President Clinton’s Food Poverty Challenge Inspires Student Team’s 2013 Hult Prize Entry


A regionally diverse team of four Wagner students — David Margolis (West Bloomfield, MI), Jacqueline Burton (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), Laura Manley (Westfield, MA), and Ellen Nadeau (Clearwater, FL) — have been selected to advance to the prestigious Hult Prize regional finals in March.

The Hult Prize, in its fourth year, is the world’s largest student competition and crowdsourcing platform for social good. Recently,  it was recognized by former President Bill Clinton and TIME magazine as one of the top five new ideas for changing the world. In partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative, the Hult Prize’s crowd-sourcing platform identifies and launches social ventures aimed at some of the most pressing global challenges. Student teams compete for the chance to secure $1 million in start-up funding to launch a sustainable social venture.

The 2013 Hult Prize focuses on global food security, and how to get safe, sufficient, affordable, and easily accessible food to the more than 200 million people who live in urban slums. This focus was personally selected by President Clinton, and it inspired the Wagner team.

The team is developing an initiative called Rootstock. It is a digital service-learning platform that unites students from various disciplines and countries to collaborate on global food security issues, and implement their learning directly in the field. The pilot curriculum is about urban agriculture.

This year’s Holt competition generated a record number of entries, totaling more than 10,000. The regional competitions take place on March 1 and 2 on Hult International Business School’s five campuses in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, and Shanghai. The Wagner team will compete in San Francisco.

One team from each host city will be chosen for a summer business incubator, where participants will receive mentoring and other assistance as they create prototypes and prepare to launch their new social ventures. A final round of competition will be hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative at its annual meeting in September, where the winning team will be selected and awarded the grand prize by President Clinton.

Stay tuned!

— Ellen Marie Nadeau

 


Kenya’s new constitution faces toughest question yet: “Now what?”


Three decades, two constitutions and one “Committee of Experts” later, the people of Kenya have voted on a document to govern the country.  Piece of maandazi (like cake, but better), right?  Now all that’s left to do for peace and stability in the east African country is…well, all of it.

Kicking off the spring 2013 Conflict, Security and Development speaker series, NYU Wagner Professor Paul Smoke let us in on just a few of the challenges Kenya faces in its efforts to achieve state reform.  Kenya’s government and authority structure is redesigned. The newly decentralized system empowers county governments and relies more heavily on these localized structures for service delivery.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well for one, argues Smoke, the counties in Kenya’s new system have disparate levels of functionality. Some work; many don’t. This divide begs the question: should the national government invest its limited resources supporting those counties it knows to be capable of actually dispersing these resources to its people?  Or, should it spend more on the counties in greatest need in the name of equity (which the new constitution explicitly promotes)?

If the question of federal resource distribution doesn’t bend your brain, then consider the new internal structure of the counties themselves.  Most of the financial resources in this county system are generated in urban areas, while the seats of government power and decision-making lie in the hands of the rural populations.  Smoke offers a hypothetical illustration: “It would be like Baltimore being sucked up into Maryland; Maryland is now entirely responsible for all of the operations of the city.  The problem is, Maryland has no elected officials, no resources of its own, and it would have to vote funds away from itself to keep Baltimore going.”

“But wait,” you’re thinking, “didn’t we just say that all the money is coming from Baltimore?”  Why, yes.  Yes we did.  Now you see why the business of implementing an entirely new constitution that calls for an entirely redesigned system of government might not be as quick and painless as you thought?

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 12:30 PM IN RUDIN, Mark Foran, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, will discuss on the nascent field of Information and Technology in Humanitarian Action, and provide an inside look at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ new flagship publication about the role of technology in global humanitarian efforts.

– Ashley Nichole Kolaya


Gordon Brown on his feet, NYU Wagner on its toes


Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke candidly with policy students about, well, everything he was asked at NYU Wagner.

“We submitted your list of questions to the Prime Minister so he could choose from among them which to answer,” began Wagner policy professor and organizer of the well-attended Dec. 5 event, Shankar Prasad. “And, well, he said he’d take all of them.”

The longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain’s history did just that: he took every last question the full house of Wagner policy students had to offer. And he didn’t take them sitting down, either. Brown, a former university lecturer and no stranger to a mob of eager students, moved casually around the room as he engaged directly with each questioner, holding eye contact and offering responses that were at once direct and informative.

