In Practice: Lessons for and from Practitioners

MDRC is known for its groundbreaking evaluations and demonstrations of social policies and programs. Key to our success are MDRC’s field liaisons who partner with programs to solve everyday problems and improve services. This web series highlights lessons from our work with programs. Posts will focus on recruiting participants and keeping them engaged, building successful relationships with partner agencies, and training, leading, and motivating staff members. 

Our field liaisons include former state and local government administrators, program managers, case workers, teachers, school administrators, and community organizers. They are relationship builders and creative trainers who help develop program models, train staff members, provide tailored technical assistance, convene stakeholders, and refine fundraising efforts. They strive to know programs inside and out and work collaboratively with staff members to address the challenges, concerns, and knowledge gaps that evidence can fill.

For more on our collaborative work with nonprofits, see this new video from MDRC.

05/2021 | Erika B. Lewy

The COVID-19 pandemic forced leaders of the Male Student Success Initiative at the Community College of Baltimore County to create an entirely online environment for a formerly hands-on program. This post describes some of the steps the program took to deepen its commitment to supporting and mentoring its students in a virtual context.

MDRC is studying this program in its Men of Color College Achievement (MoCCA) Project, and took note of particular challenges with a required first-year student success course geared toward the experiences of men of color. This blog post examines steps taken by success mentors (program staff members who are men of color as well) to sustain connections between students and support services on campus, while offering leadership and professional development opportunities.

Lessons from the Pandemic Year for the Future

04/2021 | Dina A. R. Israel, Jennifer Miller Gaubert

The InPractice blog is MDRC’s place for sharing resources and tips developed by practitioners, for practitioners. This review of the past year’s posts shows how our program partners adjusted to difficult, uncertain conditions and continued to deliver services during the worst of the pandemic. These front-line examples may help other agencies and program staff members as they move forward and cope with their own challenges.

A Look at Shifts in Employment Services at Jewish Family Services

03/2021 | Peter Baird

Nonprofit service provider organizations nationwide made abrupt, often improvised adjustments to how they worked with clients when the pandemic swept the country in March 2020. Some shifts, like streamlined communications and adapting technology for online meetings, will remain part of operations in a postpandemic environment, while other adjustments may no longer be needed. Jewish Family Services in Columbus, Ohio, is figuring out which new practices it will retain when more normal operations resume.

02/2021 | Jorji Knickrehm, Kyla Wasserman

A shift in child support enforcement practices now emphasizes a less punitive approach and serving the whole family, not just child support recipients. Lessons from the Alternative Solutions Program, run by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services’ Division of Child Support, show how this makes a difference during the economic decline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

01/2021 | Peter Baird

This post describes the creative adaptations to the COVID-19 pandemic of two employment providers that use the Individual Placement and Support model to help people find and keep jobs despite multiple, serious barriers to employment. The IPS model has been effective for people with serious mental illness and remains effective despite the sharp shift away from in-person support.

12/2020 | Jorji Knickrehm, Kyla Wasserman

When Washington state’s Division of Child Support closed its offices in March 2020 in response to COVID-19, its employment program—Families Forward Washington—kept running with minimal interruption, because the original design was based on working remotely. Its model may offer useful pointers for other service agencies for adapting to the pandemic.

10/2020 | Andrea Vasquez

Process maps are “human-centered” tools that social service organizations can use to improve their service delivery by breaking down complex problems and addressing them collaboratively. See how the Los Angeles Community College District improved its Los Angeles College Promise program by bringing students into the making of its process maps. By placing the experiences and opinions of people receiving services at the center of the process, the district encouraged students to help solve problems and gave them a greater say in how they received services. This post shows how making a process map can work for your organization.

How Child First Is Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic

08/2020 | Mervett Hefyan

Home visiting programs like Child First are a vital support system for families coping with challenges such as homelessness, poverty, drug abuse, and maternal depression. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, Child First teams have transitioned to telehealth technology to maintain their relationships with families and provide them with much-needed services.

