In a nondescript, 85-year-old building on a quiet dead-end street on the edge of Central Gardens, 16 people are working on what could be called our community’s Manhattan Project. There may not be an atom bomb but the work there also has the potential to change the world as we know it.
Its mission is to revolutionize the way Memphis fights poverty – and to do it by upgrading the results of organizations which say that is their mission.
Mr. Barnett has been pivotal in the evolution of the eight-year-old program which, in collaboration with MDRC, has fine-tuned and deepened its work. Slingshot Memphis evaluates nonprofit, anti-poverty organizations and prepares impact studies for them that are equal parts candid exploration, honest analysis, and collaborative partnership.
In that way, Slingshot seems to have become more nuanced since its founding in 2017. Then, its motivation was more about providing information so people making charitable donations could invest in the highest-performing organizations with the greatest return on investment. Now, it’s just as much about engaging in the disruptive innovation that leads organizations to have greater impact and leads Memphis to have a lower poverty rate.
The Four Dimensions
So far, 51 nonprofit organizations have been assessed and 104 impact studies have been conducted to arm them with insights to be the best they can be. To achieve that, the process is rigorous, urgent, and objective and attracts an organization with the courage and the ambition to improve its performance.
“We don’t think of this work as transactional and that we know all the answers and we’ll tell you how to do it,” he said. “We value the fact that they know the purpose of what they are doing. We really embrace the idea of a partnership because we don’t want it to just be a one-off. We don’t go in and say, ‘here’s where you are good and here’s where you are bad.’ Instead, we say, ‘here’s where your strengths are and where your opportunities are.’ The aspiration is that it becomes an annual analysis to measure effectiveness over years and define opportunities.”
Each organization is measured on four dimensions – benefit-cost ratio, system-level change, use of best practices, and measurement infrastructure – and each dimension is graded for its trajectory with an arrow indicating whether it had higher impact result, improvement within result, limited change, regression within result, and lower impact result.
Twice a year, Slingshot expands the number of participating nonprofits. The goal is to add 10 more by fall and to reach 75 to 100 next year. Because of the honest analysis built into the program, Mr. Barnett is proud that the word of mouth about its value “has been the biggest thing to have helped us in expansion opportunities.”
Slingshot’s Self-Assessment Questions
In assessing Slingshot’s own work, Mr. Barnett said he and his team ask: “One, are we helping improve outcomes and are we seeing the organizations get better and we can measure that impact? Two, are we seeing more funds going to organizations that are more effective? And three, are we equipping decisionmakers with tools and resources to be more evidence-based?”
Josh Gettys, former education consultant and now an impact associate with Slingshot, described the work this way: “We don’t have aspirations to be a fly-by but to build the trust needed for the rigor of the process. We are thoughtful about what we write. What we find most valuable is conversation, the way we go through it is to build foundational understanding of programs they already have.
“The mindset is we need to know what you’re doing before we can assess it. Then we collect data. Then we say, ‘we heard this. Is it accurate?” because we want to make sure we are accurate. We’re not going to change the results of our study but it is rigorous but they can fully participate. I’ve heard that one of the things the organizations like in working with us is they get to step back. They’re not fighting fires and can take time to consider why they are doing things a certain way.”
Hannah Bullock, formerly researcher at Mississippi Center for Population Studies and now an impact analyst for Slingshot, added: “The needs are so urgent. The people in these nonprofits are addressing immediate needs because they are so dire. We say, ‘you do that and we’ll focus on what your long-term solutions and opportunities need to be. Then, we’ll support you in the long-term.’ It’s not just that we come in and then we leave. We are very intentional about sticking around and help to build out an organization to be more efficient and effective.”
Focusing on Workforce
In 2020, the national research firm MDRC studied Slingshot and provided feedback. Out of that association, Mr. Barnett said: “We asked is there an opportunity to work together and leverage our unique strengths? We landed on workforce. We have a quarter of the Memphis population in poverty and yet, every company is talking about the problem of finding workers. “You’d think those two would solve the answer pretty quickly,” he said. “We thought this is something we could address and it gave birth to the MemWorks program to determine the roadblocks to employment and what can be done about them.”
The question is central to Slingshot’s work and to emphasize the point, it is written on a whiteboard in the conference room: “Why aren’t employment pathways working for people experiencing poverty in Memphis?”
“It’s a new space for us,” said Mr. Barnett. “We’re apolitical and we’ll remain apolitical. We’ll need to work with organizations across the political spectrum. Part of it is learning from organizations like MDRC to see how they are approaching it. We’re working on finding champions in local government and collaborating with other organizations and people involved in workforce issues.”
The first phase of MemWorks was to determine the barriers to accessing living wage jobs and focus on where the need is – adult literacy, not finishing post-secondary education, trauma, and the thing that prevent people from accessing a job.” Some of its insights so far resembles those in other studies like More For Memphis that is also under way. That said, fighting poverty in Memphis cannot have too many people working on it, and Slingshot said it is committed to working with others.
Barriers to Work
Slingshot’s roadblock summary cites 10 major barriers:
1) insufficient math and literacy proficiency impede entry to and success in technical training;
2) The lack of resources and support allow seemingly insignificant factors to derail the completion of career and technical programs;
3) Limited coordination within and between systems makes accessing workforce services unmanageable;
4) Insufficient supports are available to help people align their professional aptitudes with living wage career pathways;
5) The prevalence of people who have experienced trauma requires work environments that provide evidence-based supports;
6) High costs and lack of proximity to quality childcare inhibit employment options and hours;
7) Unreliable transportation limits access to employment and training opportunities;
8) Chronic and untreated health conditions can reduce participation and persistence in training and job opportunities;
9) The lack of basic needs stability undermines workforce development participation; and
10) Uncoordinated policies and practices can create greater financial vulnerability despite career progression.
“We don’t pretend we’re going to solve all these problems by ourselves,” Mr. Barnett said. It’s about working with other organizations to take action and make change. It is an empowering message we all have to share.
The Value of Team and Home
Mr. Barnett and his wife of 18 years have lived in Provo, Utah; Dallas; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Accra, Ghana, and Memphis is where they have lived the longest. “We’re excited to have a place to put down our roots and call it home,” he said.
“I never thought I’d work in the nonprofit space.” He moved from Dallas to Memphis to work for Indigo Ag but after five months, he decided to stay in our community and look for another job. It brought him to Slingshot as a consultant and when the CEO job opened up, he was hired. He’s been there for two and a half years and can’t imagine working anywhere else.
Asked why he remained in our community, he said: “The short answer is that my wife and I fell in love with Memphis. It’s felt like home. We love how Memphis provides opportunities for our kids and to be exposed to and learn from a variety of people, perspectives, backgrounds, circumstances. Professionally, I see Memphis as a city on the rise and I want to be part of making it happen. We don’t want to live in a homogenous environment and we value experiences and learning over possessions and status.”
At Slingshot Memphis, Mr. Barnett appears to have drawn on his own background to assemble his own McKinsey-like operation. His team includes economists, data collection specialists, qualitative and quantitative researchers, educators, World Bank alumni, engineers, health and wellness, systems change, and health care experts.
Mr. Barnett describes them as a team of quality people with a mission mindset that fits with Slingshot’s values – empathy, equity, objectivity, rigor, transparency, and urgency. “It’s fun to work with people who are not just smart but who are good people,” he said.