In tones both dulcet and grammatically elegant, the former Prime Minister offered his frank insights on the broadest possible range of subjects. Here is a (paraphrased) bit of what he had to say.

• On the effectiveness of the G-20: “They prevented a global depression—and then retreated back into their national silos.”

• On Europe’s role in the financial crisis: “Though they were happy to blame it on the US for a while, Europe had its own, even bigger banking problem.”

• On Rwanda: “The international community cannot say ‘We will not tolerate torture,’ and then do nothing when torture occurs.”

• On Greece’s position in the EU: “We know now that Greece should never have been permitted to join the EU, because they produced incomplete, misleading financial information to the Council.”

• On Afghanistan: “The theory was right. We needed to facilitate ‘Afghanization’ [i.e. build the capacity of the Afghan armed forces] and then get out. The strategy is a different story, and the jury’s still out on the final outcome.”

• On whether or not self-sufficiency politics can work in today’s global society: “No.”

• On the push for open data and open government: “It’s always the most uncomfortable for the first generation, but people learn; then they know the rules when they write emails.”

• On the fate of the EU: “Albert Einstein has this definition of insanity…”

Wagner students sat with rapt, polite attention, despite Brown’s insistence that we “fire back” at him if we disagreed or felt compelled to challenge his assertions. Alas, the tacit consent of the crowd precluded any reenactment of a House of Commons debate, which perhaps would have made Brown feel more at home.

On the whole, the former Prime Minister was incredibly well-received by a grateful Wagner audience. At the very least, Gordon Brown did his part in combatting the image he ascribes to today’s politicians: “so many of us have lost the art of communication, but not the art of speech.”

Prime Minister, consider this audience one who hears your message loud and clear.

– by Ashley Nichole Kolaya


Panel Examines Role of Social Media During the Storm


The Rudin Center for Transportation convened a panel of experts to look at the role social media played in disseminating information for New York City’s transportation agencies during Hurricane Sandy. (This came on the heels of a Rudin Center report examining impact of the storm on transportation across the city, “Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy). The Nov. 27 panelists consisted of Aaron Donovan from the MTA, Robin Lester Kenton from NYC DOT, Ben Kabak of Second Ave Sagas, Tyson Evans of the New York Times, and JP Chan also from the MTA. Each of the speakers confirmed that they utilized social media such as Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr and Youtube to help spread updates on the conditions of New York City’s trains, bridges, tunnels and subway lines.

Kenton of the DOT (where she is director of strategic communication) said the Department of Transportation is most proud of its Tumblr site due to the versatility it affords, and relied, too, on Twitter for reaching out during Sandy. The DOT faced a similar problem in 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit and there was great demand for information from the public; the DOT website crashed then, and officials used Twitter as their sole means of news updates. Still, this news outlet presents some interesting challenges for the DOT. The first was message coordination between agencies: who would post what, should there be duplication between different branches of the government, do certain informational tweets need prior approval?

Simultaneously, DOT faced the problem of establishing a communication culture during a time of crisis. Ordinarily t he release of internal agency information would take days to reach the public, quite the opposite of the minute to minute updates on social media sites. People on social media sites expect quicker news feeds and answers to their questions. Nolan Levenson, research assistant at the Rudin Center and coauthor of the report) added that Sandy presented an unprecedented shift in how the public searched for updates. “During the storm, residents turned to social media through smartphones and the internet to access the latest information both from transportation providers and fellow citizens,” Levenson said.

Aaron Donovan of MTA followed up Kenton’s presentation by detailing his agency’s efforts in releasing information as quickly as possible. The press office of the MTA was asked to be transparent, timely, and not conservative. There was a preference of speed over quality, a bias toward action that resulted in the MTA’s positing pictures and videos no matter what type of camera the images came from. Photos got the agency’s message out quicker and better while simultaneously showing the devastation being caused by the storm. Without the images, most New York transit users would have no idea of the challenges facing the MTA. With this newfound transparency, the MTA estimates it reached more than two-thirds of their Twitter followers during Hurricane Sandy.

Ben Kabak of Second Ave. Sagas said the dilemma he faced during the storm was ensuring the spreading of correct, relevant information. He walked a tight rope between speed and accuracy. While press conferences from officials provided sources of pertinent and accurate information, some things careening around Twitter were blatantly false. Kabak added that deciphering what was real and what was contrived was difficult, as Sandy presented some situations that would appear imaginary, yet were quite real — for instance, Governor Mario Cuomo’s request for $600 million in federal assistance to restore the South Ferry subway station in lower Manhattan, a total greater than the cost of building the station.

