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Social Solutions: Helping Non-Profits Be More Effective

When it comes to securing funds, non-profits have to be smart. One of the most common solutions is finding transparent ways to assure donors that their money is being put to good use. That’s where companies like Baltimore based Social Solutions come in.

Whoever came up with the expression nice guys finish last, was cynical but, for the most part, spot on. Trying to do good in a world like ours can be tough – and if your job involves helping make life better for others while struggling to secure the tools and resources to do so, it’s possible that you feel this sentiment particularly acutely.

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The overarching problem that plagues most non profits, especially smaller, regional entities, is that of securing funds. Granted, there’s a lot more philanthropy of late (a New York Times article from a few months ago mentions new records having been set in the number of individual donations of $100 million or more), but there could always be more. Forbes’ release of its yearly billionaire list always shine a renewed light on how much money could yet be channeled towards non-profits.

More than the quantity of funds, is the issue of their distribution; funds tend to be directed at causes and institutions that are large, well known, and by extension, often already well-funded. Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation told the Boston Globe that foundation philanthropy in particular, targets established institutions with whom the givers are associated in some way, leaving more disadvantaged organizations with only a “relative sliver” of foundation philanthropy.

So when it comes to securing funds, non-profits have to be smart. One of the most common solutions is finding transparent ways to assure donors that their money is being put to good use. That’s where companies like 8-year old Baltimore based Social Solutions come in.

Founded by former social services workers in response to the difficulty of estimating whether their efforts were positively impacting the individuals being served, Social Solutions has created software that measures the correlation between efforts invested and the outcomes they cause.

Currently used by about 5000 organizations, the ETO (efforts to outcomes measurement) software can be customized to suit the needs of the cause at hand, a factor that makes it unique according to CEO Matt Schuber and founder Steve Butz.

“We’ve created a flexible platform to measure impact across all diff types of programs. There’s a difference between a software being created for one very specific purpose, and a software that’s being created for configuration by various non-profit organizations. This is one of the things that’s allowed us to move from 2000 to 30,000 users,” explains Schuber, a former employee of Microsoft.

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Massachusetts based non-profit, Roca, http://www.rocainc.org/ has customized the software to suit its model of youth intervention work. It has been set up to allow workers to measure the efficacy of efforts to make young adults move towards self sufficiency and out of harms way through reduced risk factors.
“We’re working with youth who are checked out,” explains Anisha Chablani, Roca’s Deputy Director.

“We’re tracking young people through a change process. Youth workers are usually working with someone who is resistant to engaging with them. Recording past efforts to reach out to young people allows a worker to determine what worked or didn’t work last time. The system allows us to keep working at different types and ways of engaging young people.”

The Latin American Youth Center, a DC based non profit that aims to equip youngsters with the skills they need to become successful and effective adults, has configured the software to track race and ethnicity in a more detailed form than allowed by the program’s default settings.

Apart from the benefits of customization, the software is effective as an organizational tool. “Before, in order to fulfill a simple data request, we had to go in to each and every individual program and pull the exact demographic information needed,” explains Isaac Castillo, Director of Learning and Evaluation at the LAYC. With the new software, all data is centrally organized.

And the advantage of using Social Solutions’ product over something like Excel? “It’s Internet based – our staff can put information in and pull it back out regardless of where they are located,” says Castillo. “With size of our organization it would require a very large, sophisticated database to handle our data; rather than spending time creating that we decided to go with Social Solutions.”

That being said, the software’s primary benefit is intended to be in documenting the translation of efforts into outcomes, a process that proved particularly useful in the LAYC’s domestic violence program. The program teaches parents about things like why domestic violence should not be accepted, how women can address it, and why men are wrong in viewing it as an expression of machismo. Using efforts to outcome measurement, the center determined that the way in which the classes were being taught was actually having the opposite effect of that intended: men and women alike were becoming more open to the inevitability of domestic violence. Recognizing this through outcome measurement, the center was able to change the nature of its classes.

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The Center also uses ETO software to track what classes and workshops young adults from their independent living program (which caters to individuals who have “aged out” of the foster care system with the intent of living on their own) have taken and correlate these with the subsequent skill levels participants develop in order to investigate the efficacy of these workshops.

“The software has a very front line real world usefulness in documenting the effectiveness of our programming,” says Castillo. “We’ve seen about a 5-6% increase in funding since we started using the software. More than that however, it’s making us more efficient as an organization by informing our decisions about what we are offering and helping us identify whether we are providing a program that is working well.”

While I found that a cursory examination of the software was not enough to decipher how to use it for ETO measurement, Chablani holds that Roca has found the program user friendly and extremely useful. “It’s not just a data dunk. It really validated the work of front-line workers in a way that would help them see the benefits of their work and let us track outcomes,” she says. “If this doesn’t work then it’s just garbage in and garbage out.”

The primary benefit of the software according to Social Solutions’ Butz and Schuber is the difference it makes to the lives of the individuals being served – increased funding being a byproduct of this. “Its benefit is in providing better services, more effective services. More people are being housed, helped and cared for. And it’s happening in a very accountable way.”

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