The Atlantic Philanthropies (Atlantic) is a global foundation dedicated to advancing opportunity and promoting equity and dignity. Founded in1982, Atlantic decided in 2002 to fully commit the foundation’s assets during founder Chuck Feeney’s lifetime and cease operations by 2020. Atlantic, which invested $8 billion over the course of its history, will become the largest foundation to intentionally go out of business. The decision to limit Atlantic’s life resulted in a strategic shift and the emergence of new programmes focused on achieving significant outcomes in a relatively short timeframe. This brought a sense of urgency to “get it right” and to bring about change during the life of the founder (Proscio, 2010, p.8). In addition, unlike perpetual foundations which keep grants to a smaller sum, a “culture of big bets prevailed” at Atlantic (Proscio, 2010, p.8). Along with this new outcomes-focused, big bets grant making approach, the foundation created a Strategic Learning and Evaluation team, tasked with developing appropriate systems to document the impact of the investments and share the findings. The team also was given responsibility to help grantees measure their progress and learn from their work.
Rigorous evaluation was an integral component of the prevention and early intervention initiative on the island of Ireland. Supporting 52 prevention and early intervention services in areas such as early childhood, learning, child health, child behaviour and parenting, the investments have resulted in substantial knowledge about what works in improving children’s lives (see Paulsell and Jewell, 2012, Rochford et al., 2014, The Atlantic Philanthropies, 2015). The extent of data that was generated over a ten-year period is equally impressive. This paper discusses the origins of this programme and the motivation to support the Children’s Research Network for Ireland and Northern Ireland to archive and make accessible the data, thereby facilitating further analysis and extending the learning and legacy of this programme.
Atlantic’s strategic approach
Once it decided to complete all grant-making by the end of 2016, Atlantic undertook a strategic assessment process to identify how and where – over its remaining years – it could have the greatest impact in improving the life trajectories for disadvantaged and marginalised people, communities and nations. The Children and Youth programme in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was one such example, with Atlantic investing $172.4 million and $55 million respectively, to change the way children and young people receive services. The investment strategy focused on prevention and early intervention services with the goal of informing government policy and demonstrating a new way of working. To do that required rigorously evaluating the innovative approaches. This focus on promoting evidence-based prevention and early intervention was consistent with international trends that emphasized prevention strategies to cost-effectively address social problems early in a problem cycle, as well as an increased use of programmes and practices with scientific evidence of effectiveness (Paulsell and Jewell, 2013).
A core focus of the strategy Atlantic adopted to achieve its vision was to build capacity in the sectors and fields in which it chose to work. The Prevention and Early Intervention Initiative (PEII) was in keeping with Atlantic’s approach of developing capacity and infrastructure for the sector. It made investments in university-based research centres—the Children and Family Research Centre (CFRC), National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) and the Centre for Effective Education (CEE), Queen’s University Belfast. The aim was “to increase capacity to provide service design support and evaluation services on the island of Ireland” (Paulsell and Jewell, 2013. p.20). The Centre for Effective Services, with funding from Atlantic and government, was also established to support evidence-based and evidence-informed practice, translating research from multiple sources in a way that was accessible and relevant for policy makers and practitioners (CES, online).
Capacity building at the practitioner level
In addition to rigorously evaluating innovative approaches in services delivery, Atlantic helped support the development of evaluative capacity at the practitioner level. From Atlantic’s perspective it was “important that robust evaluation be incorporated into service delivery in order to ensure that the services delivered are effective. Without including some type of evaluation for each of the prevention and early intervention programs it would have been difficult to know which ones were delivering the intended outcomes and should be continued and which ones were not” (Boyle, 2016, p. 27). To ensure that happened, evaluation budgets were incorporated into the funding. In this way, individual organisations could evaluate their own work and build an evidence base to demonstrate their impact. In practice, this meant that practitioners commissioned, managed, monitored and disseminated their evaluations, while working collaboratively with researchers. The “big bet” culture influenced the size of evaluation expenditures in the Prevention and Early Intervention Initiative. This resulted in extensive budgets to conduct randomised controlled trials and longitudinal studies as well as dissemination campaigns to promote their findings and inform future service provision. While the organizations had full ownership rights to all intellectual property produced with Atlantic’s support, the foundation also required that it be granted a royalty free license allowing it to publish and disseminate any of that material for its own knowledge-sharing purposes and for the benefit of future researchers.
