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updated 11/9/2007 5:22:00 PM ET 2007-11-09T22:22:00
Political connections

Following familiar grooves, the Republican and Democratic presidential contenders are already arguing about whether Washington should expand or reduce its role in confronting domestic problems such as education and health care. Americans are hearing much less about how the federal government should play whatever role it ultimately accepts.

Vanessa Kirsch wants to change that. In 1990, Kirsch co-founded Public Allies, a group that guides young people to community service. In 1998, she helped start New Profit, a "venture philanthropy" fund that invests in nonprofits tackling some of society's toughest problems -- nurturing children in chaotic inner-city neighborhoods, for example, or reclaiming troubled teens.

Together with representatives from 60 other nonprofit organizations, Kirsch has now helped to assemble a coalition called America Forward. Its goal is to promote more-effective collaboration between government and a new generation of nonprofit leaders who call themselves social entrepreneurs and combine the charitable impulse to serve with the business school imperatives of planning, accountability, and measurable results. When Washington asks how to deliver social services, the coalition argues, it should think first about involving social entrepreneurs.

In many ways, this is a golden age for the civic activism that social entrepreneurs embody. Information Age wealth has funded some of the most ambitious new philanthropies (led by the giant Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) since the robber-baron days of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Mellon. And Americans are founding, on average, 115 nonprofits every day.

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Some grow to impressive size. New Leaders for New Schools, founded in 2000, has trained more than 350 principals and assistant principals, most of them from untraditional backgrounds. Jumpstart, launched in 1993, pairs young adults with some 10,000 at-risk preschoolers for intensive tutoring in 19 states.

But even these groups meet only a fraction of the need. And most nonprofits never grow very big: Almost three-fourths spend less than $500,000 a year. For most of them, a chasm separates the best ideas from the organizational scale to translate them into widespread results.

America Forward's goal is to bridge that gap -- at least for the groups that have demonstrated results. Kirsch notes that the United States has a comprehensive "ecosystem" for cultivating private-sector entrepreneurs -- with "angel" start-up capital from friends and family; with growth investments from venture capital firms; and finally with the chance for the most successful to get much bigger (and richer) by taking their company public. No comparable growth path exists for social entrepreneurs. If anything, Kirsch notes, when groups succeed, "a lot of philanthropies say, 'You are doing so well you don't need us anymore.' "

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Although many social entrepreneurs face a shortage of money to expand promising projects, the federal government faces the opposite problem: a shortage of promising projects in which to invest the money it spends on education, poverty, or early childhood. "The social entrepreneurs can't reach the right level of scale without a better relationship with government," says Stephen Goldsmith, a former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, who advises the coalition. "And government can't be effective without the social entrepreneurs being involved in the delivery of important services."

America Forward seeks to join the two sides by advancing such ideas as federal tax credits to spur investment in new venture philanthropy funds and creation of "what works" grants at each Cabinet-level agency to help successful local programs expand their reach. Above all, the group says, the next president should help innovative programs to expand by creating a culture of competition that links federal funding to results. "This model says, 'If you aren't successful, you don't get funded and something better will get funded,' " says Shirley Sagawa, a former Clinton administration official who helped craft the group's agenda.

Many social entrepreneurs emerged from left-of-center politics. And, so far, Democratic presidential candidates appear more attuned to their arguments. (A centerpiece of Sen. Barack Obama's anti-poverty agenda, for instance, is replicating in 20 more cities the comprehensive network of services offered by the nonprofit Harlem Children's Zone.) But Goldsmith, who is advising Rudy Giuliani's campaign, thinks the groups' emphasis on results and local initiative will attract Republicans as well.

The social entrepreneurs are demonstrating that pragmatism and idealism can productively coexist. In the process, they might teach Republicans and Democrats trapped in stale arguments over domestic policy to do the same.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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