- Posted by EmpowerNonprofit
- On February 20, 2018
The nonprofit sector loves jargon. We toss around special terms and acronyms that leave our volunteers, donors and clients scratching their heads. Admittedly, some of our jargon is of the throwaway variety, but some terms are worth considering more carefully. Such is the case for evidence based. I remember encountering this descriptor in my first nonprofit job. I thought it sounded like legal vernacular, but soon learned that it represented the social service sector’s version of a gold standard.
Evidence-based interventions have been rigorously tested. They have been subjected to well-designed and executed randomized control trials and found to deliver statistically significant and sustained positive effects. In other words, science has proven that these interventions work.
I was reminded about the importance of the evidence-based seal of approval during a recent meeting with staff from Goodwill Industries of Central and Southern Indiana. They introduced me to the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), a program that has been doing great work in the Hoosier State since 2011.
NFP matches first-time (usually young) mothers with a nurse during pregnancy, starting a relationship with the program that can last until the child is five years old. Supplementing the work of the health-focused nurse is a guide consultant, who helps mothers find success with education, jobs, housing and financial management.
The best interventions—including those that are evidence based—focus on outcomes. (Alert: More jargon explanation ahead!) Outcomes represent a measurable positive impact on a target population or community. They are much different than outputs, which are simply activities that might result in impact.
Of course, I asked my NFP hosts about outcomes. If they had responded by citing the number of mothers enrolled or training sessions conducted, they would have been referring to output. But instead they confidently pointed to data showing increased birth weights, improved educational attainment and higher incomes. This information provided evidence of impact and positive outcomes—proof that NFP helps mothers, babies and communities in Indiana.
Not surprisingly, NFP is evidence based. Developed in Colorado in the 1970s, it has been rigorously tested in several states and on different demographic groups and found effective. The model is replicable, it’s constantly being studied and improved and a parent organization supports programs across the country that employ the approach.
If you’re just an average citizen, someone who occasionally donates to charity or volunteers for a local nonprofit, is evidence based something to think about? Absolutely! The money available to fund solutions is limited while the problems we are working to solve are great. We all owe it to ourselves—as donors, taxpayers, community members—to make sure that those scarce dollars are invested in proven solutions.
Donors, volunteers and concerned citizens should feel empowered to ask nonprofits whether their programs use evidence-based practices. But a “no” doesn’t mean dismissing an organization or its programs. Instead, it opens a door to asking more questions: How did the agency select or develop its current methods? What specific outcomes are they working to achieve? How do they collect data and measure impact?
Nonprofits should welcome this scrutiny—especially if they’re pioneering something unique and getting positive results. Today’s off-the-wall ideas might be tomorrow’s proven solutions—but only if citizen stakeholders encourage nonprofit innovators to show us the evidence before we give them our seal of approval.