A Networked Approach to Social Innovation

A Networked Approach to Social Innovation

Hundreds of thousands of young people across the country are struggling to make the transition to a thriving adulthood. The completion of postsecondary education, whether vocational training or college, is critical to finding meaningful employment. Unfortunately, far too many of our most vulnerable youth don't achieve this goal. As a result, we are losing a valuable asset: innately talented young people who with the right support would become employed adults with the potential to innovate, start small businesses, and fully engage in their families and communities.

In the Washington, D.C., region alone, an estimated 135,000 low-income young people are at risk of falling between the cracks dropping out of high school or, if they do graduate, unable to attend college because of fees and other barriers. And of those who do make it to postsecondary programs, many don't finish.

In July, Venture Philanthropy Partners launched youthCONNECTwith support from the Social Innovation Fund to address the challenge head-on by creating a powerful network of nonprofits that provides education, social services, and job training to low-income youth between the ages of 14 and 24. The needs of this population are complex, and no single intervention, program, organization, or funder can by itself mitigate the hurdles these youth face as they move toward adulthood.

Over the last ten years, VPP has supported some extraordinary organizations that are achieving positive results for low-income children and youth. In turn, we have learned much about how to select high-performing nonprofits and help them reach their aspirations for growth in both numbers served and concrete outcomes. We have also cultivated and nurtured a community of committed and generous philanthropic investors.

VPP will continue to make investments in individual nonprofits, but we believe investing in a more networked and collaborative way has the potential to create breakthrough results for our region and may serve as a model for other issues and geographic areas.

For VPP, youthCONNECT represents a new way of doing business. It aligns public-private capital, evaluation experts, and innovative nonprofits to dramatically improve the life opportunities of vulnerable youth. Four organizations have already been selected for the network: College Summit - National Capital Region; KIPP DC; the Latin American Youth Center, and Year Up - National Capital Region (NCR). Up to four more organizations will be selected through a competitive process by early 2011.

The promise of youthCONNECT is that this collective effort can develop transformative approaches to meeting critical social challenges. Organizations in the network will collaborate in focused and intentional ways, including using evidence and evaluation systematically, addressing more than one challenge concurrently, creating efficiencies and minimizing duplication, overcoming common challenges, and informing public discussion.

By combining the creative and fiscal energies of the public and private sector with the innovative approaches of high-performing nonprofits working on the ground in communities, youthCONNECT seeks to change the life trajectories for up to twenty thousand young people in our region over the next five years. As we demonstrate the effectiveness of new approaches individually and collectively, youthCONNECT also has the potential to affect tens of thousands more around the country.

For example, Year Up is an intensive one-year training program that provides youth with technical and professional skills, college credits, an education stipend, and corporate internships. Lack of access to health care can affect the health of workers and their families and lead to missed work days, lower productivity, and lost jobs. Year Up believes it can increase retention rates and improve students' results if it provides access to health care and health education. With support through youthCONNECT, Year Up NCR will implement and evaluate a health education program to complement a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College and Kaiser Permanente that provides health insurance to Year Up-NCR students and eligible family members for up to three years. This pilot, if proven to be successful, can be replicated throughout Year Up nationally and adapted by other workforce development programs.

A shared framework of metrics and measurement is at the heart of youthCONNECT. The network has already agreed to drive its work toward the shared goals of employment and education for the population served and has committed to use common indicators to measure progress toward those goals. Participating organizations also will contribute data on other areas of service and outcomes where collection efforts are already in place, including social behavior and civic engagement, psychological and emotional well-being, and health and safety. Through analysis from Child Trends, VPP's evaluation partner on youthCONNECT, the network will seek to identify new patterns and areas for learning and improvement. What we learn about using data collectively and effectively to amplify the work of multiple entities and partners will benefit others on this new frontier of measurement and assessment.

In keeping with the goals and priorities of the Social Innovation Fund to expand the knowledge base of what works in the field, rigorous evaluation will be a part of each youthCONNECT funded initiative and of the network itself. Again, we will use evaluation and assessment as a tool for continuous improvement for our grantees as well as ourselves.

Applying our tested and refined philanthropic investment approach to a network of organizations will require new tools, approaches, and tactics. We will be increasing our own capacity in order to take our work to the next level of the innovation curve and will be sharing what we learn as we go.

The Social Innovation Fund has provided the support that will enable us to try a different approach that seeks to tap the collective experience, wisdom, and expertise of effective organizations working along the continuum of youth development. Collaboration is nothing new. However, true collaboration is often difficult to achieve, especially in a time of constrained resources where organizations often feel more competitive with each other. The Social Innovation Fund is stimulating new thinking, new partnerships, and new solutions. And that is exactly what is needed as we continue to work to solve long-standing social challenges and change the trajectory for all low-income children and youth.

Carol Thompson Cole is the president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners, a philanthropic investment organization based in Washington, D.C.