaders in attendance including John and Ann Doerr, the Omidyar Network, Skoll, Open Society Institute, and other foundations. Several intermediaries, CDFI’s and nonprofits were there from the Low Income Investment Fund, to Root Cause, Venture Philanthropy Partners, New Profit, NIFTE, and REDF partner Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO).

 Government officials attending included Sonal Shah, who leads the White House Office of Social Innovation, Paul Carttar, who heads up the Social Innovation Fund at CNCS, and Marta Urquilla who is the hands-on administrator of the Fund, and Office of Management and Budget staff like Xavier de Souza Briggs.

 Melody Barnes framed the Administration’s actions and leadership around not only the Social Innovation Fund, but other government-wide efforts to spur increased attention to results-based partnerships between government, nonprofits and philanthropy. Introducing Mrs. Obama, Patrick Corvington stated that innovation to improve lives is one of the defining characteristics of our country; and characterized nonprofits as leaders in ‘the solutions business’.

 Mrs. Obama took the stage to highlight three innovations of different sizes and shapes: the Family Independence Initiative in the Bay Area which organizes low income families in mutual support; the Bell Program in Boston, a program developed by students at Harvard Law School which tutors low income youth, and provides after-school programs, and the Juice Project – a one stop shop for healthy eating and living in St. Louis. She pinpointed the results that had been achieved to illustrate a theme of the social innovation effort – measurement of results (which she added with a smile – foundations really like).

 She reminisced about her days raising money for Public Allies with Vanessa Kirsch (who is now the ED of New Profit), and said how hard it was to keep the faith and approach funders who had – at the time — never heard of Michele Obama or Public Allies. In general her demeanor was understated and humble, leaving the impression that she identified closely with the nonprofits in the room, while savoring the foundation contributions that had been leveraged as a result of the Administration’s focus on social innovation.

Mrs. Obama told us that “finding new solutions will depend on all of you – people who feel that no problem is too big or complex to solve”. She said that thankfully solving our communities problems does not depend only on Washington, D.C., but that government does have a major role to play as a policy and funding partner so that we can “go beyond the status quo”In every corner of the country.

It was a good day in Washington, despite the 90 degree heat, that left me energized about the work ahead, and the potential for meaningful public-private partnership.

A video of the meeting is below.

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