Sandra Salstrom joined Social Finance in October 2021 to lead government engagement efforts. We spoke with Sandra about her new role and the importance of building connections with government partners.
You’ve spent your entire career working within or directly adjacent to the federal government. What prompted you to sort of switch directions and come to Social Finance and the nonprofit space?
Sandra Salstrom: As the new Vice President of Government Relations, my job is still very much adjacent to the federal government. I’m excited about the opportunity to continue to work with government partners, mainly at the federal level but also at the state and local levels, which I haven’t gotten to do as much.
As you noted, I have spent most of my career working for the federal government—almost 12 years—nearly five years on Capitol Hill and seven years at the Treasury Department. I see a lot of overlap between those jobs and my work here at Social Finance. In both places, I’ve been able to work with many incredibly smart, dedicated people who are mission-driven. Most people don’t enter government for the money—they want to make a difference. I’ve found the same ethos here at Social Finance. People come here because they want to solve intractable social problems. And this overlap is part of what brought me here.
Your hire signals an intentional strategic shift within Social Finance to more directly build connections within the federal government. We have a long track record of working with state and local governments but we haven’t collaborated with federal officials nearly as much. But now you’re here, working out of our new Washington D.C. office. Why do you think now is the time for Social Finance to more actively engage with the federal government?
Salstrom: In the wake of this once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the government has organized a once-in-a-generation federal response. There are billions of dollars flowing from the federal government to states and local governments, communities, individuals, and businesses.
Social Finance has worked for more than a decade to help states and localities focus on outcomes and deliver more impact for the populations they serve. Now is an opportune time for the team here to lend some of our expertise to the federal government to help it take advantage of this moment. We’ve been doing this work with states and local governments for a decade and we’ve learned a lot along the way that can be translated to the federal government.
It’s also a great time for the federal government to rethink the way they do things. The federal government normally doesn’t innovate as much as state and local governments do. But in this moment, we have a tremendous opportunity to bring what we’ve learned from our work with state and local governments and local service providers to the federal government. Can we potentially get them to rethink ways of doing more evidence-based policy? Can we encourage them to use more data to drive better outcomes? I think we can.
For example, the federal government continues certain grant programs and reauthorizes certain pieces of legislation again and again, and I’d like to see us harness our experience and try to get the federal government to focus more on outcomes and the impact of the dollars they spend, particularly in these recurring funding opportunities.
One example is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which is up for reauthorization. The original bill, which became law in 2014, contained pay for performance provisions, but it took the Department of Labor until 2020 to actually publish the rules for these provisions. As this reauthorization approaches, there’s a great opportunity for us to work with the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to strengthen those provisions and make sure they’re having the maximum impact. I would like to see if there is more we can do in the pay for performance space when it comes to workforce development. There are plenty of new opportunities for Social Finance to work with the federal government, but also a lot of ongoing opportunities to help them rethink some of the existing things that are going to continue to be reauthorized and be part of federal law.
There’s been a similar conversation around the Social Impact Partnerships to Pay for Results Act (SIPPRA), passed in 2018. That bill set aside $100 million in federal funding for outcomes-based programs but so far, the Treasury Department has granted funding to only three projects, including one Social Finance initiative.
Salstrom: SIPPRA is another really good example of where we can work with the federal government to help improve Pay for Success provisions already in law. Here, the federal government passed a big piece of legislation to do more Social Impact Bonds. But our work has largely evolved from Social Impact Bonds into a new generation of tools, like Career Impact Bonds and Pay It Forward Funds. I’m excited to see if there are tweaks that could be made to make SIPPRA more effective, maybe not on the legislative side but in the executive branch, changing how they implement the law. I think there is an opportunity to work with the Treasury Department to update the guidance to make sure that the law is having the impact Congress intended.
This is new for the federal government. SIPPRA is the first time they’ve ever done something centered solely on outcomes-based financing. So, it’s up to us and other practitioners to work with our federal partners to make SIPPRA more effective and possibly work toward passing other legislation aimed at rewarding outcomes.
Why do you think government folks, particularly those working at the federal level, should be excited to engage with Social Finance on this kind of work?
Salstrom: I think there are a lot of lawmakers who really want to solve the big problems. That’s why most of them run for office, whether it’s a city council seat or a seat in Congress. It’s a great time for these folks, particularly at the federal level, to look to organizations like Social Finance, which has for more than a decade used data and evidence to drive better outcomes for people and communities.
Using data and evidence has historically been a place where the government has fallen short. I think there’s a lot of appetite, on both sides of the aisle, to make sure taxpayers get what they pay for. And coming out of the pandemic, with an unprecedented federal response being delivered, I think this desire to use resources more effectively, in a way that really helps people, will only get stronger.
If you’re in Congress or in the Biden-Harris administration, your goal is to solve our most complex problems, and using solutions based on data and evidence is the best way to do this. We’re excited to bring our experience and expertise to the table to help our government partners do this work.
As Vice President, Government Relations, your portfolio obviously includes a lot of different work. Are there any specific projects you’re particularly excited about?
Salstrom: The Career Impact Bond and Pay It Forward Fund models are really exciting and I’m looking forward to discussing them more with people at all levels of government—explaining what we’re doing at the local and state levels to people in the federal government, and also with other organizations in D.C. who work with state and local governments but might not be familiar with these innovative models of financing workforce training.
I think these are really smart approaches, so I’m looking forward to helping Social Finance spread the word about them to a much broader government audience. I think there’s so much opportunity to scale this idea, particularly Pay It Forward Funds, and I would love to see it take off in more states—especially with more governors who are really in a position to drive this forward by using state money to seed a PIFF in their state and really increase the impact of their workforce development dollars by training 2-3 times more workers than they can with a traditional grant. It really is a win-win.
Finally, are there any specific goals you hope to accomplish at Social Finance?
Salstrom: I want to help build new relationships on behalf of Social Finance across the federal government and other proximate organizations and also strengthen our existing ones. I hope to use these relationships to support our state and local government partners in leveraging federal dollars to increase the impact they’re able to have on the people they serve.
I also want to help Social Finance shape federal-level policy discussions around the areas where we have built an expertise over the last decade. As conversations are happening at the federal level around these topics, I want to make sure that Social Finance not only has a seat at the table but is really helping to drive the conversation around outcomes-based and impact financing.
Finally, the Obama Administration created the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, which served as a hub for policy related to outcomes, evidence, and impact. I would love to work with the Biden-Harris Administration to recreate this office or something similar, as it would really signal a commitment to moving the federal government to focus more on outcomes to help deliver greater impact.