Urban Wire Behavioral Science Can Help Nonprofits Boost Their Impact
Matthew Gerken
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This is a critical moment to be studying behavioral science—a growing field that takes a microscope to human behavior and how people make decisions. It has shown that even relatively small behavioral interventions can amplify positive outcomes at relatively minimal cost. The private sector has long relied on behavioral science insights as a low-cost way to develop effective business practices and improve service delivery. Nonprofits, too, can use it to improve how they design programming to better support the people they serve and boost their impact.

The Urban Institute recently piloted and tested an approach that helps nonprofits apply behavioral science principles to their programming. We worked with Urban Alliance—a nonprofit in Washington, DC, that provides internships, job skills training, mentoring, and ongoing support to high school seniors in underresourced communities. Urban Alliance pairs each high schooler with a mentor at their internship site. The nonprofit hoped to strengthen the relationships between mentors and interns and improve interns’ and mentors’ satisfaction with the mentoring experience.

6-step behavioral science approach

We developed a six-step approach to help Urban Alliance achieve its goals. This involved learning about Urban Alliance’s objectives and then developing and implementing behavioral interventions that aligned with those objectives. These behavioral interventions—which entailed both revamping existing materials and creating new ones using behavioral science—sought to improve mentor recruitment, mentor training and guidance, and ongoing communication with mentors. Three themes emerged from our work that could inform other nonprofits seeking to improve their programming through behavioral science.

Being clear about next steps can encourage action

Interactions between Urban Alliance and its mentors are ripe with opportunities to apply behavioral science and more effectively communicate. Being clear and intentional about next steps can go a long way in encouraging action.

We designed a compact, three-by-five-inch checklist for Urban Alliance to provide its mentors with steps they could take both before their intern arrived, such as setting up their workspace, and during their first week, such as introducing their intern to colleagues. These are simple but important steps for long-term success.

We also helped design monthly mentoring action items and an accompanying survey to find out how many tasks the mentors completed. The checklist’s action items and monthly mentoring tips apply several behavioral principles, including injunctive normsperceived understanding of the types of behavior others (in this case, Urban Alliance) would find acceptable—and choice architecture—the concept that how choices are presented affects decisionmaking.

Identity priming can help encourage behavior

Every year, Urban Alliance recruits returning mentors and new mentors. Beyond their mentoring role in Urban Alliance, mentors have other identities; they are also workers, parents, and community members. One way to encourage mentor buy-in is through identity priming. Identity priming activates a particular identity—in this case, the mentor identity—by crafting situations to help that identity emerge.

For example, as part of Urban Alliance’s mentor recruitment, we crafted emails to elevate mentors’ role in youth development and help interns navigate the workplace. We also collaborated with Urban Alliance to create a mentor commitment pledge, which further elevates the importance of mentors and their role in their interns’ success. In the monthly surveys, we also asked mentors to reflect on a positive recent experience with their intern. These forms of identity priming aim to strengthen mentorship.

Providing deadlines and reminders elevates their importance

Deadlines that provide the times and dates of future actions and events encourage next steps, including when they are coupled with repeated reminders, such as text messages or postcards. Urban Alliance facilitates a yearly orientation and training for its mentors, so we developed attendance reminders for the nonprofit to send out. We emphasized the date of the training, suggested they add the date to their calendars, and framed not attending as a missed opportunity to connect with other mentors, leveraging what’s known as loss aversion in behavioral science.

Looking back

Ultimately, Urban Alliance appreciated the conversations this work spurred and the added value of relatively simple, low-cost behavioral interventions for their youth and mentors. As Dan Tsin, former chief impact officer at Urban Alliance, noted, “naming the behavioral insights, the social pressure, the pre-enrolling of folks, using every one of these opportunities to name how you want people to act” helped improve impact by not only using the interventions to put strong mentoring practices into place, but by also reinforcing those practices with behavioral science. Other nonprofits seeking evidence-based approaches to improving their programs and service delivery can take similar steps to embed elements of behavioral science in their work


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Research Areas Nonprofits and philanthropy
Policy Centers Research to Action Lab
Research Methods Performance measurement and management