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Field Notes


Andrew Wolk
January 22, 2010

Why is it that in a country with so many resources, and government and nonprofit programs devoted to education, economic prosperity, and health and well-being—social issues we know to be essential to our success—are we unable to spread what works faster? As of 2008, nearly one-quarter of the American population failed to finish high school, 21 percent of American children lived below the poverty line, and the U.S. healthcare system ranked 37th in the world—lower than any other developed nation. With 1.4 million tax exempt organizations in the country working towards these social issues, why are we not spreading what works faster?

I have been asking myself this very question since the day I sold my business in 1997 and decided to devote my career to making progress on social issues. While I am still certain we must do a better job in building a system that allocates resources towards performance and while I am clearer on what does not work, I am much less clear on what does work. At one point in my career, I thought making social progress was simply a matter of finding a great leader and giving these leaders more resources and tools. However, we have “scaled” organizations with great leaders; but that has made only a little bit of progress. For example, take a certain national nonprofit that has been working to increase college enrollment rates. Although in the eight years from 2000 to 2008, the organization grew by 750 percent, serving more than 17,000 students, it estimates that it will only reach about 2 percent of the 1 million low-income high school students in the United States. Why is this the case? Why are we not reaching the other 98 percent? What we need is a lot of progress.

At another point, I also thought making social progress might simply be a matter of providing greater transparency on particular social issues and on what’s working so that people with resources will make more rational decisions on how to allocate those resources. However, we have seen that allocating resources based on data is only one, and often not the primary driver of decision-making. Adding to this problem is that we have much less data then we thought. In fact, through our social impact research (SIR) division, we have seen that in social areas like School Readiness, there is currently no available data to demonstrate aggregate program success rates since the outcome data is tracked only at an individual level based on teacher observation of students. According to the top four developers of curricula and assessment tools, the individual data cannot be aggregated to accurately show program-wide results. Additionally, the accuracy of the teacher assessments themselves varies greatly with a teacher’s level of training on assessment tools, thus supplying very little reliable data to track aggregate outcomes.

So I keep asking myself why? Why can’t we spread what works faster? Some would argue that it is simply a matter of political will—with the right policies in place progress would be faster. However, I continue to dispel that notion. We have had plenty of policies during the terms of both Republican and Democratic administrations in D.C., and in various other cities, and states that have allocated plenty of resources towards plenty of programs without creating much progress. Instead, I continue to believe that we need to do a much better job of allocating resources based on performance. I continue to believe that we need to strengthen the social contract between the people who make the policies, the people who allocate the resources, the people who deliver the programs, and the populations they seek to help. In the end, we are either providing a better outcome for them or not. If not, we must ask why not!

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