I just returned from Salt Lake City after a few days at the Winter Innovation Summit listening to policymakers, funders, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs explore the future of social innovation. This experience brought to mind a blog by Jeff Edmondson about “creating a marketplace for results” where he challenged investors to put results at the center of their work. Throughout sessions and discussions at the Winter Innovation Summit, held by Sorenson Impact, I heard about the growing marketplace for results. I’m excited that the work being done in communities across the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network positions us as leaders in this market.
As panelists talked about the need to “arm nonprofits in the social sector with data” and “build their capability to use it,” I wanted to shout out that I can point to 70-plus communities who are doing just this in our network! While participating in one discussion, I felt an incredible sense of validation when a member of the evaluation community spoke up about data. She believes we are about to see the “death of the randomized control trial” (RCT) in favor of more rapid cycle use of data to drive decision-making and improvement and more low-cost evaluation options.
Yes! It’s about time that we reach the conclusion there exists a continuum of evidence. RCTs have been considered the gold standard in research design. But the social sector is talking about data, results and evidence more than ever, and there seems to be a growing shift in what is considered “evidence.” We need better, faster, more economical ways of getting to evidence and results. Even the Every Child Succeeds Act includes four levels of evidence in its definition of “evidence-based.” And although the top two levels rely on expensive and time-consuming RCTs and quasi-experimental studies, the bottom two levels allow for interventions that are correlational or “building toward an evidence base.” Because let’s face it, we don’t have the time or money to spend on expensive and time-consuming trials — there is a sense of urgency to close gaps and improve outcomes for kids.
That is why we are working to ensure that providers have the tools and expertise they need to use data in real time to make improvements, just as so many cradle-to-career partnerships are doing on the ground every single day. In Dallas County, for example, The Commit Partnership increased completion rates for federal student aid applications using disaggregated data, continuous improvement skills and peer-to-peer learning. Participating campuses helped 63 percent of seniors (1,686 students) complete applications, up from 48 percent the prior year. In Racine County, Higher Expectations and the local United Way identified and supported students in need of help by increased tutoring minutes by 82 percent because of weekly data analysis and strategy changes in real time.
I also had the chance to chat with some of the pioneers of impact investing about what they are learning and the work they are doing to advocate for change in how local and state government fund social services. In a recent SSIR article aptly titled “Pay for Systems Change,” the authors call for public sector leaders to partner with philanthropy on prioritizing outcomes over inputs and putting “numbers to the value of social outcomes” as we do with fiscal outcomes. They also suggest the need to “smash budget siloes” and do more cross-agency budgeting and decision-making to get the most out of public spending and achieve better results.
As we know all too well, systems change takes time. There is still a long way to go, especially when it comes to shifting public systems, but the conversations I had during the summit were promising and left me feeling as if the tide is turning. I was reminded more than once that the work StriveTogether is driving, with a rigorous focus on outcomes and using data in real time to get to improvement, positions us ahead of the curve. The “courageous investors” that Jeff spoke of in his blog from last year are also ahead of the game in the private sector in terms of their commitment to investing in results or “buying outcomes.” But I left the summit feeling that this marketplace for results is growing, and I am proud that StriveTogether and our network of communities and investors are leaders in this space.