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An Evaluation 10 Years In the Making !










A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.  - David Hume, Scottish Historian and Empiricist  

2014-November 10
by Nick Randell, Program Officer

On September 16, 2014, I completed the last phone survey of an evaluation of a five-year grant initiative at the Tower Foundation.  If I haven't lost you already, I'd like to take this blog space to summarize what we learned.  I'm keeping this overview at a high level.  We had an article published about this evaluation, so if you crave details, email me ([email protected]) and I will send you a copy.

In 2004 The Tower Foundation issued an RFP for non-profits to implement programs with a strong evidence base.  There was a pre-selected list of programs to chose from, mostly behavioral health interventions targeting young people and their families.  That first year there were eight programs on the list.  The RFP was issued in each of the next four years, and that list of eligible programs grew to 38 by the third year, but was "right-sized" to 16 in the fifth and final year of the initiative.

Here's the list of programs that applicants actually chose (and that were funded):

  • Across Ages
  • Al's Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices
  • Brief Strategic Family Therapy
  • Functional Family Therapy
  • Helping the Non-Compliant Child
  • Functional Family Therapy
  • Strengthening Families Program
  • Incredible Years, Classroom
  • Incredible Years, Parent Training
  • Multi-systemic Therapy
  • Second Step
  • Strengthening Families
  • Strengthening Families Program: For Parents and Youth 10-14
  • Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy

In five years, we funded 25 program implementations for 22 agencies, generally three-year grants.  The value of the grants totaled $2.1 million, with an average award of $84,050.  We encouraged applicants to develop robust implementation plans that recognized the realities of staff turnover, program certification demands, internal cultural resistance to change, etc.

To assess the effectiveness of all this grantmaking, we developed an evaluation methodology, heavy on phone surveys, that would get at two key issues:

  • Was the program sustained? Specifically, was it still being offered after the grant period closed?  One year after?  Two?
  • Are the programs being offered with fidelity?  Without it, you can't expect the results that these evidence-based programs deliver when the model is closely followed.

The evaluation included phone interviews at one and two year intervals, post grant period.  For each intervention, we developed a metric to reflect fidelity to the model.  A higher fidelity score demonstrated attention to things like certification requirements for clinicians, adherence to program scripts/manuals, the correct length and number of sessions, appropriate caseloads, and clinical supervision.  We also asked questions to try to identify factors that most contributed to the success or failure of an implementation.  We called these "success drivers" and "failure drivers." 

Some would question the wisdom of conducting this evaluation with foundation staff, rather than engaging a third-party evaluator.  We actually did solicit evaluation proposals for this work.  Evaluators actually recommended that we do the evaluation internally, provided we keep the focus on sustained program delivery that maintained some minimum level of adherence to the protocols of the specific intervention.  In fact, since staff had done a lot of work to understand just what these protocols entailed, we were in the best position to do this evaluation.   To maintain some level of objectivity, I conducted all the phone interviews and metric scoring personally, and was not involved in grant reviews or monitoring activities for any of these grants.

So what did we learn?  Two years post-grant, 15 of 25 programs were still running.  Fidelity scores for these continuing programs placed eight in the "exemplary" range (score 9.0 or higher), five "good" (7.0-8.9), and three "fair" (5.0-6.9).  Two programs actually improved their ratings across the two post-grant interviews.  Nine held their ground; five slipped slightly.  The table below captures some of the factors that distinguished successful implementations from less successful ones.

Success Drivers

Failure Drivers

  • Peer meetings, shared learning
  • Early attention to staff buy in
  • Internal training capacity developed
  • Effective fidelity monitoring tools
  • Program value communicated to payer agency
  • Plan for turnover
  • High staff turnover
  • Non-reimbursable costs too high
  • Certification requirements too high
  • State agency (for payments/referral) not receptive
  • Family member participation difficult

The initiative as a whole had some pretty clear wins.   In several cases, state agencies agreed to reimburse for new intervention models.   One intervention in particular, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, achieved significant penetration in Tower regions.  50 clinicians were trained to offer it in eastern Massachusetts, 80 in western New York.  Subsequent grantmaking has built on efforts to introduce research-tested social/emotional curricula in pre-k programs.  To date, we have supported these implementations in over 150 classrooms.

Photo by Skara Kommun
Flickr: David Hume | 6133856373
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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