— Alexander James Powell


Election Night Live! at Wagner


As the tallies of predicted Electoral College votes climbed above 200, the energy at Puck built to a crescendo; the anticipation, anxiety and curiosity that had simmered throughout the evening bubbled to the surface.

It was the moment everyone was waiting for at the Wagner Election Night Live! party with its more than 400 students, faculty and friends — a night that mixed issues and fun and reflected NYU Wagner commmunity’s passion for public policy in all its complexity.

Though it only happens once every four years, the Wagner ENL! party is one of the most anticipated events hosted by the school. In the week leading up to election night, the Wagner Events Team was firing on all cylinders, preparing a kind of celebration of democracy. The night was infused with election-themed activities, libations and décor. Guests were invited to craft patriotic stickers to support their issue or candidate, write a message of encouragement or critique to the election victor, grab a red or blue marker to help fill in an electoral map as each state was called, or to compete for prizes in the Electoral Scavenger Hunt.

With “red state” or “blue state” beverages in hand, attendees mingled with friends and colleagues watching the returns on big screens, each TV tuned to a different network, and listening to the pundits and predictions. In addition to hearing from Wolf Blitzer and David Gregory, Wagner Election Night Live gave participants access to political experts of a different sort; Wagner faculty on hand, including Professors Chan, Prasad, Elbel, Fritzen, Noveck, Gershman. Each led a conversation on the implications of the election for a particular policy or social issue:

• Professor Chan discussed economic policy issues, particularly fact checking some of the economic claims made in campaign advertising.
• Professor Prasad’s social policy discussion imagined what social policy priorities would be paramount in a Romney or an Obama administration, as well as the many social issues up for grabs at the state level that night.
• Professor Fritzen discussed the election from a global perspective, noting how other countries view the U.S. democratic process. Conversation quickly transitioned to the narrow scope of foreign policy in the election debates, and the focus on China as a “common enemy” for both campaigns.
• Professor Elbel discussed the implications for healthcare in the election. Questions around how Romney might change the ACA were a common thread, along with hopes that broader public health efforts will rise to the top of the agenda in the coming term.

As the night continued and food options transitioned from sushi to Hawaiian pizza, the volume of people and noise in the Rudin Family Forum grew. President Obama was the clear favorite in the room, and cheers erupted as each network called a state for the President, an emotional roller coaster evident throughout the night as guests exchanged high fives and frantic glances at the televisions and Twitter to see how the electoral numbers were adding up.

As MSNBC became the first to call the election for President Obama, a cheer rang out, the high fives turned to embraces and all eyes then scanned the remaining networks to see wehther they would join in. The conversation turned from one of “what ifs” to that of “what now;” many guests stayed past midnight, discussing the election contest that was, and what the start of the next four years would look like.

While Election Night Live gave the Wagner community a brief respite after a long presidential campaign and harrowing hurricane, ENL! was first and foremost an expression of what it means to be a part of one of the nation’s top schools of public Ssrvice. As Wagner events administrator Scott Sowell put it the morning after the election, “Last night I was reminded once again what extraordinary people make up the Wagner community. From leading conversations and mixing cocktails to hanging decorations and managing tech, not to mention numerous other tasks, each of you rolled up your sleeves and served however you could.” Now, the Wagner community and the rest of our fellow citizens will wait to see whether our newly elected or re-elected officials will do the same: roll up their sleeves and get to work on issues that really matter.

– by Catherine Dangremond, Angela Dooley, Courtney Jones, Ashley Kolaya, Alex Powell


IPSA Hosts Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights


By Alexander James Powell
IN THE MIDST OF the recent 67th General Assembly meeting of the United Nations, NYU Wagner’s International Public Service Association (IPSA) invited Under Secretary of State Maria Otero to participate in a town hall discussion in the school’s Rudin Center. Otero, one of six Under Secretaries to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, deals mainly with civilian security, democracy and human rights worldwide and is currently most involved with Burma and the countries of the Arab Awakening. Her mission since becoming Under Secretary in 2009 has been to help governments protect their citizens by moving violence away from populated regions, support underrepresented groups, and facilitate transitional justice in countries experiencing major revisions to their governing bodies.

