Chron of Philan Interviews Sonal Shah and Melody Barnes

Details are still slowly emerging about what Obama’s Office of Social Innovation is going to do. Here are a few more via The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s interview with Sonal Shah (Director of the office) and Melody Barnes (Dir of White House Domestic Policy Council). From the piece by Suzanne Perry:

Q: The office does not have the budget to award grants. How do you see your role? As a bully pulpit?

A: Ms. Barnes: We’re more than a bully pulpit. There are four staff people, several of them with significant experience in this area. We’ve got some good and experienced minds working on this. They’re also working with the staff in the cabinet agencies and the departments to leverage all of our resources as we’re reaching out and working with business and philanthropy.

Ms. Shah: We’re also a coordinating body, so we can bring different groups together from different agencies. We can bring someone from health care, someone from the social-innovation fund, and someone from education together to have a conversation about doing things similarly across the board and working across agencies.

As we see ideas that may not necessarily fit into one agency or another, we can also help direct and create partnerships that might not otherwise have existed. A lot of the foundations will come here and we’ll know about projects or programs taking place in different agencies and being able to link them up with the right groups that are working on it and figuring out ways that partnerships can happen.

Q: Will you have a formal structure—an advisory board, for example?

A: Ms. Barnes: We are investigating and thinking about that now and engaging with our senior colleagues here. But we already have had so many meetings and conversations with the philanthropic and business and NGO [nongovernmental organization] community that we’re getting great ideas.

Q: Are you planning any kind of formal unveiling of this office?

A: Ms. Shah: What we wanted to do, to be fair, is accomplish a few things and then talk about how the social-innovation fund is working. We didn’t just want to announce an office and not have anything backing it.
We’ve been working away; the national-service legislation is a big part of what we were working on, we’re working on a few things for the summer. As those pieces come together, you’ll see more discussion about it.

Q: What are your immediate priorities?

A: Ms. Shah: We’ll be focusing on the social-innovation fund, which we believe is critical for setting a precedent for other types of programs. We’ll be working closely with our colleagues in various agencies to see if there are ways to create parallel funds or at least to harmonize some of our discussions.


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