Evaluating a Bold Approach to Economic and Social Mobility for Low-Income Families

How can we build economic and social mobility for low-income families? This question may seem daunting, but the Family Independence Initiative (FII) is tackling it with ingenuity. FII invests in families by providing a technology platform to strengthen social networks, access financial and other resources, and build a supportive community.

We recently partnered with FII to design an evaluation that assesses the diffusion of its model—that is, how the benefits of FII spread from participating families to a broader network of family, friends, and community members. We began this engagement with a fairly traditional, mixed-methods approach. But we quickly realized that we needed to meet the innovation of FII’s work with creativity in our evaluation.

Cultivating the Mindset of Empathetic Researchers

To capture FII’s impact, we had to be flexible thinkers. We used a human-centered design (HCD) approach to address the big, interconnected challenges that FII families face. We did something simple but powerful: we listened to the people closest to the problem, the people who experienced these challenges every day.

As empathetic researchers, we took a step back to reflect and focus on how FII families navigate their own lives successfully regardless of income, zip code, or societal assumptions that often underestimate the resourcefulness of low-income communities to improve their own financial and general well-being.

The Process of Human-Centered Design

HCD-oriented evaluators engage with clients and their stakeholders from a point of cultural humility, viewing the community as the experts about their own strengths and needs. This approach uses evaluation methods to elevate the voices of those who are often left out. It also builds evaluators’ understanding not only about what individuals want and desire, but also about what limitations they face, what motivates them, and what they value most.

An important part of our role as consultants was to work with FII to brainstorm practical solutions. Human-centered design enables creative ways to support shared learning and decision-making. It allows us to be flexible thinkers, while staying grounded in what we are learning from the community. In other words, human-centered design lets us be empathetic to community needs and perspectives while encouraging our clients to think about challenges in new and experimental ways. In this case, we listened carefully and designed data collection methods to honor family voices and lived experiences.

Making Families Central

Our methods used two components to reflect on the importance of families:

  • We used family conversations to gather stories from participating families and potential beneficiaries about what contributes to diffusion.
  • Our team helped FII develop a journey map to depict significant moments in families’ experiences with FII. The journey map allowed FII families to shape and share their own narratives, highlighting parts of their experiences that might otherwise have gone unexamined.

These methods, along with other primary and secondary data, highlight the significance of collaboration and innovation in our process.

And FII agrees.

Here’s what they recently shared with us about their experience:

“Evaluations traditionally attempt to assess the impact of organizational interventions on individuals. FII rejects this paradigm, instead believing low-income communities have the power to create their own change. By using a human-centered design approach, Harder+Company was able to develop an evaluation design that puts families at the center, exploring how people change each other, rather than presuming an impact theory whereby the nonprofit is the hero.”

To learn more about human-centered design and our work with the Family Independence Initiative, join us for our workshop at AEA’s Evaluation 2018!