According to the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Americans gave as generously as ever in 2015, setting a record for the second year in a row with total giving of $373.25 billion. That wasn't enough, however, to prevent problems such as income inequality, racism, and, here in Chicago, gun violence, from becoming even more entrenched. Which is why it is so important for donors and funders to do whatever they can to ensure that their charitable donations are making a measurable difference in addressing these and other challenges.
At Get IN Chicago, we use an evidence-based approach to move the needle on youth violence and, since 2013, have provided feedback and capacity-building support to community-based organizations providing a range of youth-focused services and interventions, from mentoring and parenting programs to community sports leagues and trauma-focused therapy.
Thanks to over two years of research and data collection and our work with more than sixty community organizations, anti-violence experts, and donor partners, we have developed five key recommendations for organizations looking to fund anti-violence initiatives and maximize the impact created by that support. Using these criteria to ensure programs' effectiveness, in 2017 we will be collaborating with more than twenty agencies to bring intensive case management, intake, mentoring, and cognitive behavioral therapy programs to high-risk youth in seven Chicago neighborhoods.
Based on that work, here are our recommendations for funders and donors:
1. Make sure the program you are thinking about funding actually addresses the needs of the target population you want to help. Our research shows that while most anti-violence programs work with at-risk youth, participants in those programs are not all subject to the same type or level of risk (i.e., violence or gang activity). That's why we have worked with programs to focus their efforts specifically on acutely high-risk youth — those at the greatest risk for gun violence, based on such factors as school absenteeism rates, mental health issues, justice system involvement, and the presence of a previously or currently incarcerated parent. Along the way, we've learned that it is essential to clearly define the population you are looking to help — not least because it makes it easier to develop a tailored strategy with respect to recruiting, engaging, and retaining participants from the target group, boosting your chances of success.
2. Ensure that the recipient organization has the capacity to both serve the target group and collect quality data related to the services it plans to provide. It goes without saying that the most effective programs are those backed by strong organizational infrastructure. While providing capacity-building support to a nonprofit organization may not seem like the most direct way to make a difference, its effect on program outcomes and sustainability can be far-reaching — especially for community-based organizations. Providing technical assistance and supporting infrastructure upgrades, staff development, strategic planning efforts, and help with financial management can provide a huge boost to an organization looking to scale its programs. To make sure your dollars are being put to good use, be sure to take time beforehand to learn about your grantees' capacity needs and how staff envision meeting them.
3. Determine whether the program delivers the correct "dosage." Many community-based organizations are now committed to evidence-based programming, a promising step in the direction of putting "what works" into practice. But as with any medication, evidence-based programming is effective only when delivered at the appropriate "dosage" in terms of number of sessions, length of sessions, program duration, et cetera. Too often, however, delivering the proper "dosage" can be a challenge for staff lacking adequate resources and training. That's why it is important to pay attention to whether and how program staff plan to execute the intervention they have proposed.
4. Track programs from start to finish and share their success with others. At Get IN Chicago, we always want to know whether an anti-violence program is working and, if it is, to share that success with others. The same should be the case for any community-based program working to address a social problem. Which means any program you decide to support should be designed with a built-in evaluation, monitoring, and outcomes measurement component. Such systems are essential to identifying what works and pinpointing opportunities for improvement, and while they require a good deal of time and other resources to implement and maintain, the cost of not measuring outcomes is simply too high for any organization looking to create real, meaningful impact.
5. Empower communities to serve local youth. Effective anti-violence programs do not exist in a vacuum; successful initiatives almost always involve a community of engaged and empowered people. Delivering high-quality services to acutely high-risk youth requires physical spaces for programming and community settings that encourage consistent, ongoing interventions over long periods of time. For that reason, we embed community-empowerment strategies into every project we support. The lesson here isn't limited to anti-violence programs: community engagement can make or break any program. When looking to invest in a program or organization, consider the degree to which local residents, community stakeholders, and potential partners have been engaged and be sure to solicit their thoughts on the project or organization.
Although the above recommendations are informed by the anti-violence efforts in which we've been engaged, they can be applied to any field. And remember: The more you learn about the work of your community-based grantees, the more effective you can be in supporting them. Reach out to the communities you are looking to serve and the organizations you are looking to partner with. Learn about their strengths, needs, and challenges. And always keep the end in mind by agreeing in advance on what success looks like.
By supporting the most effective evidence-based programs and strategies you can find, you'll be helping to maximize their impact while inspiring generosity in others and moving the needle on some of the most challenging social issues we face.
Toni Irving, Ph.D., is executive director of Get IN Chicago, a first-of-its-kind campaign that leverages private resources and social policy expertise to identify, fund, and evaluate violence- prevention initiatives focused on acutely high-risk youth. Before joining Get IN Chicago, Irving served as deputy chief of staff for former Illinois governor Pat Quinn.