Guest Blog: Why Research Evidence Use Matters in the Social Sector
This month our guest blogger is Susan Dreyfus, President and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. The Alliance’s mission is to strengthen the excellence and influence of high-impact social sector human serving organizations (a.k.a. not-for-profit agencies) across the country in an effort to ensure all children, families, and communities reach their fullest potential. In her post she talks about research evidence use as one of the core investments social and public sector organizations must make.
Recent research by the Center for State Child Welfare Data at Chapin Hall, in partnership with The Alliance and public child welfare agencies, indicates that active use of research evidence by child welfare professionals is associated with better outcomes for children in foster care. The finding confirms two critical aspects of The Alliance’s strategy framework for the sector, The Commitments of High Impact Organizations. The first commitment is Measuring that Matters. Achieving better outcomes for those they help requires organizations to use scientifically rigorous methods to define investment opportunities, monitor their impact, and drive decisions. The second is Investing in Capacity. High quality work demands investments in critical resources, analytic technologies, and human capital.
While the observation that research evidence using agencies achieve better outcomes should not be surprising, evidence use, sadly, is not a universal practice. As a social sector leader and former public sector leader in child welfare, I see this finding as a reminder of how essential it is to make sure both public and private agencies develop and support to this capacity at both organizational and practice levels. This is especially true for my sector, the social sector, which increasingly constitutes the backbone of states’ child welfare service networks. In many places around the country, we are the ones providing the majority of child welfare services today. But hardwiring the use of research evidence for every child every time doesn’t happen without my public sector colleagues and philanthropy in partnership with us, pulling the fiscal lever through contracts and grants that allow social sector organizations to develop and sustain this critical capacity. As the public sector continues to move to performance based contracting and require the use of evidence-based practices, contracts must support the capacities required to achieve the measurable results we all seek. The results from this study show just how important those investments are.
Improving research evidence use in the social sector is not simply a matter of funds, of course, but also a matter of streamlining access to research and quality training. We need access to evidence about our own performance and access to the latest research on effective practices so we have learning cultures and are constantly improving. We also need access to training on how to interpret evidence and support in applying that knowledge to policy and practice decisions. The science is constantly evolving; agencies have to be able to invest in keeping their staffs’ skills fresh and current with regard to research evidence use. I hope schools of Social Work will pay close attention and do all they can to make research evidence use a core part of their Bachelors and Masters programs, as well as their ongoing support of local child welfare systems across sectors.
The Alliance will be doing its part to facilitate access to applied research for the field. One way in which we’re making that value manifest is through our recent effort to digitize the archives of Families in Society. Founded in its first iteration in 1920, this peer-reviewed journal is devoted to the advancement of a knowledge-into-practice continuum in social work scholarship. By digitizing the archives we will be able to provide practitioners and administrators with streamlined digital access to research evidence in a way that the field has not before experienced.
But making research evidence available to practitioners is only part of the battle. If, as the recent research indicates, organizations that use more research evidence get better outcomes for children and families then we need to learn more about those organizational cultures and capacities that accelerate research knowledge and use. How do agencies’ policy and financial environments support or thwart research evidence use? How do leadership and agency norms play a role? Knowledge about the types of organizations that cultivate research evidence use will be an important guide for future investments. In the meantime, the finding that research evidence use matters is extremely heartening. All of us want to do the best for children and families; knowing that research evidence use is a critical part of that effort gives us one more indication as to how we can move forward as we commit ourselves daily to do the best job for every child every time so they can live their lives to their fullest potential.