An independent evaluation of the programme confirmed that it had “led to significant changes in grantee organisational capacity” (Paulsell and Jewell, 2012, p.16). Specifically, “grantees have gained substantial experience in implementing evidence-based prevention and early intervention programmes in real-world”... “Participation in the rigorous evaluations also stimulated growth in… capacity (p.20). It had also introduced grantees to “a new way of thinking about how to identify needs, design services and…use evaluation methods” (The Atlantic Philanthropies, 2015, p.3). The significance of these evaluations on the island of Ireland is in no doubt as Boyle (2016) notes, “A level of analysis has been undertaken that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The creation and existence of Irish cases where there is strong evidence of what works and what doesn’t is viewed very positively by policymakers” (p.4).
Findings from the Prevention and Early Intervention Initiative
Much has been written about the impact of the programme (Paulsell et al., 2009; Paulsell and Jewell, 2013; Rochford et al., 2014) as well as the outcomes of specific interventions (see https://www.atlanticphilanthro... subtheme/prevention-early-intervention for summative information and links to the individual projects funded). In all, 39 initiatives were funded to deliver 52 evidence-based services to children and young people on the island of Ireland. “Almost all of these programmes have been evaluated positively – under demanding testing” (The Atlantic Philanthropies, 2015, p.3). At a minimum this translates to about 90,000 children and young people, 24,000 parents or caregivers, and 4,000 professionals benefitting from the programme in areas such as early childhood, learning, child health, child behaviour and parenting. Furthermore, this has resulted in substantial knowledge about what works in improving children’s lives as well as significant datasets providing rich and detailed information on all aspects of childhood, family life and service provision. In addition, new networks such as the Prevention and Early Intervention Network and the Children’s Research Network for Ireland and Northern Ireland (CRNINI) emerged organically from the work to share the results of evaluation with government. These networks brought together a wide range of professionals with an interest in research on child and family issues across the island of Ireland, respectively building on the work to date.
Building on the learning of the Prevention and Early Intervention Initiative
After ten years of funding, extensive and wide-ranging datasets were created and collated as part of the Prevention and Early Intervention initiative. While much of this data has been analysed as part of the evaluations of the projects, there is still much to be gained from further exploration. In 2014 The Atlantic Philanthropies funded a learning initiative, managed by the Children’s Research Network for Ireland and Northern Ireland (CRNINI), for archiving and further analysis of the data to embed the legacy and learning. To date funding has been made available to prepare and archive datasets in the Irish Social Science Data Archive (ISSDA), the Digital Repository of Ireland and The National Archives in the UK. A small, competitive grants scheme for further interrogation of the data is also underway for secondary analysis of a PEII dataset, meta-analysis of a number of PEII datasets, comparative analysis of PEII data and any other relevant data, development of training in evaluation research using PEII data and disseminating and/or presenting research outputs nationally and internationally. In this special issue we learn about some of the practical, ethical and methodological issues and challenges encountered in archiving and analysing the PEII datasets. Especially relevant are the processes and requirements involved in archiving data retrospectively as well as preserving qualitative data for further analysis. There is small infrastructure for archiving on the island of Ireland and the implications for funders who, more and more, require data be archived, are useful. These include: the need to plan for data preservation from project inception as well as to ensure there is capacity in the sector to manage data throughout lifecycle of a project. In addition, CRNINI’s work on this project has helped garner knowledge on archiving and data preservation more generally. The findings from this initiative will be disseminated throughout 2018 while the datasets can be accessed into the future.
For Atlantic, support to archive and preserve the data from the Prevention and Early Intervention Initiative served as a mechanism to prolong the life of the datasets and to add to the knowledge base. There is a growing recognition among funders of the value of preserving and sharing data and Atlantic is no exception as it prepares to archive and make available to researchers and others its more than 30-year history so that it can continue to “…inform, influence and inspire current funders, emerging philanthropists and the public (Florino, 2017)” even after the foundation ceases to exist.