Implementing Theoretically Sound Interventions: I think It’s Because … So I Plan to … Which I Think Will Result in …
Having observed opportunities for improvement, an organization must decide what to do next. For its interventions to be effective, it needs to be able to articulate a theory of change: Why do we believe that when we do a collection of things it will result in the outcome we want to see?
Recently, the Data Center worked with the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Central Harlem, to help it codify the essential elements of its “pipeline” of programs. Specifically, the Data Center was asked to examine the various theories of change that underlie their core programs and determine the extent to which they:
- Reflected the scientific literature and established best practices in the field (i.e., the evidence base)
- Were implemented with fidelity to the theoretical design
Using a range of methods, including content analysis, interviews, focus groups, observations, and a wide-ranging review of the literature, we found that HCZ champions many program elements that are supported by research and implements them according to established best practices. At the same time, we discovered an occasional disconnect between intended services and the organization’s actual capacity to implement those services in the field. We also saw evidence of a “whatever it takes” ethos that undergirds the organization’s work, where staff at all levels are expected to be nimble in addressing whatever barriers exist for young people and their families to maximize their well-being and their opportunities for future success. With an eye toward codifying the essential elements of HCZ’s core pipeline programs, we had to then ask: How does the Harlem Children’s Zone put into practice an intangible “whatever it takes” ethos in a way that aligns with a set of strengthened, more tangible, essential practices and programs?
In the end, we were able to identify a set of concrete themes for HCZ to consider when entering into the next phase of its strategic planning effort. For instance, we learned the organization could benefit from enhancing parent involvement, filling gaps in its programs addressing non-cognitive skill development, and clarifying the purpose and scope of its community-building arm. Further, HCZ came to realize that it needed to position its work for future empirical assessment of the “essential elements” that they believe drive their programs’ success. As HCZ’s strategic planning continues, the organization will apply these lessons to help bring on-the-ground activity into better alignment with evidence-based theories of change.