You can’t learn from what you don’t see

This post was originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal.

I remember nearly two decades ago in a university program evaluation class when I first heard the statement, “Only what gets measured matters, but not everything that matters can be measured.” What if we applied this attitude to changing the trajectory of young people? Gaining a better understanding of who we are collectively serving and what individual families need is the best way to know if we are moving the needle.

This concept isn’t new. Just think of the customized services we receive from companies like Netflix, Amazon and Google. With time, each company’s ability to track what we need has improved. They are able to target valuable offerings to us because we’re in a database; they know us, or at least our habits. We have similar data about our region – there are approximately 2.8 million people with roughly 359,000 living in poverty; about 122,251 or 18.9 percent of these are children under 18. The need goes beyond Ferguson.

Corporate and community leaders have rallied in tremendous ways this past year to meet the social and business needs of the residents in Ferguson. I have admired the personal passion with which people have approached the topic of creating a more economically and educationally accessible region. Despite the rhetoric of some, I sense that corporate and labor leaders want to facilitate greater access, but they need help understanding the scope of poverty in our neighborhoods and systems of accountability to measure progress. What if I told you that in our bi-state region there are 28 zip codes, impacted by similar challenges and disparities as Ferguson, with more than 20 percent of the residents living in poverty? Or that in the next decade we will spend significantly more than $10 billion on social services? Your next question might be: what outcomes might we expect as a result of our investment?

Right now our outcomes are good, and we can do better. Currently, the nonprofit sector is largely comprised of organizations that specialize in meeting a single need for a family. Because that organization doesn’t have all of the services a family requires to be successful, agencies depend on one another to fill the gaps. When we attempt to map the progress of this family, the challenge is that the data collected is rarely integrated across organizations or used to drive continuous improvement. To truly leave no child behind, let’s start by having an honest conversation about how to share data throughout our community in meaningful and responsible ways that lead to improved outcomes. Only then can we understand and improve upon our individual and collective impact as a sector.

What would happen to the delivery of health and human services and the competitiveness of our region if we had an integrated tracking and evaluation data system that allowed us to direct resources in a more effective manner? We could likely help limited resources stretch further, rally regional engagement and achieve better outcomes.

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