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Michael Wells

About Michael

Evidence-Based and Best Practices, Benchmarks and Baselines - Part 2 of 2

[Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part article.]

The Changing Landscape of Evidence Based Practices

In my backyard of Portland, Oregon the following changes have been introduced in the last few years. The same things are happening across America at the local, state and federal level as well as within private agencies. The impact on nonprofits, local government, and grantwriting is immense.

UNITED WAY

United Way giveth and--well, it doesn’t taketh away, but it inevitably disappoints many with its funding allocation for 2006. More than 100 social service agencies requested a total of $15,895,133 from United way of the Columbia-Willamette, which has only $4,456,616 to give. That sum will be distributed among 50 or 113 agencies that requested money. those receiving funds and those not were notified this week.

The money is being awarded according to a new model that emphasizes observable results on the local level, according to United Way officials. “We call it a transition from core funding to community impact funding, and it began five years ago,” said Howard Klink, vice president for community impact. “The emphasis is on providing the most practical help to citizens in greatest need.”

Funding proposals were required to be as specific as possible about who would be helped, what their needs are, how much money they need, how it would be spent and how they would measure results…… Wherever possible, Klink said “We want to produce measurable results. We want people to see that we offer real help.”

--News story in The Oregonian. June 2, 2006

LEGISLATIVE MANDATE

The 2003 Oregon Legislature passed a law that requires increasing amounts of state funds be focused on Evidence-Based Practices for certain agencies dealing with corrections or human services. State agencies are using this “opportunity” to work with stakeholders to restructure their delivery systems for adults and youth.

For 2005-07, the statute requires that at least 25 percent of state funds be used for the provision of Evidence-Based Practices. In 2007-09, the percentage of funds to be spent on EBP’s increases to 50 percent and in 2009-2011 to 75 percent.

The shift to the delivery of services based on scientific evidence of effectiveness is a major conceptual change. For example, in both the mental health and addiction treatment systems this shift includes a focus on lifelong recovery for persons with mental illness as well as those with substance abuse disorders.

As a result of the Legislative mandate, not only state agencies but local government grant programs that used state funds had to include evidence based practices requirements in their RFP’s. These resulted in major changes for programs which had been state funded and previously were judged on agency history and capacity to deliver services, rather than program design and effectiveness.

CITY OF PORTLAND CHILDREN’S FUND

In 2002, the City of Portland’s voters approved a ballot measure which created the Children's Investment Fund, providing approximately $8.5 million a year for five years to support programs designed to help children arrive at school ready to learn, provide safe and constructive after-school alternatives for kids, and prevent child abuse and neglect and family violence.

The ballot language said eligible programs must demonstrate they are cost effective and have a proven record of success. The city interpreted this to include “evidence based practices” and some other success measures.

Best Practices

While sometimes the terms Evidence Based Practice and Best Practice are used interchangeably, in fact they have different roots and meanings. While EBP’s grew out of scientific research, Best Practices come from business management and are more likely to be based on practitioners’ experience than on theory. The term Best Practice generally refers to the best possible way of doing something, in the opinion of people in the field. It is commonly used in business, software engineering, medicine and increasingly by governments and international organizations. Something can be a Best Practice without having been studied, if it is agreed upon in the field that it works well -- in practice. Generally the term connotes an innovative approach that can be used as a model by others in the same field.

Benchmarks and Baselines

Two other research-based concepts that you are likely to run across in your grantwriting are Benchmarks and Baselines.

Benchmarks are performance data used for comparative purposes, generally for setting organizational goals. (The Wilder Foundation has an excellent book titled Benchmarking for Nonprofits. It’s listed in the bibliography. They may be internal (looking on your own organization’s historical performance) or external (looking at the performance of leaders in your field and using their results as a target to shoot for). Benchmarks are generally used to set goals for entire organizations rather than for individual programs. The federal government and several states have set benchmarks for particular areas such as education or for the whole of state government. You may encounter benchmarks in government or even community foundation or United Way RFP’s. Referring to state benchmarks in grant proposals is a way of tying your program to the larger community and demonstrating your knowledge of the broader picture.

For example Healthy People 2010 is the US government’s benchmarks for the American people’s health. It used leading health indicators that were important public health issues, that had available data for measuring progress and that could motivate individuals and communities to action. Many healthcare related federal grant RFPs’ ask how your program relates to Healthy People 2010.

Baselines are the facts about your community or your clients before your grant program begins, that you will use to measure progress against in determining your program’s impact. It can come from your agency records tracking client performance, from census or local government data describing your target population, or from the pre-test of your program participants. While this is all information you may put in a grant proposal’s needs statement, it should also be used for setting your goals and objectives.

Baseline data is something you should have begun collecting yesterday. This is an area where the grantwriter needs to work with program staff. Talk to the program managers and see what information the staff is collecting, and whether it is more than just outputs (numbers of counseling sessions, etc.) If they aren’t tracking client outcomes, encourage them to set up systems for doing so. Numbers are simply digits on paper until the reader can draw meaningful conclusions from them.

Someone else’s baseline data, or the lack of it, can also be a problem. Once I was working on a Byrne grant for a youth gang program and at the bidder’s conference the state program officer said they wanted our programs to demonstrate a 20% reduction in recidivism in our proposals. I raised my hand and asked “Do you have current recidivism figures?” He said No. “Does anybody?” No again. Well, I asked, “How are we supposed to measure the reduction then?” We managed to get the requirement modified.

This was the not uncommon occurrence of a poorly thought out RFP. However, even if they had had the numbers, it would have been difficult for us to track and measure for several reasons.

  • Once youth left our program, we had no way of knowing if they had reoffended.
  • In Oregon as in many states, when a youth turns 18, then leave the juvenile justice system and enter the adult system. The agencies are different and their records are kept entirely separately. There’s no way, without serious time and expense, to track someone from one system to the other.
  • How did they want to define recidivism? Say we had a kid who was adjudicated for attempted murder and assault (we had several). Of course if he got a gun and shot at someone, that’s recidivism. If he was picked up for jaywalking, did that count as an offense? How about violating curfew? Shoplifting? Possession of alcohol? A lot of the definition depended on his relationship with his probation officer, which was out of our control.
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