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.


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