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Lasting Impact at Southwest Youth & Family Services

Posted by Cecilia Garza

Photo / Southwest Youth & Family Services

Situated in the middle of a residential grid and next door to a nightly buzzing playfield, at first glance, the Delridge location of SVP Investee Southwest Youth & Family Services gives the impression of a typical recreation center. Walk inside, though, and you quickly realize it is a nerve center for community support in southwest Seattle.

A hallway lined with private rooms provides space where families and youth can receive professional counseling services and meet with case managers, ensuring kids stay safe, stay in school, and get connected to the resources they need. A family center spanning a full corner of the building — and furnished with what seems to be more than one living room set — provides a comfortable setting for refugee and immigrant families to work one-on-one with multi-lingual advocates on navigating their new surroundings. Turn a corner and follow a set of stairs down to a row of back-to-back classrooms where a group of young people study to successfully transition back into high school.

SWYFS opened nearly 40 years ago as part of a citywide initiative to provide neighborhood-based services in West Seattle and White Center. Today, it continues to act as a resource hub to 3,500 residents in southwest Seattle.

And just as SWYFS has a long history in the region, they also have a long history with SVP. In 1998, SVP made its inaugural investment in New Futures, a nonprofit providing vibrant, on-site learning centers at apartment complexes in South King County. It was an eye-opening and impactful partnership as our first experience investing in the capacity of a nonprofit. Under the leadership of former executive director and now-SVP Partner Roxanne Hood-Lyons, in the span of five years, New Futures expanded from one site to four with an operating budget four times the size it was in the first year of investment. Later, in 2013, New Futures became a program of SWYFS, creating a stronger, more versatile organization primed to reach more families. Through New Futures and other services provided by SWYFS, staff provide on-site and in-home educational, family and youth support beyond the Delridge center and throughout White Center, Burien and SeaTac.

“In many respects we’ve come full circle,” says SWYFS Executive Director Steve Daschle. “SVP is part of the fabric of this organization.”

Data-Driven Results

Shortly after the addition of New Futures to SWYFS, SVP began to recognize a systemic need in the social sector for effective data management.

“The demands [for data] were funder demands,” explains SVP Partner Renee Russak.

Organizations struggled to work collaboratively and evaluate meaning as program staff dedicated a third of their time just reporting specific data points requested by funders — often using different reporting tools for each funder as required by their contracts. At SWYFS the strain on staff, as well as the missed opportunities, were hard to ignore. But beyond just staff needs, as an organization with well-established relationships with health, housing, and education agencies throughout the region, SWYFS presented the perfect testing ground for demonstrating positive funder support. SVP awarded a collective action grant in 2014 to help SWYFS implement a cohesive data system across their programs and locations.

Prior to the grant, Renee says, “It was a kind of zero-sum situation where they had to collect this data for these reports for these funders or they would not get funding again.

“Staff are burdened by the demands for data from funders, and then they don’t have the bandwidth or share of mind to step back and think why are we doing this?”

SWYFS staff were maintaining nearly 15 different systems for data reporting. The Youth Violence Prevention Program, entered information into the city’s central database per their contract agreements. The family center also entered information with the city but into a different database since the city requires a separate data system depending on the department it feeds into. SWYFS’ counseling services ran data to Navos which holds information to support a coalition of mental health providers in the region. The education center took attendance on excel spreadsheets but tracked grades on a secondary system. The New Futures program had their own database, grandfathered in after joining SWYFS.

Additionally every funding contract SWYFS interacted with required different language. Slightly tweaked demographic information and tracking standards amounted to perpetual one-off reporting and made it difficult to utilize captured data across SWYFS’ departments.

“People didn’t feel this sense that they necessarily worked for the same agency,” explains Kate Elias, Director of Data & Evaluation at SWYFS. “So the investment in this data system has been partly to get things organized, but also to really bring the whole agency together on who we’re serving, what we’re doing, what’s working.”

SVP Partners Renee Russak, Terry Rhinehart and former partner Brad Struss joined together to conduct a case study of SWYFS’ practices and systems. Each with many years of data evaluation experience, the team spent several months interviewing staff to understand the current conditions for reporting data, to discover how SWYFS can most benefit from a new platform, and to inventory each reporting system and their various flavors of data sets.

