Not many would associate innovation with large, service-oriented nonprofits with decades of history. But in our study of many such organizations—including World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, The Salvation Army, and Save the Children—we found a handful are innovating by seeking out data, taking it seriously, and then using it to pivot their approach from serving constituents’ needs to tackling the underlying problems that produce them.
Let’s look at how The Salvation Army, a 150-year-old Christian charity that provides a variety of social services across the U.S. and globally, and Habitat for Humanity, which works in 70-plus nations to provide home construction, rehabilitation, and increased access to shelter and financing, gathered data from their sites to make the case for profound change.
Frontline Data as Wake Up Call
Transforming networks as large as The Salvation Army’s and Habitat for Humanity’s requires buy-in from multiple site and regional leaders; it also takes compelling data to align members. Carol and Paul Seiler, leaders for the Salvation Army’s Central Territory (11 states in the U.S. Midwest) began to seek hard data and ask tough questions nearly a decade ago: Could they do more than hand out groceries, rent, prescription assistance, and gas vouchers? “You can’t claim impact if you only see a kid or family for five minutes once a month,” observed Carol Seiler.
In 2010, the Seilers surveyed all officers and social services staff. The results corroborated their concerns. “Ninety percent of the Corps and service units [told us that they] were providing all of those basic services people need to survive in crisis,” Seiler explained. “But only 10% of the units said they were able to do anything that was close to problem solving for the family.” So the Seilers responded by piloting a program called the Pathway of Hope, which focuses on providing case management for families. Over the past five years, the program has been successful enough that other territories are adopting it.
Similarly, Habitat for Humanity realized that simply building houses was not sufficient to meaningfully address its mission of eliminating the housing deficit, including slum upgrading. “Many of our country organizations didn’t even know what the housing deficit was in their country,” said Steven Weir, vice president for Global Programs at Habitat for Humanity International. “They just tried to build 5% more houses every year and they considered that a good year. But when we asked people across the organization to think about eliminating the housing deficit—well, there’s no way you could build your way out of that.”
The organization compiled data comparing its service potential to overall need and a simple frontline calculation emphasized the imperative for change. Consider that Habitat Guatemala was that country’s largest housing builder. The math showed the current approach could only make a small dent in the need. “At the time we started our new global strategic plan, we calculated it would take well over 100 years for most of the countries where Habitat works to eliminate the quantitative and qualitative housing deficit at their current rate,” said Weir. Based on this insight, Habitat sought to address the deficit in more systemic ways.
Using Models Proven Elsewhere
Whether through survey responses or calculations of need, pulling frontline data helped all sites own their challenge. Next, the organizations looked outside for models that showed evidence of results in related fields.
The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope adopted a case-management approach, proven effective in social work, to help families identify barriers to escaping poverty, whether inadequate housing, unemployment, or lack of education. Army staffers now develop individual strategies to overcome these barriers, connecting families to community services to achieve self-sufficiency. This hands-on and holistic program represents a fundamental procedural shift, one that’s bearing fruit.
By February 2016, more than three-quarters of the Central Territory Corps were trained in the new model. Almost 1,800 families enrolled in Pathway of Hope and 80% were referred to services and other community resources. Participating families show strong early signs of progress: Those completing multiple assessments have seen increases of 24% in parental income, 50% in hope, and 75% in stability. Moreover, 83% of clients who finished the program achieved their goals related to housing, employment, education, child care, etc.
In 2013, Habitat used its frontline calculations to create a new strategic plan aimed at materially affecting the housing deficit through a combination of advocacy and market development. A critical part was adapting a proven model in a related field: microfinance. Habitat now advises financial institutions around the world on how to offer small housing loans to help families buy land, build, or improve their homes. With other investors, Habitat launched a $100 million MicroBuild Fund to lend long-term capital and provide technical assistance to local financial institutions. By increasing or jump-starting these institutions’ housing microfinance lending, Habitat aims to create robust markets for this financing that can continue on their own.
The fund has disbursed almost $50 million to 31 microfinance institutions in 20 countries, helping almost 50,000 families secure decent, affordable housing. With the MicroBuild-supported loans, recipient institutions have expanded their housing portfolios by leveraging an additional $45 million from the capital markets. Habitat has thereby transformed the nature and scale of its impact. Overall reach increased from 500,000 people served by building houses in 2012 to more than 6 million people in 2015.
The world’s biggest NGOs can’t continue to do business as usual if we’re going to tackle the world’s major social problems. By gathering data on what’s not working and adopting approaches proven to solve underlying problems, these organizations can use their enormous scale and long tradition of service to innovate and change the world.
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