Unlocking Innovation: Advancing the Continuous Improvement of Federal Evidence Funds

Today, America Forward published a new report, Unlocking Innovation: Advancing the Continuous Improvement of Federal Evidence Funds, assessing the impact of federal evidence funds and recommending key steps to support continuous improvement, advance equity, and expand access moving forward.

Federal evidence funds have become a vital funding stream for fostering innovation and driving stronger, more equitable outcomes for students, workers, families, and communities. These evidence funds have empowered social entrepreneurs, practitioners, and intermediaries to drive the development and expansion of effective, innovative strategies to address some of our most urgent social challenges. In contrast to the vast majority of federal grant programs, evidence funds invest in evidence-based strategies and support innovative practitioners to develop and refine promising approaches, expand the evidence base, and build capacity for effective implementation and expansion.

Federal evidence funds support practitioner-led innovation, learning, and scale-up of high-impact social programs across the country. Over the past fifteen years, since the first evidence fund’s inception, policymakers have invested more than $10 billion in nine evidence funds across policy domains, including the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, and the Social Innovation Fund (SIF).  

While federal evidence funds have achieved many successes, there are significant opportunities for these programs to continue improving their impact by building on lessons learned over the past fifteen years. In particular, our research shows that evidence funds must do more to address inequities in access to private innovation capital that have slowed progress across policy areas, especially for programs led by proximate leaders with lived experience in the communities they serve. 

America Forward’s analysis developed key recommendations to improve equity, accessibility, and participation; strengthen earlier-stage development of innovative models; and support long-term growth, sustainability, and learning. We call on policymakers to activate inclusive innovation, empower rigorous practitioner-led learning, expand participation among historically underrepresented organizations and leaders, and ultimately strengthen and scale up effective social programs.

Our report relies on input from a wide array of practitioners, policymakers, and advocates, including America Forward Coalition members, and an investigation of hundreds of evidence fund investments. Our report directly highlights lessons learned from more than a dozen organizations, including in-depth case studies featuring three members of the America Forward Coalition: Braven, Year Up, and Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR). 

America Forward recommends the following steps to improve accessibility and participation, strengthen earlier-stage development of innovative models, and support long-term growth, sustainability, and learning:

  • Break down barriers in the application process to improve accessibility and participation. This includes simplifying applications, removing eligibility rules that exclude non-governmental organizations, reducing red tape, and partnering with intermediaries to offer individualized application support while providing knowledge to complement agencies’ limited capacity.
  • Enhance policies around project selection to achieve stronger results among earlier-stage investments. This includes funding formative research that includes rapid-cycle evaluation, shifting selection priorities to emphasize cost-effective and scalable strategies, supporting equitable investments that leverage proximate insights from the field, and implementing clear standards alongside robust technical assistance to support high-quality evidence-building and implementation.
  • Support strong implementation to promote long-term growth, sustainability, and learning. This includes implementing clear standards with robust technical assistance, supporting sustainability post-exit, leveraging agreements and reporting that supports innovation, ensuring public reporting on project funding, activities, and performance, and building and disseminating lessons beyond individual projects.

We urge federal policymakers to ensure evidence funds are afforded sufficient funding to support equitable, transformational, and sustainable change, and to create new funds that support this critical work across a broader set of policy domains. Ultimately, we believe it is imperative that policymakers engage the voices of practitioners and social entrepreneurs, especially proximate leaders, in these conversations to ensure evidence funds directly address disparities in opportunity in the social sector.

Federal evidence funds continue to constitute an integral component of a burgeoning innovation ecosystem that supports the growth of evidence-based strategies to drive stronger, more equitable outcomes. By advancing the continuous improvement of federal evidence funds, we can unlock innovation and drive progress toward a more just and equitable future for communities across the country. 

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