In his aptly titled book “Show Me the Evidence,” Ron Haskins demonstrates how nonprofits and community programs today must prove their value in the face of scarce resources, high competition and public scrutiny.
This drive toward “what works” gives programs an opportunity to review how they collect and use data — not only to compete for funding but to improve and enhance their service offerings. High-quality data from existing research or collected directly from youth-serving organizations can inform intervention design, support policy decisions and measure program outcomes.
As the desire to become evidence-based reaches an almost fever pitch, our understanding of the complexities of social, community and human-capital problems continues to grow. Even the best intentioned, funded or researched programs can’t solve vulnerable children’s or families’ problems in isolation. So, along with the drive toward evidence, there has also been a push to collaborate across programs that serve the same populations. This companion movement, called collective impact, requires the commitment of a group of programs or leaders from different sectors to identify a common agenda and truly address a complex social problem.
Vulnerable young people often touch a constellation of systems and community-based programs. Data is central to these partnerships — systems sharing common data elements, tracking outcomes of the same clientele, demonstrating meaningful social impacts — together.
Combining these efforts of being data-driven and collectively addressing complex social problems is not easy, requiring a thoughtful review of how programs may align their assessment and case management approaches, and how they track performance and outcomes. But they are of increasing importance. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program (TAACCCT) was developed to leverage the community college system to help increase education and training opportunities for low-income students. TAACCCT grantees use local labor market data to corroborate and track their investment in certain training programs. They also collaborate with other community-based organizations and agencies, and specify data-sharing processes through written letters of commitment.
Philanthropy looks to community programs to align services and data to make greater collective impacts. For example, the Strive Partnership in Ohio is a collaborative of 300 programs across sectors, funded by 10 foundations, including Annie E. Casey, Ford Foundation and others. Heralded in the collective impact arena, the effort tracks educational outcomes for students from kindergarten through postsecondary, and uses data across programs to align funding with evidence-based education approaches. The Partnership also created a “Learning Partner Dashboard” to help participating programs track student data. In its first four years, the partnership improved across 34 of 53 outcome measures — including reading and math test scores, and graduation rates.
As programs work to improve data systems and align with others, there are many resources to help. These research clearinghouses, for example, offer a free opportunity to compile and analyze relevant data resources and research specific to target populations:
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse offers tools designing evidence-driven programs (and resources to determine what outcomes to measure and how to measure them).
- The Department of Labor’s Clearinghouse for Labor Evaluation and Research has reviews on studies related to workforce and employment opportunities for youth ages 14 to 24, among other topics.
- What Works Clearinghouse and Child Care and Early Education Research Connections offer tools for education and early child care.
- Youth.gov provides tools for youth-serving programs.
The process of being data-driven is ongoing and often cyclical. It starts by using what you have to inform your work, and adapting as new data is collected. Program data is not limited to tracking client performance. It also includes the stories of the young people you serve and your staff. Individual accounts of success and challenge remain critical to programs’ data collection, humanizing and translating the data, helping everyone understand the impacts of your work.
Kristin Abner, Ph.D., is a manager at ICF, where she works on technical assistance and research projects relating to child poverty, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and workforce programs. Yvette Lamb, EdD, is a senior fellow at ICF, where she manages the research and evaluation portfolio for Family Self-Sufficiency.