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Shared challenges: How some US foundations and institutes are approaching the evidence use challenge


10 Sep 2018

Jo Casebourne reports back from her whistle-stop tour of US foundations and research institutes, many of whom are testing the same approaches to evidence dissemination and behaviour that we see here in the UK.

It is five years this year since EIF was founded, and recently we have taken the opportunity to refresh our strategy and set out our vision for the next five years. We published our new strategy over the summer and it draws from the many conversations we’ve been having with other What Works centres, research organisations, policy-makers, sector and workforce bodies, charities, and local system leaders over the last year. 

To test the ideas in our strategy about making the case for investment in children and families and using evidence to change policy and practice, I spent a few days last week meeting with foundations and research institutes in the US. Of course, there are many differences between the UK and US contexts. Nevertheless, I was struck by just how much we face shared challenges and are trying out similar ways of working.

Many of these organisations were thinking about how to ‘make the case’ for reducing inequality in children’s outcomes. In an era where US national government is focused elsewhere, for many I spoke to this meant pursuing a strategy of influencing change at the state level, with governors, state boards of education, state commissioners and city mayors.

Like us, the organisations I met with are also thinking about how to ensure research is designed to answer the most important and unanswered questions that practitioners and policy-makers have. One foundation asks policy-makers: ‘what don’t you know that if you did know could help you to make a breakthrough?’ They then use these responses to guide decisions about what research they fund.

Many foundations I spoke to are increasingly moving beyond a traditional ‘broadcast’ model for dissemination of research, and are trying out ways to increase their audiences’ use of and engagement with evidence. This often involves funding partnerships between researchers and practitioners or researchers and policy-makers, who come together to design research projects together. A great example of this is the WT Grant Foundation’s Research Practice Partnerships which fund research as well as capacity-building and support, and provide a space for shared learning.

Other foundations fund ‘communication partners’, who they think are better able to get the evidence directly to practitioners. This is based on the hypothesis that people like to learn from their peers, and so these communication partners are often the workforce bodies that practitioners already look to for guidance and support.

These conversations confirmed that getting evidence used to change policy and practice is hard: no one has cracked it yet. But it’s great to share learning with others who are trying to make progress here.

I also shared our new impact strategy with those I met. To achieve our mission to ensure that effective early intervention is available and used to improve the lives of children and young people at risk of poor outcomes, we want to influence our audiences to prioritise and invest in effective early intervention. This means that our impact strategy is focused on changing behaviour among our key audiences. We will be using the COM-B framework (Capability + Opportunity + Motivation = Behaviour) from the behavioural science literature, developed by Professor Susan Michie, which will help us to design projects to achieve behaviour change and to set out measures that capture whether we are succeeding in achieving these changes. It was exciting to hear that others are also thinking about use of evidence in terms of behaviour change.

Finally, meeting with foundations emphasised the importance of philanthropy in being able to make ‘big bets’ to change the way public services work for children, to take a long view, and to broker relationships between researchers, policy-makers and practitioners. We have emphasised the importance of partnerships in our new strategy, and I look forward to EIF further developing partnerships with foundations, academic institutes, workforce bodies and children’s charities to get evidence used to change both policy and practice.

About the author

Dr Jo Casebourne

Jo is CEO at What Works for Early Intervention and Children's Social Care.