Seventeen years ago, Reston residents Rolf Sartorius and Pat Hanscom were frustrated with large scale international development. Too often, they thought, social aid programs would be imposed on, rather than integrated into, the recipient country’s culture.
Hanscom was working at the State Department, specializing in multilateral security negotiations, and Sartorius was an international development consultant. The husband-and-wife team, a “literal and figurative marriage of diplomacy and development,” began using professional connections to win small federal subcontracts, designing foreign aid programs to better involve local stakeholders, such as religious leaders, Sartorius said.
Since then, Social Impact, their 100-person Arlington-based firm, has won contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, the World Bank, the United Nations Children’s Fund and Georgetown University, among others. Bringing in about $22 million in revenue this year, Social Impact provides qualitative or quantitative evaluations and consulting services.
Three-quarters of the firm’s staff work in Arlington, while the rest are sent overseas for years at a time, working in the field in locations such as Lebanon and Zimbabwe.
It’s been challenging to compete with larger firms for federal consulting contracts, Hanscom said, but as federal agencies try to meet small business contracting goals, Social Impact has been able to double its revenues yearly for the past few years.
As a fledging firm in the mid-1990s, one of Social Impact’s first contracts was with USAID and Zambia’s Ministry of Health, helping to design an HIV/AIDS prevention program for Zambians. The program didn’t initially use existing social resources in Zambia — such as traditional healers — relying instead on staff to disperse information.
“The real front-line health care providers were traditional healers or medicine men,” Sartorius said.
He and Hanscom thought the program would be more effective if healers were asked for input on prevention — as well as commercial sex workers, representatives from the Catholic church, and youth living with HIV/AIDS.
Bringing in local stakeholders is only one part of Social Impact’s solution for more effective foreign aid. The other is developing data-driven measurement methods to show if these integrated approaches are worth the investment.
In Lebanon, for instance, Social Impact staff are working with local representatives to monitor and evaluate USAID programs there. Social Impact staff regularly meets with Lebanese development organizations, designing polls, surveys and focus groups to measure factors such as citizen perception of governance, for instance. Tracking these factors can shed light on how effective development programs are, Sartorius said.
Though government agencies and development organizations have their own methods of measuring a program’s effectiveness, Sartorius said, “there’s the role of independence in doing evaluations. The groups implementing a program have a strong vested interest in showing the program is doing well. As an outside organization, we an take an objective view.”
While he characterizes the past couple of years as the “golden era in evaluation” during which agencies worldwide place greater emphasis on data-driven analysis than they used to, demand for services like Social Impacts fluctuates, Sartorius said. And in the past, agencies favored larger consulting firms before taking a risk with smaller ones, he said.
“As the competitive environment became more rosy for small businesses, we were able to win for the longer term contracts,” Sartorius said. “The margins are very small, but the positive side is if you lock in with the longer term contracts, which tend to be five-year contracts, there’s some security.”
But only so much. Given the advent of the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration, “that security is thrown into question.”