In February of 2021, Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA released the results of a comprehensive study, Sports-Based Youth Development: Hitting a Home Run in Social and Emotional Learning Outcomes, showing how sports-based youth development (SBYD) programs play a significant role in fostering critical social and emotional learning (SEL) skills necessary to succeed in school, careers, and life. Findings illustrate a particularly strong impact on young men of color and youth in under-resourced communities. The study, funded by The Allstate Foundation and conducted by Hello Insight, surveyed nearly 10,000 youth across the country who participated in 60 SBYD programs. The full research report, showing more information on demographics, methodology, and the role coaches play is available online.
This was not your typical study. It was the result of a collective impact and learning strategy that began nearly five years ago with a group of like-minded funders and grantees who were interested in creating a set of field standards and measurements. This approach illuminates a few key lessons we wish to share with the larger Philanthropy New York Community.
Lesson 1: “If you build it, they will come”
As early as 1990, a growing number of sports programs, including New York City-based Harlem RBI (now DREAM), began to both use and advocate for a Positive Youth Development (PYD) approach. By the mid-2000s, the term Sports-Based Youth Development was coined to describe this intentional fusion of PYD and sport for holistic youth development outcomes. In a philanthropic environment that was demanding more measurable impact, the evidence base was heavy on inspiring anecdotal stories and lacked standardized and valid quantitative measures. In short, everyone in the field knew this approach worked but struggled to convince larger and more traditional funders.
As a grant-making and grant-seeking intermediary that works to improve the lives of youth and unite communities through the power of sport, Laureus USA was well-positioned to achieve two strategic goals: help SBYD programs strengthen their measurement, evaluation, and learning (MEL) capacity while at the same time building a larger evidence base for the field. Laureus USA helped to fund the creation of Hello Insight: Sports Tool -- a pre/post survey designed to capture SEL competency growth in youth and assess the quality of their experience in SBYD programs. After a trial and validation process, the tool was made available to Laureus USA grantees along with key technical support from Hello Insight. Now more than 100 SBYD programs across the country use Hello Insight to measure their impact, garner feedback from young people, learn what works, and contribute to a growing body of knowledge for the field. It took patience and real investment, but we believe that this more rigorous “proof of concept” will be an inflection point in generating greater awareness and resources for SBYD.
Lesson 2: There is no “I” in Team
We’d be the first to admit we could not do it alone. Laureus USA was first introduced to Hello Insight through Youth INC’s metrics program, where the idea for a sport-specific survey first emerged from one of our grantees - Play Rugby USA. And Laureus USA listened!
We began working with Hello Insight to create a small learning community with members from VITA Sports Partners, Youth INC, Up2Us Sports, and 21 additional programs that wanted to measure their impact and learn together.
As a part of tool development, Hello Insight crosswalked items from their Core SEL tool with Up2US Sport’s High Impact Attributes tool, one of the earliest approaches to measuring the impact of SBYD on young people. Next members of the learning community vetted each item and garnered feedback from young people in their programs. After only two years of collective data-gathering efforts, the tool was statistically validated and showed no bias across age, race, or gender identity. The community came together to make meaning of the data from more than 1300 young people and suggested further modifications to the tool. This process has occurred every year since with an ever-evolving and expanding membership.
Additional funding and resources for the development, trial, validation, and study came from the New York Community Trust, VITA Sports Partners, The AllState Foundation, and Hello Insight. All in all, it was a true team effort. While the importance of partnerships is not novel, the effort galvanized and empowered grantees, funders, and stakeholders of all shapes and sizes in the interest of learning and field development.
Lesson 3: It’s not about the Scoreboard
Evaluation is complex, often messy, and can activate fear, distrust, or apathy in grantees and their stakeholders. One vital part of our strategy was to clearly communicate our intentions around the tool and effort. During both the pilot and larger rollout, the message was framed around growth and discovery, not punitive accountability or picking winners and losers; in other words, “come be a part of this learning community and help us grow the field together.” We found certain early adopters were more eager to take the initial leap and building trust with that group helped convince others to eventually follow. Even now that the Hello Insight: Sports tool is often a required part of reporting as a Laureus USA grantee, the emphasis is about participation and learning, not hitting certain growth scores. And this study underscores this vision by offering the field a strong evidence-based and clear data about what works, for whom, and in what context. It is not lost on us that this learning mindset resembles the emphasis SBYD programs put on sport and life skill development instead of “winning” or “losing;” and that is what makes them effective.