Bridgespan Publishes Study on “Billion Dollar Bets” to Improve the Performance of Social Service Programs

08/08/2016 |


Paper demonstrates that philanthropy focused on enhancing the public sector’s ability to test, implement and improve evidence-based programs and policies can yield returns of 3:1 to 6:1
BOSTON, MA, August 8, 2016—A new report from The Bridgespan Group, “’Billion Dollar Bets’ to Improve the Performance of Social Service Programs,” details how $1 billion of philanthropic investments in data infrastructure, human capital, and incentives can have the greatest impact on increasing the efficacy of social services in America. The report features impact projections that demonstrate how large amounts of philanthropic capital would have the potential to deliver returns of $3 to $6 on every $1 invested.
“Currently, hundreds of billions of dollars of social service interventions being delivered by public and nonprofit sector institutions are ineffective, cost-prohibitive, or only provide incremental improvements in outcomes for low-income and marginalized populations. This problem is exacerbated as public systems and nonprofits often lack the ability and incentive structure to deeply understand problems, experiment with solutions, track data, and rigorously refine their approaches over time,” said Debby Bielak, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the study.
In researching high impact ways to invest in social services, Bridgespan conducted numerous interviews and participated in collaborative working sessions with researchers, practitioners, policymakers and philanthropists, while also reviewing relevant studies and policy proposals. Through this process, Bridgespan determined that supporting the ongoing use of data to improve social service practices is an effective path towards higher quality programs and services.
“Now is a powerful moment for philanthropic intervention to make social services more successful in improving outcomes linked to social mobility. Not only do we have bipartisan appeal in ensuring that scarce public dollars are put to the most efficient use, but also the tools that allow organizations to track and interpret data are becoming ever more effective,” commented Devin Murphy, a manager at Bridgespan and co-author of the paper.
The investment approach outlined in this paper focus on three core areas, which collectively are designed to build the government’s ability to make evidence-based decisions that lead to high-quality social programs and services:
  1. Create systems to collect, utilize and link data within a region. Philanthropists could fund an infrastructure to support the use of data for continuous improvement in 15 localities across the country. While data integration is being tested, philanthropists could also invest in a national hub to support this work across cities and states, and provide technical assistance and coaching in setting up data infrastructure and overcoming policy barriers. Finally, the paper recommends supporting wider learning about state program efficacy through funding the creation of state-based, nonpartisan research organizations and centers to evaluate programs and inform policy.
  2. Ensure that frontline practitioners and policymakers in the public and nonprofit sectors have the ability to collect, analyze and use data to improve social services. Just as critical as building data infrastructure is ensuring that the people who collect and analyze the data receive adequate training. Within these 15 locations, philanthropists could invest in training for public and service sector employees on using data, and also fund fellowships and academic programs to cultivate the next generation of leaders in data-driven and evidence-based policy.
  3. Establish the appropriate incentives to support continued use of data and evidence to improve social services. Once data infrastructures and training programs are in place, incentives should be established to reward a focus on data-driven outcomes. Philanthropists could invest in advocates of performance-based rewards, and also fund research about the efficacy of current and past performance-based funding in an effort to advocate for federal policies that are guided by data and evidence-driven improvement. The paper also recommends creating public-private awards for cities successfully adopting evidence-based practices. 
“The first investments are designed to fill a gap in the social service agencies’ systems for collecting, utilizing and linking data within a given region. It’s imperative that these investments are coupled with support for robust training programs, and incentive structures that encourage social service agencies to continue using data and evidence to improve social services,” explained Bielak.
Added Murphy, “This approach could be any number of outcomes tied to social mobility—education, access to jobs, rates of crime and criminal conviction. For the sake of modeling, we chose early childhood development as an area where there is a lot of energy in cities across the country and the potential for high return on investment. If 15 cities were able to get to improve their formal child care services for children ages 0-5, about one million more children would benefit from more effective interventions over the course of five years, leading to a return on investment of $3 billion to $6.1 billion in potential lifetime economic benefit for the individuals and their families.”
Bridgespan’s latest paper is part of the organization’s research project, “’Billion Dollar Bets’ to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American,” which offers a data driven, field-informed perspective on 15 high-potential bets through which philanthropists could make the biggest improvement on social mobility with a $1 billion investment.
Contact: Liz London
Director of Media and Conferences
[email protected]
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group ( is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. We collaborate with social sector leaders to help scale impact, build leadership, advance philanthropic effectiveness and accelerate learning. We work on issues related to society’s most important challenges and to break cycles of intergenerational poverty. Our services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy advising, and developing and sharing practical insights.
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