Families and individuals with low incomes typically can receive services from many organizations in their communities. These organizations represent a network—or ecosystem—of support services. However, it can be challenging for these organizations to coordinate their work and understand the effectiveness of their efforts. Slingshot Memphis is a nonprofit organization based in Memphis, Tennessee, that aims to “ignite a movement to revolutionize how poverty is alleviated in Memphis.”
MDRC and Slingshot share a mission to help increase equitable opportunities for personal and economic success for those experiencing poverty. One way both organizations strive to achieve this mission is to help strengthen the programs and organizations that work directly with these families and individuals. In 2020, Slingshot engaged MDRC to observe Slingshot’s work with poverty-fighting organizations—what it calls its impact study process. This issue focus describes MDRC’s initial observations and presents suggestions for Slingshot to improve its processes. The findings may be valuable for any organization working to strengthen its own approach to supporting fellow organizations working to help individuals with low incomes.
The Slingshot Memphis Approach
Slingshot supports organizations to help enhance their ability to reduce poverty through three complementary approaches:
Slingshot identifies organizations with the evidence or potential to create the most poverty-fighting impact and provides an objective assessment of their performance. It measures performance in four dimensions: benefit-cost ratio, systems-level change, use of best practices, and measurement infrastructure.[i]
- Slingshot works collaboratively with these organizations to identify opportunities for greater impact. It provides thought partnership to help organization pursue these opportunities.
- Slingshot directly invests in organizations, and influences further investments in them, to amplify high-performing programs and support opportunities for greater impact. Slingshot’s funding decisions are based on each organization’s poverty-fighting success and its future potential as identified in the study process.
MDRC’s Observations About Slingshot’s Study Process
The goal of this pilot phase of the Slingshot-MDRC partnership was for MDRC to help Slingshot validate the strengths of its study process and identify opportunities to enhance its methodologies. In essence, Slingshot put itself in a similar situation as the organizations it works with, so that it could reflect on how to refine its process with the help of an independent, external partner. MDRC observed Slingshot’s study process for two organizations, one program working with young people involved in the juvenile justice system (which was having its original study updated for 2020) and one charter school (which went through its initial baseline study with Slingshot in the same year).
A team of MDRC staff members joined a series of video meetings and reviewed recordings of meetings between Slingshot and each organization. The MDRC team reviewed their observations of these two studies, looking for findings that might apply broadly to Slingshot’s study process and not simply to its work with a specific organization. The team identified several things that Slingshot should retain in future studies and some things it could refine as it seeks to strengthen its approach, as summarized in the table.
|Suggested Approaches for Slingshot to Retain for Its Future Impact Studies
|Suggested Adaptations for Slingshot to Consider for Its Future Impact Studies
- The impact study process and expectations are laid out clearly from the outset.
- Slingshot is careful to make the process not overly burdensome to the organizations.
- Slingshot creates an inclusive environment where it welcomes feedback and criticisms from the organizations it works with.
- Impact study results are clear and provide information that can be readily translated into action.
- The timeline for presenting information is quick, making it easy for organizations to incorporate recommendations.
- Streamline when and how information is requested to help reduce inefficiencies and the need to clarify information.
- Incorporate partners with more knowledge related to the fields of the programs being studied to enhance the collection and analysis of evidence.
- Build staff members’ knowledge of best practices in qualitative research so they ask better to questions that lead to more useful information.
- Provide additional information to organizations about the evidence and approaches Slingshot used to reach conclusions.
- Create space for purposeful consideration of notable "shocks to the system" (like a pandemic) that are expected to have ripple effects.
Overall, the Slingshot impact study approach was strong. It provided poverty-fighting organizations with valuable information to further develop and enhance their programs and services, and showed them their progress over time (in the case of organizations with multiple Slingshot impact studies under their belts). MDRC shared these sentiments with Slingshot Memphis’s board of directors and staff, and facilitated interactive conversations with staff members about setting priorities among the suggestions listed in the table and then putting them into operation. Slingshot is already addressing these suggestions and making refinements to be a stronger ally for the organizations it works with.
Not only was this partnership a springboard to strengthen Slingshot’s impact study process, but Slingshot’s approach provides useful lessons for the human services field, including the importance of creating a structured study process that minimizes burden on the participating program and providing the program with clear information that is easily translated into action. Furthermore, observing the study process also helped MDRC refine its approach to providing technical assistance in other partnerships. The joint benefits for both organizations lay the foundation for engaging in future work together. MDRC and Slingshot have a lot in common, and a partnership that combines the organizations’ capabilities and strengths could do much to improve outcomes and reduce poverty in Memphis