Defining Positive Outcomes
Defining Positive Outcomes
What do we really mean when we talk about "positive outcomes"? In this series, produced in partnership with Third Sector Capital Partners, contributors from a variety of sectors discuss how they apply the term to programs and policies.

Ten years ago, I began learning about the child welfare system in my home state of Washington. Although I had no personal history with foster care, I was drawn to the issue as a parent who understands the importance of stability and security in a child’s life, and as a community member who knows that healthy children and families are the foundation of our future. As a donor interested in supporting child welfare, I am motivated by the same goal I believe inspires caseworkers, nonprofit leaders, and many philanthropists—a desire to help people in need and make a positive impact. But how does one best do that, exactly? How does someone outside the system support positive change and make certain that those changes are scalable and sustainable?

Washington’s foster care system is very complex, and I still have a lot to learn, but this much is clear: The state spends approximately $400 million in taxpayer dollars each year on services designed to improve parents’ and children’s wellbeing, in an effort to reunite children and parents that have previously been separated. Government agencies have contracts with providers that offer a wide range of services, including mental health counseling, addiction therapy, and tutoring.

How does one know which interventions are effective? What are the short-term and long-term outcomes for families who use these services? While I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, I have found some direction for my philanthropic dollars by thinking them through. 

I have found that consistently investing in evidence-based programs that have undergone rigorous evaluation can deter efforts to reinvent the wheel or build yet another new version of an intervention. Experience suggests that the replication and scaling of proven approaches can help bring about the best outcomes. But it can be hard to know just how effective these approaches are or how they can be improved. That’s why investment in tools and practices to measure the connection between services offered and results achieved is just as important.

It is not a donor’s role to design the interventions themselves or determine which outcomes make for good public policy. But once an organization defines a program’s desired outcomes, we can fund tools that measure and uncover what is truly working and making the largest impact.

Understanding the Connection Between Services and Outcomes

The lack of reporting tools may be the biggest impediment to measuring outcomes. The social services sector is many years behind the private sector in terms of using technology to enable efficiency and continuous improvement. Consider the common scenario of overworked and underpaid providers or caseworkers who must fill out various lengthy reports that may not prompt meaningful questions, only to have them filed away in boxes that may never be opened. Have we missed the opportunity to learn from this data?

Developing data systems to track intended outcomes is a huge challenge, and this is a place where private money can accelerate innovation. For example, we’ve supported Partners for Our Children (POC), a public-private partnership dedicated to using data and research to improve the lives of children and families involved in Washington State’s child welfare system. POC uses data analytics to seek better results in the area of visitation. When a child is removed from a home because of neglect or abuse, state regulations mandate that they must see their parents within 3-5 days of being removed. The goal of these visitations are to ease the shock of separation and to increase the potential for family reunification. Currently, the state of Washington spends $18 million on visitation service providers annually.

Over the past two years, POC, funded by private philanthropy and support from the University of Washington, has created a new data analysis system to manage the visitation process. Once several providers began using it to track their visitation services, the data helped POC see that the visitations rarely happened within the mandated time. In some instances, it took as long as three weeks for a meeting between parents and a child to take place, which only amplified the disruption in a child’s life.  

From the data that POC was able to capture, they learned that parents often missed visitation meetings due to barriers such as transportation issues, fear of judgment by social workers, or fear of rejection by their children. Quality of the visits also suffered from visitation environments that were often cold and sterile, with no toys or other familiar objects for the children. The settings were not conducive to productive, comfortable interactions. Once the data uncovered the barriers to parent attendance, providers could devise solutions to these problems. They addressed the transportation problem by using technology innovations such as Uber to transport parents faster, cheaper, and more reliably. They implemented ideas as simple as sending children text messages to let them know their parents were on the way to the visitation, which reduced anxiety and fear of rejection, and made improvements to the visiting spaces to create greater comfort.

As result of these data-driven changes, POC has seen a significant increase in the total number of visitations occurring within the mandated time, and most importantly, the service providers have seen an increase in the quality and comfort of the experience for parents and their children.

While we don’t yet know if these efforts will deliver the ultimate positive outcome—the reuniting of parents and children—funding improvements to this important and expensive process has been an important step toward that goal.

Accelerating Positive Outcomes

By supporting proven, replicable interventions, and new measurement tools that help connect services to results, funders can accelerate positive change. We can also provide catalytic funding to:

  • Government sector leaders who are equally dedicated to accountability and an outcomes orientation, and who are willing to usher in system innovations
  • Dedicated social service providers seeking tools to help them improve and deepen their services for at-risk populations
  • Intermediaries or external experts who help facilitate the pivot to performance-based contracting and better outcomes

Based on our experience supporting POC and other initiatives that intersect with the government sector, we are encouraged by the growing discourse around the move toward an outcomes orientation. But let’s not forget what’s really behind the chase: the desire to help people in need and to make a positive impact.