AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund: Working Together to Scale Solutions

By Keisha Kersey

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There is broad consensus among policymakers, philanthropists, and nonprofit leaders around the country that we need to find innovative new solutions to long-standing issues in areas like public health, economic opportunity, and youth development.

But even when potential new solutions are identified, there are still questions about how to bring these innovations to scale and how to provide sufficient financial resources and the right collaborative partnerships to grow proven programs. “Make no mistake,” notes Social Innovation Fund (SIF) Director Michael Smith, “access to capital is low right now, but the needs of our communities are at an all-time high. That means we are going to have to be creative in how we grow solutions.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is meeting this challenge head on through the combined efforts of its programs, including AmeriCorps and the Social Innovation Fund. While all CNCS programs support viable community solutions, SIF and AmeriCorps have tremendous potential to combine their strengths and effectively scale programs that work. “There is great synergy when SIF and AmeriCorps can work together to scale a program,” notes Smith. “When that happens, we are mobilizing both boots on the ground and financial capital.”

This can provide promising programs with the resources and infrastructure they need to go to scale, while also employing national service “people power” to bring services to new clients in new locations. The rigorous evaluation required by SIF also ensures that these programs generate additional evidence of their effectiveness, while also uncovering best practices for implementation.

To further explore the potential synergies between the SIF and AmeriCorps, we’ve profiled four innovative organizations engaging with both of these CNCS programs to grow their services, generate new evidence, and implement community solutions at scale. These projects are powerful examples of how SIF and AmeriCorps can work together to make a real difference for people in need.

Minnesota Reading Corps – Generating even more evidence for future scaling

One of the biggest challenges in scaling any human service program is developing a clear understanding of which components of a program model are critical to its overall success. When thinking about taking an intervention to scale, it’s important to know which aspects of the model are “non-negotiable,” which can be adjusted to meet local needs, and which components are contributing to (or hindering) the overall success of the program. But generating this kind of nuanced evidence about a program isn’t easy—that level of rigorous evaluation is expensive, time-consuming, and risky, especially for a program that is in the middle of expanding its reach. But in the case of the Minnesota Reading Corps, the Social Innovation Fund represents a perfect opportunity to test the components of its model and generate evidence that will allow the program to serve more students, more effectively, in the decades to come.

Minnesota Reading Corps, a program of ServeMinnesota, is a subgrantee in the STRIVE Alliance portfolio led by Generation Next in partnership with Greater Twin Cities United Way. This program seeks to improve literacy outcomes for preschool and elementary school children throughout Minnesota using innovative, evidence-based practices and personalized tutoring. Over the past decade, Minnesota Reading Corps has grown from serving a few hundred children to serving over 30,000 at 600 sites across the state—a level of scale greatly facilitated by AmeriCorps members who support program delivery.

To date, the results have been impressive: Nearly 80 percent of Minnesota Reading Corps participants achieved more than a year’s worth of progress in one year’s time, exceeding state and national averages and dramatically surpassing what would have typically been expected. But for all this success, there was still a desire to learn more about innovations to the model that could drive even better student outcomes.

“We consider evaluation to be a crucial part of our overall strategy to improve student literacy outcomes,” notes Research Director David Parker. “Our annual evaluation determines the overall impact of the program, but it also offers the opportunity to evaluate promising, innovative practices.” To that end, ServeMinnesota is using SIF to test the validity and efficacy of a new innovative component, or “practice,” of the model. “Some of the new innovative practice was evaluated prior to SIF, and results suggested a positive impact. SIF has allowed us to further develop and refine these components,” notes Parker, which should result in a more effective overall program that can be rolled out statewide.

Among the components being tested under SIF are the use of high-utility vocabulary words (drawn from research-based word lists that students should know but often do not), deployment of intervention delivery scripts, and new assessment approaches that will allow for better measurement of the impact of the program. Notes Parker, “Each of these components was developed at a small scale, which means that the resources provided by SIF can be used to assess and broaden their impact, rather than focusing on initial development.”

“There is tremendous potential for this increased understanding of the program,” says Sadie O’Connor, Vice President of Reading Corps National Replication. “If our evaluation shows that these new practices are impactful, we would scale the adoption across all current and future sites. We expect that success with this intervention will attract new funders and potentially new partners that would like to adopt our program model.”

Parker notes that SIF has been an excellent way to Minnesota Reading Corps’ AmeriCorps-driven work to the next level: “SIF really provides an excellent opportunity to do research and development work that would otherwise not be possible in running the day-to-day efforts of an AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps provides access to flexible people power to then scale up the innovation that is validated through the SIF process.”

At the end of the day, all of this scaling and evaluation work is about bringing effective solutions to the children and families served. And with Minnesota Reading Corps, we can see how increased understanding about an intervention will translate into practical improvements in service delivery and better results for kids. As Parker notes, “SIF fits perfectly with our vision of being able to regularly hypothesize what would result in achieving improved outcomes, and then provides the resources to test, further refine, and eventually scale up”—with a generation of emerging readers waiting to benefit from these valuable findings.

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Notes

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