An Interview with Monisha Gibson

07/2020 | Amena Sengal

Monisha Gibson, director and CEO of the Maritime Odyssey Preschool in Norwalk, Connecticut, discusses the program’s work with its vulnerable student and family population. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted many changes, but Odyssey has taken on new partners to sustain its holistic community approach: prenatal support, food distribution, and connections to mental health services, and quality preschool programming. Odyssey now offers technology support and continues its preschool teacher training for interested members of its community.

07/2020 | Hannah Dalporto, Will Swarts

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an abrupt shift to virtual educational interactions, which has hit career and technical education programs especially hard. MDRC’s recent (virtual) discussion with representatives of 13 schools, districts, and programs that provide work-based learning found each of them seizing unexpected opportunities amid considerable challenges as they pivot from hands-on experiential learning to virtual instruction and work. These organizations, which offer internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing, career mentoring, and other work-related programs, are adapting to keep serving their students. 

06/2020 | Donna Wharton-Fields, Annie Utterback

Here are MDRC’s Top Five Tips for social service and educational programs adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines can help ensure staff members’ and participants’ personal safety so that agencies can continue providing high-quality services and support while working remotely. They also include guidance on protecting participant confidentiality and keeping sensitive personal information secure.

An Interview with Bridgette Gray

05/2020 | Alissa Stover, Frieda Molina

The loss of almost 40 million jobs in the 10 weeks since the U.S. outbreak of the coronavirus makes demand-driven occupational skills training truly essential. Bridgette Gray, chief impact officer at Per Scholas, a sector-based training and career advancement program, shares tips for retooling to meet the demand for remote services. The organization successfully transitioned 521 students and 200 staff members to a virtual training environment over a single, remarkable week in March 2020.

05/2020 | Mohammed Alkurd

Building connections among staff members can feel especially challenging in a time when remote work and video conference calls make up most of our working day. Icebreaker activities are fun, useful tools that managers, supervisors, training facilitators, and coaches can use to enliven meetings and strengthen team and group bonds. This post highlights some of the icebreaker activities that programs use internally, and some of the ones MDRC’s technical assistance teams use when working with programs. The exercises are separated into ones that work well in short online gatherings and ones that help break up longer sessions.

05/2020 | Ilana Brody, Rekha Balu

The COVID-19 pandemic has made written communication even more important. The checklist in this post incorporates principles of behavioral science to help organizations assess their current communications and get their point across more effectively.

04/2020 | Samantha Wulfsohn, Zaina Rodney, Rebecca Behrmann

As programs across the country adjust to working and serving clients in the context of COVID-19, many of us are spending considerable chunks of our days on conference calls and group meetings. We’re expanding on our February post that shared ideas on how to organize effective, engaging remote learning communities, with tips for establishing connections between groups that meet virtually for check-ins and training. We’re expanding on that theme with tips to help you run remote group meetings with staff, stakeholders, and participants and stay productive in this uncertain, unsettling time.

02/2020 | Samantha Wulfsohn, Zaina Rodney, Rebecca Behrmann

One-time training rarely results in long-term shifts in working practices, but remote learning communities can help reinforce new lessons and promote lasting change. Program staff working toward common goals can meet regularly, connecting online and via video and telephone conferencing, and work toward shared learning objectives in a structured virtual environment. Skilled facilitators can act as guides and sounding boards, and ongoing discussions may help staff incorporate new ideas into their work. In this post, we share what we’ve learned about organizing successful remote learning communities through the Building Bridges and Bonds and the Procedural Justice-Informed Alternatives to Con­tempt projects.

Looking Ahead to “In Practice” Blog Posts in 2020

01/2020 | Virginia Knox, Dina A. R. Israel

MDRC launched the In Practice blog in April 2019, to reflect lessons learned working side by side with program managers and staff in various partnerships. The goal of the blog is to present approaches that readers can adapt and incorporate to serve their specific program needs and challenges throughout the year. The line-up of topics for 2020 includes Designing Programs Around Real People’s Real Needs, How to Use Data to Improve Programs, Making Evidence-Based Practices a Priority, and Improving Programs by Improving Training.

