Making the Most of Each Budget Dollar

One of the few things both sides of the political aisle are able to agree on is getting better performance out of programs, as seen by the move toward evidence-based policymaking under prior administrations. The federal government could lead by example, suggests Brookings Fellow Andrew Feldman, by creating a bipartisan team focused on improving performance of federally funded programs, giving states the freedom to implement innovative programming and shoulder more accountability for results, and reducing hurdles to program evaluation while encouraging the incorporation of data analytics into regular reporting. In a time of new federal spending priorities, budget shortfalls, increased need, and much uncertainty, states must get serious about investing in programs that work by actively incorporating outcomes research into their policymaking.

A report from the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, How States Engage in Evidence-Based Policymaking: A National Assessment, assessed the levels of commitment and action of states using research to guide decision-making related behavioral health, criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare policy. This study scored each state and the District of Columbia on the extent to which they incorporated research findings in policy, including defining categories of evidence, conducting program cost-benefit analyses, and identifying specific funding for evidence-based programming. According to the brief, 50 states have taken some sort of action through the allocation of funding for programs supported by research findings, while 42 states report outcomes in the budget annually. Just 17 states compare program outcomes and costs.

While Washington, Utah, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Oregon lead the nation in evidence–based policymaking, Pennsylvania is one of 11 “established” states, with 13 evidence-based policymaking actions (three advanced and ten minimum) across the four policy areas studied. According to the assessment scorecard, Pennsylvania uses advanced research-driven policy actions most often in the juvenile justice sector.

Read more about the levels of evidence-based policy-making and individual state scorecards, in the report available at the Pew Charitable Trusts website. Case studies are also available on how to design contracts and grants to require outcomes reporting tied to program performance.

Lessons on Systems Change from The Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare

The impact of parental substance abuse on children’s stability and well-being is a concern that crosses systems.  Data suggests that parental drug and alcohol use is related to abuse and neglect and increases the likelihood of a parent’s involvement in the justice system – including the possibility of incarceration. The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (NCSACW) provides In-Depth Technical Assistance (IDTA) to a handful of sites across the country in the areas of substance abuse, child welfare and the courts to result in better outcomes for families involved in these systems.  For approximately 18 months, the IDTA team works with local, state or tribal entities to coordinate strategy and services across systems through the use of evidence-based programs and on-site technical assistance in order to grow capacity for improved child and family outcomes.

The report, In-Depth Technical Assistance (IDTA) Final Report 2007-2012 provides an overview of the IDTA program model, related site accomplishments, and the lessons of system change at various levels. Some findings include,

  • 50 percent of the sites implemented (or enhanced) a recovery specialist model in their programs;
  • 68 percent developed and/or implemented cross-system training plans;
  • 60 percent developed and/or implemented screening protocols that resulted in lowers costs, reduced redundancy and a more efficient referral process;
  • 27 percent used cross-system data collection and tracking processes, such as case reviews and drop-off analysis, to inform policy and program decisions. (Note: according to the SAMHSA website, a Drop-Off Analysis is “a method used to assess linkages among child welfare, treatment agencies and courts. The method helps to identify connections that families need to make between systems to obtain services and achieve their child welfare case goals.”)

In addition to program findings, the brief discusses numerous lessons learned around systems change, particularly: issues in achieving long-term policy and practice changes and avoiding the fracture of collaborative relationships post-project,  leadership focused on engaging and sustaining partners,  use of data to identify areas of and opportunities for change, and realistic timelines for implementing system change and shared accountability.

Evaluation Shows Effectiveness of Drug Courts in Reducing Drug Use, Criminal Behavior

Having their start in the late 1980’s and gaining in popularity since, drug courts are court treatment programs that target criminal defendants, juvenile offenders, and/or parents involved in the child welfare system who have alcohol and drug addiction and dependency issues.   There are now approximately 2,600 drug courts operating in the United States, with 50 percent of them exclusively for adult offenders.

The December 2011 report, The Multi-Site Adult Drug Court Evaluation, by Shelli B. Rossman, John K. Roman, Janine M. Zweig, Michael Rempel and Christine H. Lindquist presents the findings of an extensive evaluation of the nation’s drug courts. The study examined the successful drug courts in reducing drug use and criminal activity among adult participants while having a positive impact on their lives in other ways. Key findings include,

  • Yes,  drug courts resulted in statistically significant reductions in relapse by participants.  Compared to the  group not on the specialized drug court track, participants were significantly less likely report any drug use (76 percent compared to 56 percent) in the past year (at the 1.5 year follow-up point).  Also, fewer drug court participants tested positive for illegal drugs (29 versus 46 percent).
  • Yes, drug courts resulted in a significant decrease in criminality of participants.  Court patrons were significantly less likely than the comparison group to report committing crimes (40 versus 53 percent) in the year prior to the 1.5 year follow up contact.  In fact, participants were also significantly less likely to report committing any crime at all at  the six- month and the 18-month follow-up.  Perhaps due to the nature the intervention, the researchers also found that drug court participation specifically reduced the crimes of drug possession, drug sales offenses, driving while intoxicated, and property related crime.
  • Yes, members of the drug court sample did experience some positive personal outcomes outside of  both reduced drug/alcohol use and criminality. Data from the 1.5 year follow up interviews indicated that drug court participants were significantly less likely than those in the comparison group to report an employment, education, or financial service need,  and reported less family conflict.  There were no differences between the groups for self-reported symptoms of depression or homelessness.

The evaluation report, downloadable in 4 parts, is available via the National Institute of Justice website.

