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January 11, 2010

Last April, Jeff Bradach and I wrote an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy“Scaling What Works: Implications for Philanthropists, Policymakers and Nonprofit Leaders” tried to summarize some of things that Jeff, who is managing partner and cofounder of the Bridgespan Group, and I have learned over the past ten years as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and Bridgespan have provided financing and management consulting to nonprofits striving to expand programs with proven impact.
Our article was well received. It also raised a number of questions that I would like to take this opportunity, kindly offered by Duke’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, to answer. These questions and answers will be of interest, I hope, to nonprofits, their funders, and policymakers who are confronted with the challenge of converting into legislation, regulations, and RFPs the Obama administration’s commitment to funding evidence-based programs that work. There is a growing political consensus to channel taxpayer funds to programs with proven impact, and the current economic crisis, the federal deficit, and limited state and local budgets make it likely this consensus will continue to grow.
1. What constitutes an “evidence-based” program?
There is no universally accepted definition, but the Clark Foundation and like-minded funders and research organizations such as Public/Private Ventures, the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and Child Trends believe that only a rigorous, independent evaluation can provide persuasive empirical evidence that a program is effective and, equally important, determine what makes it effective. For if we don’t know what a program’s essential elements are—the demographic characteristics of the population it serves, for example, or the dosage and duration of the programming—how can we replicate it with fidelity and expand it with confidence that it will work elsewhere?
Not every promising program needs to be or can be evaluated independently from the very outset. Yet our experience suggests that the earlier an organization embraces performance measurement and evaluation, the sooner it will be prepared and likely to grow. Especially given the severe constraints on public funds and the keen competition for them, government would be doing a disservice to taxpayers and to the vulnerable populations social programs are intended to assist if it did not require rigorous evaluations before investing large amounts of money in expanding such programs on a significant scale.

Tomorrow: How can an organization build its evidence base?
Nancy Roob is the president and CEO of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which seeks to improve the life prospects of low-income youth in the U.S. by making large, long-term investments in nonprofit organizations whose youth-serving programs have been shown to produce positive outcomes and which have the potential for significant growth. She would like to acknowledge and thank Gary Walker, the chair of the Foundation’s Evaluation Advisory Committee, for his contributions to this blog.
Nancy Roob