Some nonprofit organizations, in an effort to improve outcomes for their clients and to be more accountable for results, are applying an “evidence-informed practice” approach to their work. They are examining practices that have been proven to be effective and applying this experience to their own delivery of services. They are taking adult learning theory and systems thinking, combining that with evidence from program evaluation studies, and using the information to make their own organizations more effective.
For example, PART (Practice and Research Together) is promoting evidence-informed practice in child welfare agencies across Ontario, Canada. In November, I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at a
retreat in Toronto for members of PART. Formed in 2006, PART is modeled after Research in Practice, a world-renowned partnership of children’s services in the U.K. that is “creating new knowledge, new skills and a new energy to improve outcomes for children, young people and their families.”
At their retreat, I talked with PART members about developing a learning culture in their agencies that would help them in the process of continuous improvement. We discussed making reflection, feedback, and knowledge-sharing the way they function on a day-to-day basis. We identified organizational barriers to learning and how those barriers can be overcome. We explored ideas around building their organizational capacity to apply action-learning through small experiments using Deming’s model of plan-do-check-act. They shared ways in which they are continuously learning from their own experiences and from the knowledge and best practices of others.
Many of these ideas were taken from my book, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations, and then incorporated into the PART guidebook, Broadening Horizons: Linking Evidence to Child Welfare Supervision, which can be ordered from PART. I’m very pleased to see a book of mine having practical value and being interpreted for child welfare organizations.
My warning to these child welfare agencies, as well as any organization that’s taking an evidence-based approach, is: guard against ways of thinking that prevent the acceptance of new information. I’ve written previously about “confirmation bias” and the “illusion of cause.” Both of these common ways of thinking are barriers to evidence-informed practice. Human beings have a tendency to attend to data that confirms what they already believe to be true and disregard the rest (e.g., a respected leader would never abuse a child), and to attribute a causal relationship between factors simply because they occur close in time (e.g., a child has poor grades because his father is out of work). We all believe that we are reasonable people and that we base our judgment on facts, but sometimes we won’t accept the truth.