Not Good Enough: What Philanthropy Can Do to Fix Social Services

11/01/2016 09:42 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2017

This past September, when four- and five-year-olds across the U.S. entered kindergarten, more than one million of them weren't ready to be there. Some lacked the cognitive skills they would need to do the work. Others hadn't developed the emotional maturity that would help them make it through long hours at school. As a result, these kids will struggle mightily to overcome their limitations in kindergarten and beyond.

Already, social-service programs have failed these children--and this won't be the only time. Coming from largely low-income families, they will likely face other challenges as well, such as hunger and homelessness. While social services may help them from time to time, the safety net has too many holes in it. In just a single grade level, a million children are falling through.

In its May 2016 report, "Billion Dollar Bets' to Create Economic Opportunity for Every American," The Bridgespan Group identifies 15 areas in which philanthropy can help restore economic opportunity and build pathways to the middle class for low-income Americans. Upgrading social-service interventions, which are often costly and do not have the kind of impact we may hope for, is on that list. Given that we're already spending hundreds of billions of dollars on these services, real improvements could have an exponential effect on bettering the lives of low-income Americans.

Marginal at Best

It's worth noting, social services' shortcomings are not for lack of effort: over the last decade, the Administration for Children and Families, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and state governments have worked tirelessly to provide high quality pre-K programs, early childhood software applications, and training for early childcare professionals. But even the strongest of these programs aren't making enough of a difference. The programs, however high quality, are simply not effective enough.

Keep in mind, early childhood education is just one piece of the puzzle. Social services aim to assist with education, food, health care, job training, subsidized housing, and more--all very much needed and all falling short.

Social services struggle to have the time, resources, and expertise to probe problems deeply, experiment with solutions, track data, and rigorously refine approaches. This translates into a huge opening for any philanthropist looking to improve social mobility for those living in poverty.

The Opportunity for Philanthropy

Here's the good news: many philanthropists already have skin in this game. They often invest alongside government in agencies that provide social services, and they have a vested interest in seeing their dollars used more effectively. What's more, philanthropists have the unique ability to take on the risk that may be required to adopt a better way.

And that better way exists: the notion that we can use data and evidence of effectiveness to sharpen decision making and service delivery is already gaining momentum. We have the tools to track and interpret data. Now, we need to commit to them. Specifically, philanthropists can:

• Build data systems to create the foundation for evidence-based funding. Working with local stakeholders, philanthropists can support the development of robust, cross-cutting data systems, so stakeholders can measure programs according to the outcomes the community cares most about. Philanthropists can also work across cities and states to create a national hub for building and using data systems.

• Train practitioners and policymakers to collect, analyze, and use data to improve social services. In addition to funding training, philanthropists can fund fellowship programs to educate future leaders in data-driven and evidence-based policy.

• Establish incentives to support the use of data and evidence to improve social services. Philanthropists can expand the "what works" movement by advocating for federal policies that reward evidence-based improvement, funding organizations already advocating for performance-based rewards, and creating awards programs to incentivize evidence-based decision making.

The potential upside? If just 25 percent of those million kindergartners were better prepared for school, 250,000 students would benefit. According to Bridgespan's calculations, a $1 billion investment in harnessing data to improve pre-K services for those 250,000 children would lead to a cumulative increase in their lifetime income of between $3 billion and $6.1 billion. By any measure, that's an outsized ROI.

Indeed, the only real question here isn't, "Can we afford to invest in increasing social services' capacity to access and use data for continuous improvement?" but "Can we afford not to?"

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Willa Seldon and Debby Bielak are partners in The Bridgespan Group's San Francisco office. The authors thank Bridgespan manager Devin Murphy and former Bridgespan consultants Micaela Ross and Reilly Kiernan for their research and insight, which provide the basis for this article.