United Way’s Collective Impact establishes a baseline

Education: Focused efforts start with understanding

How does an organization like United Way know whether its work is making a difference? This sounds like a simple question, but it is an issue human service organizations around the country (and the globe) struggle with on a daily basis.  In this era of data-driven decision-making, data is more important to the success of these organizations than ever.  But the reality is that meaningful, reliable information about the individuals they serve is remarkably hard to come by.  

A new study by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute began to fill this information gap for 14 education-focused agencies funded by United Way of Central Carolinas. This study provides a snapshot of the children and youth being served by this group of agencies and establishes a benchmark for measuring these students’ progress in the future. 

To use a home improvement or TV make-over analogy, this study is the “before” picture—this is what these participants looked like before any intervention. Later studies will then be able to show the “after” picture and compare the two to determine what effect, if any, these programs had on participants.

The study includes information on more than 8,500 participants from 14 United Way-funded agencies. The majority of participants (72 percent) were African-American; 17 percent were Hispanic. A slight majority (53 percent) were female, and about half were between the ages of seven and 11 in the year before entering a United Way program.

More important, the study found that these agencies are reaching the low-performing, at-risk students they seek to serve.  Before starting a United Way program, these students scored below their peers on End of Grade (EOG) and End of Course (EOC) tests, they struggled with absenteeism and suspensions, and the majority attended high-poverty schools.

Specifically, only 40 percent were proficient in reading EOGs, and 58 percent were proficient in math. Among those in high school, a little more than 60 percent were proficient in English and math EOCs. One-third of all participants were absent 10 days or more in the year before entering a United Way-funded program, and nearly one-quarter had been suspended at least once.

This undertaking is part of United Way’s pilot initiative to increase the graduation rate over the next 10 years for the community’s most vulnerable youth. This data will form the baseline against which United Way and its agencies will be measured in the goal to increase the graduation rate for at-risk children being served with United Way support.

The study was conducted by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and used the Institute for Social Capital community database for the demographic and academic performance information. Click here for the full report and related presentation.