With evidence that drug courts are working better than the traditional justice system with these  type of offenders,  support of their use and expansion makes good academic, practical and  fiscal sense. Information about the Allegheny County Drug Court (that has been in operation for nearly 15 years) is available at the Allegheny County Department of Human services website.

 

 

What Should NonprofitsThink About in 2012?

Although there are glimmers of hope that things will soon “get back to normal,” my thoughts on what nonprofits should watch for in 2012 are based on the premise that no matter how much we wish it to be so, there isn’t any returning to a pre-recession world. The landscape of the sector is changing – has changed already – due to both crisis and innovation. Unfortunately, the bleak funding outlook has muted any excitement over the adoption of technologies that have resulted in more and better data visualization and engagement across sector boundaries.

These times call for nonprofits to stay true to their mission but to let go of the past, and face 2012 eager, nimble and fearless.

 

Showcasing Your Data

Look for the once cutting-edge trend of infographics to become even more widespread, if not the unofficial standard, in nonprofit marketing and reporting materials, while large, data-rich organizations make use of web-based interactive viewers to share information with stakeholders.

Annual reports will be stripped down and simplified, (hopefully) resulting in lower costs while allowing for a far more striking presentation of data. That said, simplified doesn’t mean simple, as telling a story via numbers, headings and brightly hued graphics may present more of a challenge than the emotive narratives we are so used to cranking out. Save those stories, including videos, to feature on your webpage and YouTube channel, and as content for e-newsletters.

 

The Social Media Mini-Backlash

I have heard the murmurs among nonprofit professionals that social media isn’t working as promised, or is (still) too nebulous to play a noticeable role in an organization’s strategy. It is a criticism that is due – it is even happening in the for-profit sector. After a few years of listening to experts extol the benefits of social media for nonprofits, executives want to see impact via the bottom line, not the weekly number of followers, likes or re-tweets. So, cue the new meme: perhaps nonprofits shouldn’t put SO many of their eggs in the social media basket and instead concentrate on tried and true traditional methods of communications and fundraising.

Well, before you cancel your Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Constant Contact accounts and run to the mimeograph machine…

Social media utilization is, no must be, part of the organizational culture, modeled from the top down and integrated across departments/sites/states/etc. Take a pause in early 2012 to revisit your strategy and social media’s place in it. Work in small feedback loops so that you have the ability to experiment with the technology and messaging methods to find what works best for you, but do not, please do not let your accounts go silent.

There is not going to be a hot new trend that people will abandon it for, social media will change and diversify, but it will not go away.  Frankly, it should be utilized more and in tandem with email and other communications, marketing and fundraising tools.

 

Shifting Structures

Fiscal constraints may have finally done what years of cautionary tales of nonprofits inadvertently drifting into the silo mentality could not: the merging of departments, and likewise, goals, strategies and priorities. Since they were already changing the organizational charts, some also tweaked their traditional hierarchies to those with more horizontal communication.

The move toward the non-hierarchical models will continue, particularly in new nonprofits. In preparing this post, I was surprised to find that many service and advocacy organizations highlight their non-traditional organizational structures in copy and hiring pitches. This slow but steady shift is a major managerial trend to watch over the next decade. Will established agencies, leaders and board members accept a team-based linear model featuring open dialogue, collaborative efforts, and transparency?

In 2012 we may also see social media have a larger internal presence in nonprofits (especially large, multi-site organizations) as a way for leadership, staff and volunteers to share information, collaborate on ideas and work as communities or teams connected to the larger hub.  The possibilities of such a concept are laid out by Shawn Graham in his piece Using Social Media To Improve Employee Communication, Collaboration, And Even Compensation (at the Fast Company Blog) about Shopify’s UNICORN, their on-site social network.

 

Everything Evidence-Based 

Funder demand for anything deemed evidence-based continues to grow, although the misuse of that term and its direct linkage to program funds have caused it to be viewed with suspicion by some in the sector. With nonprofits already cutting budgets, future government funding in jeopardy, and the need for services on the rise, expect accountability to center on realistic expectations of what can and should be collected, analyzed and reported in a timely manner.

Foundations will continue to the lead the way in improving evaluation capacity in nonprofits, encouraging it to become part of the culture rather than handled by one department or only utilized for grant-funded projects. Luckily, this role also provides them with the opportunity to  learn of any misapplication of evidence-based programs – those used in an environment and/or with a target population divergent from that which was intended, or watered down to make service implementation quicker and cheaper. Service agencies and foundations have a responsibility to the community and the  sector to guard against this practice.

 

Sector Overlap and A(nother?) Leadership Gap

Nonprofits will find increased competition for the next generation of passionate, service-focused  leaders as the popularity of corporate social responsibility programs and non-government organizations (NGOs), and opportunities for social entrepreneurs continue to grow. We have only scratched the surface in exploring potential collaboration and funding patterns, and future downturns or austerity measures will keep this topic at the forefront of planning discussions. While young talent may have gotten their feet wet in the traditional nonprofit sector through volunteering, internships or entry-level positions, the sectors are blending, and it is no longer the only way to work for social change.

The 2011 Daring to Lead study reported that 58 percent of nonprofit executives felt depleted by interactions with government funders. Would it really be a surprise, then, if up-and-coming nonprofit stars choose against the continuous struggle for government funding and opted for a leadership role at privately backed or hybrid programs?

One last note on what to watch in 2012: keep an eye on the Occupy movement. If their applications for nonprofit status are approved, they become part of the sector, a peer, and potential collaborator or competitor for donor attention and other resources