After completing my freshman year at Harvard University studying applied math and government, I came home to San Diego and did the usual things college students do during the summer – I watched reruns of The Office and ate tons of In-N-Out. But I also had the opportunity to do something important – I interned at Father Joe’s Villages where I spent time learning about a concept called Social Return on Investment.
SROI comes from the familiar Return on Investment concept, but differs in that is seeks to attribute a financial figure on the social good generated by organizations like Father Joe’s Villages.
My work started by focusing on Toussaint Academy, a Father Joe’s Villages program that provides transitional housing and services to homeless youth. After applying some math (and people say you’ll never need calculus in real life) to a set of outcomes, we discovered that for every dollar spent on providing housing, social services, educational and employment support, and health and wellness services in a given year, Toussaint Academy returns $1.15 worth of social good. How did we arrive at that sum? That number comes from increased earning potential and career opportunities Toussaint clients will have as adults as a result of the support they received while a Father Joe’s, access to health care and insurance, and decreased odds of incarceration, homelessness and foster home placement. I’d say that the money invested in Toussaint Academy is money well spent.
The biggest lesson I learned is that things often don’t make sense unless they have numbers attached to them. These shoes are 40 percent off, this restaurant is 10 miles away and the calamari will cost five more dollars than you’re willing to spend. Until this internship I had always thought that social progress could not be quantified – but it can, which is really amazing if you think about it.
With this type of analysis, now dedicated social nonprofits like Father Joe’s can determine how the money they invest in programming really impacts the people they help, or if there are different ways to more effectively and efficiently target resources that generate higher returns of social good.
At the end of the day, that’s why I chose to study math and government. Creating models and assigning values reveal ways to better accomplish goals. In the case of Father Joe’s, SROI will ultimately create better lives for the most vulnerable people within our community and that is something I am very happy to know.