With their guidance, SWYFS purchased services from Foothold Technology, as well as hired a dedicated staff member (Kate Elias) to oversee their data goals and priorities, implement best practices, and steward the team’s transition to a main data portal.

The study dug much deeper than funder demands, though. It unsurfaced and emphasized SWYFS’ need to identify the data they would collect differently if they could.

“The ultimate goal for us is using the data system to advocate for contracts and grants that really reflect what we’re doing and put our strongest foot forward with a strong identity behind it,” says Kate.

Unleashing Potential

The new system allows SWYFS to do the work of finding shared outcomes. Instead of treating a group as having the same needs, they are now in a much better position to track students in their education center who might also be involved in the Youth Violence Prevention Program, participating in mental health therapy, receiving immigration assistance, so on.

“Having that information easily accessible now provides us with a better roadmap for options we can provide to families as they come to us seeking help and support,” says Steve. “That alone has been and will prove to be the lasting legacy of this transition to a consolidated data system.”

Keeping track of client progress gets complicated quick when you’re a long-standing, multi-service organization, and the need will always be greater than the funds, staff and services. It’s taken SWYFS a year to clean and move their four decades of history onto a single platform that’s useable for a staff that works across issue areas.

In just the implementation phase, the team had to answer questions like: Should Hispanic/Latino identity be categorized with race or on its own? Is the term homeless or unstably housed best for describing a client’s living situation?

“You’re trying to put this big, abstract idea of the work you do into very concrete terms,” explains Kate. “It’s been a really long, iterative process of continually fine tuning it. But, eventually, if we want to be able to define our own contract terms, we need to have reasoning and values behind the language that we’ve chosen.”

To get there, two additional SVP projects helped form a guiding light. Just after Renee, Terry and Brad completed the data study, SWYFS became a multi-year investee for their efforts ensuring all students — regardless of income or race —graduate from high school ready to succeed in college or a career. One of the first projects SWYFS completed as an investee was a strategy session facilitated by SVP Partner Carla Fowler. This was closely followed by real-time strategic planning with SVP Partners Alexa Carver and Tim Schottman.

“There’s no way to really have guiding questions on what you want to evaluate and what you want to be doing until you define that underlying foundation,” Kate says.

In a design-interview process with Executive Director Steve Daschle, Carla helped draw out the opportunities and challenges SWYFS would face in the next five to 10 years. Bubbling to the top of that conversation, were SWYFS’ need to follow their population south, as well as key ways to elevate organizational best practices. Her documentation has since served as a foundational document for the group’s real-time strategic planning.

“To this day, I use the work Carla did to essentially distill all the information in my head into a readable and useful document,” Steve says. “Both the strategy and data work really gave us a strong basis from which to do future visioning and planning for the organization.”

Ripple Effect

Meanwhile, Renee and Terry walked away from SWYFS with a template to take their efforts county-wide.

And the timing couldn’t be better. King County Housing Authority (KCHA) was looking for consultants to create a new contract model between KCHA and seven community-based organizations that provide educational services for KCHA residents. In scoping the project, it didn’t take long to realize that before making a recommendation, KCHA and the seven organizations had to have a common baseline for the data they could and should collect for a streamlined contract.

“My hope and dream is that this might result in a movement towards a common data model for out-of-school-time programs, starting by leveraging the data that’s already in common across the seven organizations,” explains Renee.

With support from the Youth Development Executives of King County, Terry and Renee are now in phase three of their work recommending data practices for KCHA’s contracts: reviewing their findings.

“Our work with SWYFS helped raise the really important questions,” says Renee. “The thing that became evident but then was reinforced and then highlighted and underscored by the later work with KCHA was the pain felt by line staff having to dedicate scarce time and labor to data they had no connection to.

“We as a community could help surface the need for funders to come together and fund a collective solution for data management best practices.”

Get Involved

If you are interested in volunteering your skills with an SVP Investee, contact Ben Mitchell at benm@svpseattle.org or check out our current opportunities here. You can also visit our website to learn more about SVP’s grant committees.

“We’re seeing the fruits of the work that has been done — taking hold and truly having influence on how this organization operates,” emphasizes Steve.

“We couldn’t be more grateful for the tremendous resource we’re getting. The money is important, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the value of the relationships that we’ve been able to build.”

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