How Data and Innovation Can Help People (Corporation for National and Community Service)

By: David Wilkinson, Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, and Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service

As President Obama convened some of the nation’s leading academics and business leaders for the Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, it is the perfect moment to put the spotlight on an initiative, highlighted at today’s Conference, that is elevating the use of evidence and data to tackle our country’s biggest challenges.

In 2009, President Obama authorized the creation of the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to find solutions that work, and make them work for more people – by proving, improving and growing effective models.

As of March 2016, the Social Innovation Fund and philanthropic matching funders have invested over $900 million in effective community solutions since the program’s inception. As a result of $295 million in federal grants and more than $628 million in non-federal match commitments, the SIF has made a total of 43 awards to high-performing organizations supporting 458 non-profits working in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Altogether, these efforts have impacted the lives of nearly 700,000 people.

On top of these achievements, the Social Innovation Fund also has helped expand the government’s investment in another data-driven direction.

Two years ago, with bipartisan support in Congress, the Social Innovation Fund launched its Pay for Success program. This arm of the Social Innovation Fund is designed to help cities, states, and nonprofits develop Pay for Success projects, which tie funding for an intervention to its true impact in three priority areas: economic opportunity, healthy futures, and youth development. The Social Innovation Fund’s Pay for Success investment has the potential to lead to nearly 100 Pay for Success models across the country.

For example, Pay for Success participants recently gathered in Olympia, Washington to talk about how the Pay for Success feasibility support helped sharpen their planning and identify those most in need (and who can benefit most from services). Because Pay for Success encourages agencies to work together to get better results, it also gave them an opportunity to enlist colleagues in other agencies and community organizations to see how improved data management could mean finding what works and making it work for more people

The good news is that more communities will see this kind of collaboration around data-driven solutions.

Today, CNCS is announcing that it has awarded the Stanford University Center for Income Inequality with Third Sector Capital Partners, the Urban Institute, and the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business, the Sorenson Impact Center with a Social Innovation Fund Pay for Success Administrative Data Pilot grant which is designed to assist Pay for Success projects to access this high-quality data enabling communities to more affordably and reliably find what works.

Data is in the DNA of Pay for Success, and here is why: Pay for Success asks government to fund positive outcomes rather than typical funding approaches, such as paying for the number of people who participate in a program. But knowing the outcomes that result from a program is harder than simply counting participants. You need to be able to quantify if things have improved over time.

That is where data comes in. We often need data to first tell us what the starting baseline is and, later, what the outcomes are.  For instance, take a community that wants better results for at-risk single moms and their babies: they need baseline data (e.g. current employment rate, income levels, hospital use, child welfare interaction, kindergarten readiness) in order to later determine whether a program worked to increase stability for these vulnerable families above where they were (and that means getting the latest data: were there positive changes in employment, income, ER usage, child welfare referrals, etc).

Sharing this data requires multiple agencies and nonprofits to work together to link data, interpret what it means, and act on what they find.  It is driving a recognition that uncoordinated services often don’t get the best results.  Even the best workforce training program is less likely to help an at-risk mom get a steady job if her housing situation is unstable, if she does not have a safe childcare option, or if there are substance misuse challenges.  

Because Pay for Success demands outcomes, it calls for collaboration.  This means linking data across systems to more fully understand why a mom and child are at risk. It means delivering holistic solutions that address what data tells us are the barriers to success. And it means continuing to track the outcomes data across systems to know if a difference is being made.

While data-driven, Pay for Success approaches have great promise, there is a barrier: many communities lack the resources necessary to harness the power of data. This is why CNCS launched the Administrative Data Pilot.  This new funding will enable communities to partner with experts from the grantees and learn what the numbers are telling them about how people get services in their community and how to improve.  This concept is about more than crunching data. It brings together practitioners from leading universities, foundations, and nonprofits to expand their ability to connect the dots, rigorously evaluate outcomes, and then expand the best, most effective solutions.  

True to the Social Innovation Fund’s mission, the Pay for Success Administrative Data Pilot will help communities use data to find what works, and make it work for more people.