When the General Assembly of the UN meets, it is a truly busy time for the Under Secretary, mainly for the meetings and sessions outside the General Assembly. Over the past week Otero was able to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairperson of National League for Democracy and opposition politician to the military rule that has dominated the government of Burma for decades. Otero also emphasized the impact that the informational discussion panel “Religion and Foreign Policy” had during the series of events. She mentioned that this meeting was filled beyond capacity; the topic has received increased attention since the assassination of her friend Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. These panels and informal meetings, according to Otero, are where some of the most important interactions and discussions occur during the UN meetings.

A major concern for the Secretary of State and an obvious interest from the crowd was the issue of water security for poor nations. The role that Otero saw the U.S. government playing was ni mediating between nations that share a river as a border. These countries that are both part of the same river basin must work together to consider the long term impacts of water usage and releasing pollutants into the river. These issues are compounded in the situation of the ten countries that border the Nile River in Eastern Africa.

Finally Otero explained the Open Government Initiative, a program that encourages the transparency of nations’ budgets and operations for their citizens to oversee. The explanation of this effort begged a question from the audience as to the line between the U.S. government’s intervention with these international countries and the sovereignty they maintain. The Under Secretary’s response is summed up by the Presidential Study Directive 10:

“Our security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.”

The statement emphasizes that is the responsibility of the U.S. government to act against these atrocities but Otero also stated that they mainly focus on those nations that want to be helped. They work with like=minded leaders that recognize they have a problem and admit that they need help fixing it. For the rest of the nations they can only encourage action and advocate for those suffering.

IPSA secretary Jessica Troiano and Under Secretary Maria Otero (right).

The NYU Wagner special event was hosted by the International Public Service Association (IPSA) on September 29 and was professionally moderated by Wagner’s own Jessica Troiano.


CODING (AND CONNECTING) FOR CHANGE


By Courtney Jones and Rose Schapiro

What if top tech talent – developers, coders, and designers – turned their focus to building tech answers for the public good? And what if government agencies and nonprofits opened their doors to connect with these innovative ideas? And what if leading organizations put prizes on the table to recognize the very best of those ideas?

Code for Change is determined to find out.

“We’re open to ideas – that’s why we’re here.”  – New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

Those words capture the essence of the Code for Change launch last Friday, September 28, when government agencies and nonprofits mingled and brainstormed with coders, designers and tech developers in pursuit of innovative tech solutions to some of the most pressing public issues facing people across the country.

Launched by a partnership among NYU Wagner, One Economy/Applications For Good, Code for America, NPower and Blue Ridge Foundation, Code for Change is a twist on the traditional 24- or 36-hour hackathon: participating developers will spend two weeks working on concepts to address the agencies’ challenges, culminating in a judging at NYU Wagner on October 12. The top solutions will win prizes like cash, free office space, and support from some of the strongest talent in the tech field.

“These nonprofit organizations and government agencies are the greatest civic actors in our society and are facing some really significant challenges” – Neil Kleiman, Special Adviser to the Dean at NYU Wagner and an event organizers.

Ideas moved quickly at Friday’s event, with government agencies like New York City’s Office of Youth and Community Development and nonprofits like Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship allotted just one minute to summarize their most pressing technology challenge in a quick pitch to a crowd of tech developers, who would choose to sign on to help design an innovative solution. The agencies represented the top 13 entries in a wider competition and shared a few common themes in their challenges:

  • How can technology help us identify the right combinations of talent and skill on our staff and ensure those people are working on the right issues at the right time?
  • How can technology help us synch in real time what’s happening in the field with what we need to track – to improve implementation and reporting – back at the office? Can we knit together the various pieces of data we collect to form an accurate, up-to-date picture for our review as well as our funders’?
  • Our target audiences need the resources we provide – what’s the best way to use technology to let them know what’s available and help them access when and where they need them?

With the challenges laid out before them, the developers, coders and designers hopped from conversations with one agency to another, probing for more information about each challenge, forming teams, and sharing their initial ideas. Developers asked how each agency currently tracks data; whether they had tried to address these problems in other ways; and how their roles as government agencies and nonprofits might put a different spin data privacy or other issues relevant to the public sector. Many of the coders and designers were particularly excited to work on projects designed to serve the public good—be it an application for social workers in schools to reach out to at-risk students, or a prototype for a textbook exchange at a local college. Some of the agencies knew exactly what they wanted, or had a system they were planning to use as a foundation, and others were looking for fresh ideas from designers and developers who could define a new direction.

