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“Fear of success is at least as big a challenge as fear of failure. Because if it works, things are going to change. Are you ready for that?”

– Seth Godin

I could tell you countless examples of CCFW’s success moving people out of poverty. But too often in the social service industry, these stories of success limit our vision. Because I could also tell you about all the people we don’t have resources to serve and those that walk out of our doors only to come back six months later with the same problem. Why? What are we doing wrong? What could we do better? What should we do more of? What really works to move people out of poverty for good? More stories won’t answer these questions. What we need is research.

Recently, I had the chance to speak on this topic and I got some pushback that mirrors the sentiment I see in our industry.

“I don’t think it is ethical for you to conduct research and have people in a control group when they desperately need the services you offer.”

This is not the first time I have heard this response. And I know it won’t be the last.

But I aim to challenge that view.

“So, is it okay that we conduct research that “excludes” people from service?”

Yes. And I’ll tell you why.

Unfortunately, no nonprofit that I can think of has enough resources to meet the demand of every person walking through their door. That means we naturally have a group of people we are unable serve. So, why not at least use our “no” as an opportunity to better our services?

All ethical research is heavily scrutinized. It requires you to go through an International Review Board (IRB) process to ensure you are doing no harm. Additionally, a control/comparison group does not always mean denying services—often it means providing one group “the status quo” and providing another group a new/bold/enhanced service that has not yet been tested.

“But isn’t there an ethical question beyond a natural control group formed because we don’t have enough resources?”

Let’s take a hard look at our industry, the industry I deeply love and am to which I’m fully committed. Let’s talk ethics. Let’s talk about what is right.

Imagine you are sick and you go to the doctor, are diagnosed with a health condition, and given a pill to fix it, one that is subsidized by taxpayers. But that pill has never been tested, whether it helps, hurts, or has no impact. But you are in need and your doctor is the expert, she is in the business of healing people, and people have invested in this solution. It must work.

When you don’t get better, you return to your doctor who gives you a treatment regimen that like the pill, hasn’t been tested. But, she shares that another one of her patients responded miraculously to this treatment, so you’re in good hands, right?

You don’t get better. You are trapped. You start to wonder if maybe your doctor isn’t the right one to heal you. So you find a new physician who has a new untested subsidized pill that you take without any resolve yet again.

We would never stand for people being treated this way in the health care industry. So, why is this okay in the social service industry? Why has our industry determined the poor are so “unworthy” that we can’t invest in learning what changes people’s ability for upward mobility? Why are we on our ethical high horse all the while providing services without evidence of whether they really make a difference or worse, actually harm the poor?

External research expands our knowledge. Not only can we determine what does and does not work, we can better understand how it worked, who it worked for, and how we can improve. And we can’t do that by relying on our favorite story. We need an unbiased examination of our work.

We have a habit of thinking we know what’s best for those struggling in poverty. “It just makes sense,” we tell ourselves. When we started testing our interventions at CCFW, we quickly learned that some of our strategies were just dead wrong. And in some cases, actually causing harm.

Our organization made the important decision to make a change. No more band-aids. No more treadmill of repeat customers. No more output goals that don’t do much beyond today for people in need. Our team is committed to taking risks, to learning we don’t know it all, and to being brave. We decided we were going to double down on things that we know work with families and shed ourselves of services that didn’t move the needle. And we are proud of this, because the people we are committed to serving deserve so much better. 

It is scary to test what you are doing. It is worrisome to stick our necks on the line. Every time we know we are getting a new report on our service results from our economist partners, we hold our breath with concern and anticipation. We want to get it right and it’s hard to be willing to accept the hard truth—that sometimes what you do doesn’t work.

And to this day, we have researchers ask us if we are sure we want to be told what we are doing doesn’t work. Our response—bring it on.

We want to know. These answers, good or bad, give us the ability not only to improve our services, but to scale and replicate evidence-based solutions. And that is the only type of service we should be providing—something that really works.

See what we’ve been learning from the Padua Pilot here!