January 8, 2014

Resolutions for Everyone: Let's Make 2014 the Year of "What Works"

As we kick off 2014, it's clear we must do more to increase the impact we get from money invested in addressing societal needs. Will 2014 be the year we actually turn the corner on the widespread, large-scale use of evidence to drive funding of social initiatives? Here are four resolutions that, if adopted, might get us further down the path.

Farewell 2013, a very mixed year for the "what works" movement – and welcome 2014, a time for some serious resolutions.

First, the good news: there's no doubt that progress was made in 2013 on multiple fronts relating to the funding of programs and approaches with actual evidence of results. The White House and federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) continued to amplify the drum beat surrounding the importance of evidence and formal evaluation. Congress continued funding for the major "tiered-evidence" programs, including $42 million for the Social Innovation Fund and $75 million for proven teen pregnancy prevention programs. Various public and private parties came together to structure and fund concrete "pay for success" deals. Seventy-five percent of private foundations surveyed by the Center for Effective Philanthropy profess the importance of supporting grantees' efforts to collect performance data. And visibility of evidence-related issues appears to have increased, at least as judged by the number of articles and conference sessions we see on topics such as evaluation and performance management.

To be sure, the worst of the bad news is that despite this progress, 2013 saw little or no improvement in the negative, underlying conditions that make "funding what works" such an imperative: The overall poverty rate remained stuck at about 15 percent. The number of long-term unemployed lingered as a deep concern. Average real wages stayed flat yet again. And the federal government still faces long-term fiscal pressures.

So as we kick off 2014, it's clear we simply must do more to increase the impact we get from the money we invest in addressing societal needs. Will 2014 be the year we actually turn the corner on the widespread, large-scale use of evidence to drive funding of social initiatives? To that end, we're respectfully proposing four New Year's resolutions for key players in the public and social sectors.

  1. For federal and state agencies: put real teeth into your efforts to expand the use of evidence. While the Obama Administration's support of "pay for success" initiatives and other innovative devices is commendable, these are potential distractions from the core need – changing how the federal government itself allocates the hundreds of billions of dollars it currently directs to social causes. In particular, OMB should strengthen the budget process by requiring rather than "encouraging" stronger evidence (see OMB 13-17) from its own agencies as a condition of significant funding. Second, simple but powerful, OMB should calculate and publish each year with the President's budget the amount of federal dollars and percent of federal spending that meet OMB's own standards of evidence. (State governments, critical players in their own rights, should resolve to lead rather than follow the feds in implementing these same two reforms.)
  2. For endowed foundations – and other private philanthropists: consistently support grantee evaluation and performance measurement. As noted above, 75 percent of foundations profess to support grantees' efforts to collect performance data, but only 29 percent of grantees perceive that they actually receive such support. In the spirit of fostering "what works," private funders could could take an important step forward by exploring with grantees how they can best underwrite development and use of the evidence upon which this entire movement rests.
  3. For evaluation firms and intermediaries: develop and embrace lower-cost methods for assessing impact. While these organizations have made enormous contributions to the development of an evidence-based performance culture, demand for formal evaluation and performance measurement is still constrained by the substantial cost of these processes, especially "experimental" studies such as randomized control trials that can establish cause and effect. As advocated for by voices such as the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, there are many examples of where this has been done that provide great hope for breakthroughs in knowledge, accountability and performance improvement.
  4. For service-providing nonprofit organizations: seize the initiative in developing your own evidence bases. Having received mixed messages and inconsistent support for evidence from funders, nonprofits should reject passivity and redouble their efforts to generate and utilize valid evidence of their own performance. Even while funds are scarce, they should do this to whatever extent possible by reallocating current resources. Beyond this, though, nonprofits must be their own strongest advocates by persuading funders of the need for resources to support evidence and, yes, by being prepared to reject grants that provide inadequate funding.

Bridgespan will be working diligently this year to do what it can to make "what works" part of the conversation. But what resolutions would you suggest, and to whom, to help make 2014 the year of "what works?"

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