The launch marked the beginning of two weeks of work, when teams will meet on their own time to work collaboratively on their solutions. On Friday, October 12th, teams will reconvene at NYU Wagner for a “demo day” to present their solutions. Judges will include: Rachel Sterne, NYC’s Chief Digital Officer; Seth Pinsky, President of the NYC Economic Development Corporation; Charlie O’Donnell, Partner, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures; and Andrew Rasiej, Chairman of NY Tech MeetUp.

 What’s at stake? A Grand Prize of $10,000 goes to the judges’ favorite entry! Also available is a Social Innovation Prize, valued at $6,000 including 6 months of free workspace access at the Centre for Social Innovation, a shared workspace and incubator for social ventures, opening in New York City in January 2013. Additional cash, in-kind and mentorship prizes are being announced weekly.

The next great tech fix will be judged in just two week. Stop by the Code for Change final judging on October 12th to see its beginnings and visit http://applicationsforgood.org/ to see what other creative ideas are being exchanged – and what their impact will be.


Business is not the bad guy. Then again, sometimes it is.


[By Ashley Nichole Kolaya]

AT NYU WAGNER, WE SPEND a lot of time discussing topics like urbanization, infrastructure, social policy, and citizen security.  We usually leave the business talk to the folks at Stern.  Eduardo Moncada of Rutgers University (and formerly of Wagner) would say that omission  is exactly our problem.

Latin America has two unique distinctions in the world of geopolitical statistics: first, it is the most urbanized region in the world.  Second, it is the most violent.  Organizations like the UNDP and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme release flurries of reports about these topics on an annual basis.  What we don’t hear about, however, is the role that business plays in all of these development concerns.  Eduardo Moncada is on a mission to change that.

Moncada argues that prevailing research in particularly violent urbanized areas focuses on the role of police, political will, and civic society.  He points out that business, as such, is rarely brought into the conversation.  When it is, the imagery depicts “business” as a monolith: one actor, with one purpose and one consistent message.  According to Moncada, “This image misses the point entirely.”

In his research, presented last Tuesday during the ongoing Conflict, Security, and Development series (Tuesdays from 12:30-1:30pm in the Rudin conference room of the Puck Building, 2nd floor), Moncada finds that local businesses often play a strongly influential role in shaping a government’s policy response to urban violence.

Eduardo Moncada

Eduardo Moncada

Moncada focused his talk on the Colombian cities Cali, Bogota, and Medellin specifically.  In this particularly violent region of the world, says Moncada, governments tend to respond to citizen security issues with two types of policy: reactive and reformist.  Reactive policies are typically more hardline and, at times, rely on the use of coercive measures.  Rerformist policies focus on socioeconomic investment and political empowerment.  Different types of businesses, with different types and levels of interest, favor different approaches to security policy.

In Latin America, the role of business in citizen security policy has been at times, hugely beneficial.   In Bogota, for example, the Chamber of Commerce helped to lay the foundation and build the support for a string of reformist mayors who oversaw a decrease in overall violence in the city.  In this instance, local businesses, specifically those in the service sector, favor reformist policies that make a city more marketable in the tourism industry.  “Come visit City X: we’ve got the most murders per capita!” has never looked all that enticing on a brochure.  In this case, says Moncada, “business was a catalyst to urban reformist policy and an increase in citizen security.”

On the other hand, business can also play a detrimental role in the creation of reformist policies.  In the practice known as clientelism, politicians promise various forms of political favors in exchange for political support.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, thanks to drug lords like Pablo Escobar, clientelism dominated regional political systems, and Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Moncada points out that during this time, industrialists with ties to the drug trade joined with clientelistic mayors to discredit would-be reformist policy makers.  Through media manipulation (i.e. tying reformists to known terrorists, etc), industrialists and clientelistic politicians effectively squashed a push for reformist policies in Medellin.

Fortunately for the city, business also played a large role in the recent rebranding of Medellin, which goes to show that, under the right circumstances, business can play a hugely beneficial role in developing policies that promote citizen security.  “It’s no panacea,” says Moncada, “but it’s more significant than the credit we’ve been giving it.”

You hear that, Stern?  Maybe we should talk….


