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Youth Today: Lessons Lost

By Karen Pittman, January 1998

What is it with not-for-profit youth-serving organizations? Is it we think that because we are doing sainted work we don’t need to prove, approve or improve ourselves? Are budgets so tight that we can’t afford to know if we’re spending wisely? Staff so overworked that we can’t take the time to plan and prioritize? Lessons so obvious that they are not worth sharing?

Document. Assess. Evaluate — DAE. Describe what, how, how well, how useful. This is what a field has to do to mature. This what we seem to be too busy or afraid to do. Not all. The American Youth Policy Forum has identified enough unpublished entries of evaluated programs that it is contemplating a second volume of Some Things Do Make A Difference. But at best this is a few hundred programs out of tens of thousands. What about the rest?

Think of the millions of lessons lost. Millions because the lessons needed are not only the big ones — did “the program” make a difference? But the small ones. How to staff the expansion challenges? How do programs get funding in the first place? How do public programs weather the change in political administrations? How long do “short-term supports” need to be? Does staff training increase performance? By how much?

Think of the wealth of information we would have if, when faced with a question, we could search for precedent as in the law. We set precedent when we practice youth work just as lawyers do when they practice law. We are not (most of us) lawyers. But there is something to be said for carefully documenting and publicly cataloging decisions so that others can analyze them and build cases.

This can be done. Some efforts, such as The Corps Report, published by the Youth Policy Institute have shown the way. Technology makes it simple. But it will take discipline on our part to make it happen. We need to start now to build a database — not a compendium, but a searchable, codified database of promising and proven practices for doing the full range of things we need to do from direct service to training to advocacy. We need an easily accessible accountable database source to help programs, policy makers, donors and even R&D organizations avoid Type 1 errors (dropping something good) or Type 2 errors (including something bad).

Who should start it? The “elders.” The organizations, initiatives, program planners and practitioners that have been around the block. Those that have grappled repeatedly with issues of effectiveness, scale and sustainability. Those weary of the battle but ready for a challenge. Those with enough staff and history to afford to take time to reflect. This not just the big national organizations like the YMCA and the Girl Scouts, but also the YouthBuilds, Savannah Youth Authorities and locals like Brooklyn’s El Puente. And not just those in the U.S. There are powerful, relevant lessons abroad that must be brought in.

Why not a university or R&D shop? It may land there ultimately. But the momentum has to start on the ground. The goal is to build a knowledge system, not a databank. A tool for people seeking information to guide decisions. The questions need to be pressing. The answers short and quick.

What’s the role of research? Shouldn’t they be “footnoting common sense,” as I call it, and analyzing cumulative practice to further inform the field? Where are the funders? I hope standing ready to listen and leverage organizational commitments with matching dollars. Not big grants to a few, but small grants to many.

Heads nod when I talk about this. Research donor, policy and practice heads. But talk is cheap. My personal New Year’s resolution is to help make this happen if there is interest. Please don’t call. But write. What would you be willing to do to make this happen? Would you use it if it existed? Two hundred serious responses and I’ll convene a group to write the proposal to get it started. Let’s get a jump-start on the next century by documenting what we’ve learned in this one.
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Pittman, K. (1998, January). "Lessons Lost." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
January 1, 1998
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