Upping Your Staff Training Strategy

12/2019 | Samantha Wulfsohn, Jennifer Miller Gaubert

Program managers frequently put staff training near the top of their lists of ongoing challenges. The mix of diverse, complex training needs in many programs means managers may be responsible for orienting new staff, implementing new administrative proce­dures, or facilitating steps toward long-term pro­gram improvement. Change can be hard, and often, managers find that one-time training isn’t enough to ensure staff apply new con­cepts and procedures in their daily work. In much of MDRC’s work with programs, we view training as taking place within an iterative cycle of learning that we call “Learn-Do-Reflect,” in which trainers, program managers, and program devel­opers work collaboratively with front-line staff.

Strategies for Creating Nudges Through Program Design

11/2019 | Ilana Brody

Last month’s post, “Show, Don’t Tell, Part 1,” explored the idea that program design is not neutral: the way staff organize office space, service flows, intake forms, and other processes influences participants’ decisions, and program outcomes. This post shows how intentional changes to procedures – through outreach, the flow of services, and staff-client interactions – help staff and participants reach their goals.

Using Nudges to Reach Program Goals

10/2019 | Ilana Brody

Nudges are powerful environmental cues that influence people’s decision making, but without forcing a specific choice or restricting their options. Once you start looking for them, you’ll see nudges everywhere. Using the example of different layouts for a high school cafeteria, MDRC’s Center for Behavioral Science (CABS) created an interactive training session on the power of physical space to provide nudges.

Tips to Keep Participants Coming Back for More

09/2019 | Dina A. R. Israel, Samantha Wulfsohn, Frieda Molina, Donna Wharton-Fields

In just seven seconds, most people form a first impression. For program participants, this initial encounter can mean the difference between signing up for services – or walking away. The September 2019 In Practice blog post offers tips for programs seeking to have an impact from the get-go.

Using Data to Analyze Enrollment Drop-Off

08/2019 | Frieda Molina, Donna Wharton-Fields

Meeting enrollment goals is as much a function of recruiting eligible participants as it is a function of helping them successfully complete the enrollment process. Many programs, like those in MDRC’s evaluation of the WorkAdvance project, find that just a fraction of those they initially recruit to participate in their program end up enrolling. In this post, we examine some key lessons from MDRC’s evaluation of the WorkAdvance project to help turn program recruits into program success stories.

GIFs and Memes as Tools for Engagement

07/2019 | Dina A. R. Israel, Elena Serna-Wallender

If you are a program operator, you may ask yourself, “How do I engage participants who stop attending services or are at risk of dropping out?” There is no standard answer. Tools for engaging participants can be as varied as the individuals that make up a target population. Programs can use many types of media – and a range of tones and styles – to reach their constituents and keep them engaged.

Eight Steps to Full Enrollment

06/2019 | Samantha Wulfsohn, Jennifer Miller Gaubert, Donna Wharton-Fields

The June post for MDRC’s operations web series, In Practice: Lessons for and from Practitioners, features eight steps to recruiting new participants in community improvement programs. MDRC field liaisons highlight tailored tips and practical advice to help staff members enroll new participants and maximize the full capacity of their programs.

05/2019 | Jennifer Miller Gaubert, Sharon Rowser

In an earlier post, Setting Strong Benchmarks, we explored key questions for program administrators as they measure progress toward their goals. In this post, we look at the nuts and bolts of establishing the enrollment benchmarks that help programs reach their intended population.

Our partnerships in the Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) project illustrate how a simple calculation can break down broad enrollment targets into discrete and manageable goals that reflect a program’s specific needs.

04/2019 | Sharon Rowser

Program managers and funders alike are increasingly asking themselves or their grantees, “Are we where we should be at this point in time?” The answer to this question can often be found by using benchmarks, which provide achievable, short-term goals that can help gauge progress toward bigger, longer-term goals that are integral to service delivery.