Wednesday, October 18, 2017

100 Years of Caring

We care. That statement, purely and simply, provides the rationale for every piece of work completed by Wilder Research from 1917 to 2017.

Because we care, we do nonpartisan, high quality research – focused on significant social issues and intended to move communities and organizations forward, to foster a high quality of life for all. We inform, assist, and build tools others can use. We also at times correct misperceptions and remake traditional patterns of thinking, based on new discoveries from our research.

In 1917, Wilder Research issued its first research report – motivated by the fact that many residents of Saint Paul lived in substandard housing. That study created positive change for the city’s residents. It led to the establishment of health and housing ordinances which served as models for other cities around the nation.

In that first report, you see threads that have persisted for a century: use of state-of-the-art research methods, pursuit of highly relevant issues, impacts on the ways community leaders and public officials develop programs and shape policy. You also see how we have multiplied our influence through demonstration – creating effects on policy and improving health not just locally, but around the U.S.

So, what has changed?

Nowadays, Wilder Research has about 90 staff who participate in more than 200 projects each year. That’s up from just a handful of staff, completing 2 or 3 projects annually, 100 years ago.

The interest during the early days to uncover social problems, raise community awareness, and influence public opinion and public policy expanded in the 1940s to include a focus on improving the management of health and human services. Wilder Research studied the activities of public and private agencies and mapped service usage in order to compare usage to community needs. We conducted our first program evaluation studies and at least one “return-on-investment” study (a major innovation for that time). We sometimes worked in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, the State of Minnesota, and county government as well.

An appetite to know what works

In the second half of the 20th century – post World War II society in the U.S. – thought leadership exploded and moved in many directions, from poverty (e.g., “The Other America”), to the environment (e.g., “Silent Spring”), to city planning (e.g., “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”), to civil rights. Martin Luther King inspired a major social movement, leading to innovative legislation intended to bring about equality – a difficult and elusive, but nonetheless necessary, dream. The “War on Poverty” commenced with a wide expansion of social programs.

All of this increased the appetite of policy makers, program developers, funders, and the public to understand “what works.” Local communities, states, and the federal government needed more research to test programming and choose among the variety of alternatives the best options that existing resources could support. So, new opportunities for Wilder Research!

Expanding our capacity

By the 1970s, computers entered the picture. Wilder Research built computerized client record systems for both the Wilder Foundation and other service-delivery organizations. These systems offered new prospects for program staff to understand their client populations, the services delivered to those populations, and the effectiveness of those services. We at Wilder Research increased our capacity to do increasingly rigorous studies of service effectiveness.

During the 1970s and 80s, we expanded our community assessment activities. For example, we drew representative samples of households and walked door to door to conduct in-person interviews for a study of the elderly, a study of young adults, and a study of children. We completed ground-breaking research that used death records to draw a sample of terminally ill patients in order to understand the need for hospice care services that could benefit both the terminally ill and their family members.

During the 80s and 90s, our consultation work expanded in volume. We upgraded our efforts to publish important books to assist the human services field. The first edition of Collaboration:What Makes It Work sold copies worldwide, meeting a need for tools to assist organizations to work jointly to solve complex, modern-day social problems. The third, revised edition will be published in early 2018.

Around the turn of the century, we added two important dimensions to our work. First, we developed the first version of Having a website opened new pathways for doing research and for sharing our products for the benefit of all in a very cost-effective manner. Second, we started to build our skill to engage more collaboratively with communities and grassroots organizations. Although we had previously done studies of communities, we did not really do studies with communities.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase in our work with organizations serving cultural communities and immigrants. Our Speaking for Themselves study examined needs of new arrivals in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. We designed it in collaboration with the immigrant groups themselves, and 15 years later, we did a similar study with the newest arriving groups at that time.

Since 2000, many activities have proliferated within Wilder Research. Consultation and evaluation work has increased. We have expanded our book and report publishing. Other research organizations around the country and the world have borrowed methods we pioneered for studying homelessness, immigration, collaboration, and early childhood. Minnesota Compass has received formal recognition as a model for assisting communities to monitor and improve their quality of life. We do more culturally specific research, in more languages, than we ever did during the 20th century.

But something has remained constant: The fact that we care.

Because we care, we do not consider numbers, data, or reports as our results. Rather, for our work, we see the results as the lives that have changed because we did our work. For us, research results are, for example:

  • Children with a better start in life because of studies we completed.
  • Older people who live in supportive settings, attuned to their needs, because of studies we completed.
  • Communities who have experienced trauma or inequities and who can take a positive step forward because of our collaboration with them.
  • Agencies addressing the toughest social issues more effectively because of research we did for them.
  • And many more people, communities, and organizations who do better because of our efforts with them and for them.

Looking ahead

I invite you to join us, in whatever ways best suit you, as we move into our second century of improving the lives of individuals, families, and communities through research. Please feel free to get in touch – my email is – if you have thoughts about where Wilder Research should head during its second century. What should we focus on? Where can we make the biggest difference?

We celebrate our birthday on Wednesday, the 25th of October, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. at Wilder Center in Saint Paul. Hope you can join us for some socializing, maybe a little bit of singing!

All the best!