Eat at Your Own Risk


The Wagner Food Policy Alliance Brown Bag was the kind of event that can make you re-examine your daily habits. Lauren Bush, a student at Wagner, eloquently discussed her harrowing personal experience with foodborne illness and the local and national advocacy efforts she has since joined to highlight and address this public issue.

When she was 20, Lauren said, she ate a bowl of contaminated spinach. It was triple-washed and organic — and grown in E.coli. After a pair of week-long hospital stays, $50,000 in medical bills (which her insurance fortunately covered, but of course not everyone’s does), and six months of slow recovery, she was finally able to walk to class again. Lauren’s difficult experience is not unique. According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year one in six Americans—that’s 48 million people!—suffers from a foodborne illness. Health effects are wide-ranging and long-lasting; many people suffer consequences that will last the rest of their lives. The CDC also estimates that 128,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases every year. As Lauren said, this is not a rare form of cancer that we don’t yet know how to treat. This is bacteria. If we take the right precautions to detect it, we can eliminate it.

Lauren shared some practical knowledge at the April 4 brown-bag lunch. For instance, she said, water does not wash off bacteria; it only gets rid of dirt. Only cooking your food kills  bacteria. Also, “organic” does not necessarily mean safe. Neither does local, although eating locally grown food does reduce some risk. To stay informed about outbreaks in your area, you can join a listserv through STOP Foodborne Illness at http://www.stopfoodborneillness.org/.

Solutions also exist at the policy level. Lauren spoke of a woman who died after eating contaminated peanut butter. Peter Pan had known that they had a salmonella outbreak and had chosen to continue selling their product, she said. The Food and Drug Administration lacked the authority to force a recall. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law on January 4, 2011, changed this. The Act also shifted focus from reaction to prevention of outbreaks. However, funding linked to this legislation has been cut significantly. The Microbiological Data Program, which has caught outbreaks by randomly testing produce in supermarkets, faces elimination. More advocacy is needed to ensure food safety.

Have Lauren’s eating habits changed dramatically? Not really. She has stopped eating raw spinach and sprouts (which are tough to clean). But she has chosen not to fear her food. “My life has changed enough,” she said. “I don’t need to dwell on this.”

To learn more about foodborne illness and food safety, visit News 21: How Safe is Your Food at http://foodsafety.news21.com/2011/overview. You can also hear Lauren at http://foodsafety.news21.com/2011/safety/prevention and read more on this topic at http://www.stopfoodborneillness.org/.


How Does the Robin Hood Foundation Measure Social Impact?


What is the most effective way to reduce poverty among New Yorkers, and what measurements to you use to find out? The question drives the work of the Robin Hood Foundation. Two Robin Hood staff members—Kwaku Driskell, Program Officer for the Early Childhood & Youth portfolio, and Steven Lee, Managing Director of the Income Security portfolio—visited NYU Wagner on April 25 to share their insights with a group of students.

Increasingly, public and nonprofit organizations are striving to measure their impact on the social problems that concern them, and Robin Hood stands as a leader in this evolving, often-complex realm. The foundation uses metrics such as changes in income and quality-adjusted life years, comparing program outcomes to counter-factual scenarios to see how much of a difference the program makes on the participants’ lives.

For youth involved in the juvenile justice system, research shows that mental health and recidivism are major factors affecting their future earnings, so Robin Hood’s measurements are focused there. But as Driskell explained, the young person who has a stable mental health history and jumps a turnstile is not starting from the same place as the one who has severe mental health issues and served time for aggravated assault. How should this kind of difference, or nuance, be factored into the assessment of a program’s outcomes? Robin Hood staff members continue to grapple with this and other questions in their efforts to refine the strategies for performance measurement.

“Do qualitative measures play a role?” a student asked. They do: Driskell described how he visits program sites to observe grantees in action. He tries to gauge the hard-to-quantify aspects of programs: Is the atmosphere an inviting one? Is the program really engaging youth? What happens when a young person breaks the rules? He also noted that proven leadership sometimes induces Robin Hood to make riskier investments than it otherwise would.

Has Robin Hood figured out the magic metrics formula? Driskell and Lee freely admitted the measurements they’ve developed and put to use are imperfect. Nonetheless, Robin Hood’s approach represents a rigorous application of investment principles to philanthropy and a useful lens for thinking about social impact.