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Returns on Investments

At WolfBrown, we think a lot about effectiveness and impact and how to frame our understanding and assessment of them. I was recently fascinated by an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy detailing the Gates Foundation’s innovative effort to assess the return on its investment in schools.

With the help of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and AmericaSpeaks, Gates went directly to students – not principals, teachers, or data-tracking administrators, but 5,400 students at 20 of the 2,000 high schools it has worked with – to take the “YouthTruth” survey. According to Fay Twersky, Gates’ Director of Impact Planning and Improvement, the “YouthTruth” survey will provide feedback to its grantees and “add rigor to Gates’ process,” though it won’t have a direct bearing on their future funding. The article focuses on Woodrow Wilson H.S. in DC’s Northwest Tenleytown neighborhood and describes how the young people were equipped with wireless devices whose instant polling feedback immediately compiled results on a video screen for everyone to see. The devices were a tool to capture the kids’ attention and prepare them for more serious questioning that followed in an online survey later. The article suggests the survey may also prompt students to think in ROI terms. Questions like “What obstacles, like drugs, crime, or family responsibilities make it difficult for you to perform well in your studies?” were designed to keep them thinking about effectiveness and impact, too.

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