Social Impact


Design, execution, and scale-up of a high-impact education alliance


What to consider

Introduction and Client Context

In 2018, a major private equity firm approached Cicero® Social Impact with a desire to create a positive impact on postsecondary outcomes for students living in rural communities. After significant focus on the overall mission and strategy, the firm launched an education alliance (hereto referred to as The Alliance) to tackle the most significant challenges faced by rural students as they consider opportunities after high school.

The Alliance firmly believes that every student deserves the opportunity to graduate high school on a path towards achieving career success and economic stability. To achieve this objective, The Alliance places dedicated college and career advisors in rural high schools to work with all students, whether they intend to pursue a college degree, work-based learning, or military service.

Over time, Cicero’s engagement with the organization has grown and transformed through three primary phases of growth. The following sections outline each of these phases of growth in detail.

Phase 1: Organizational Design and Setup

Initial Challenges​

Cicero’s initial engagement with The Alliance began with the ultimate goal of developing an M&E process and system to track their short-term and long-term impact on the lives of rural students. Like many organizations, the client recognized the importance of measuring their impact and leveraging data to increase the effectiveness of their services over time. However, to establish a truly sustainable M&E process, The Alliance first needed to address the following key organizational questions:

  1. What are you trying to achieve?
  2. How are you going to achieve it?
  3. How will you know when you have achieved it?

Cicero’s Approach & Results​

In 2018, the client approached Cicero Social Impact to help them answer these questions with the foundation of research and benchmarking data. Over the course of phase 1, Cicero worked with this client to fully design their impact strategy, theory-of-change, and program model, in addition to determining the key metrics that should be measured to evaluate the organization’s impact on post-secondary student outcomes.

Cicero’s partnership with The Alliance during this phase resulted in well-defined strategy, fleshed out plans for a pilot program year in 2019, a competitive analysis of similar organizations and spaces for amplified impact, a list of potential partnerships, and overall clarity on the impact metrics that would be used to evaluate impact during the upcoming launch of the program.

Phase 2: Launch and Learn

Emergent challenges after strategy design:

As The Alliance began to shift their focus toward the launch of their program with an initial partner and 12 advisors in the first year, new needs began to surface. Specifically, The Alliance needed help implementing the newly established theory-of-change in practice to help them develop partnerships and further reassess and redefine their established model.

Cicero’s Approach & Results​

To meet these needs, our team helped the client refine their measurement framework to both prove the impact of the program and allow it to continually improve its services for rural students. Our team also helped the client manage a network of five large implementing partners, including multiple high-profile non-profit organizations. Cicero also oversaw the development of a variety of implementation resources, including monthly data reports designed to help implementing partners refine their approaches and better serve students.

As a result of Cicero’s work, the client was able to refine its program strategy and make a considerable impact on student outcomes in Year 1. After the first year of the program, overall postsecondary enrollment improved by 14.4% compared with baseline data from the previous 3 years across the five participating high schools. In fact, one rural Midwest state decided to highlight the program as an example of improving postsecondary outcomes for rural students.

Phase 3: Scale and Systemize

Final challenges during scale-up:

After the successful launch of the pilot program, The Alliance needed to develop new systems to expand their program and scale quickly. Like many rapidly expanding organizations, the alliance team needed support to find and vet new partners, develop standard operating procedures, and organize significant amounts of data for simplified collection and analysis.

Cicero’s Approach & Results​

To meet these needs, our team partnered with the client to find and vet potential partnerships, launch the program alongside partners in a new state, and build out a brand-new CRM for advisors to track student progress throughout the school year. Over the past few years, Cicero has refined the CRM and data measurement framework in a way that has allowed the program to scale from services in 5 schools to over 180 schools in 3 years. The team has also continued ongoing M&E support to help the client collect, analyze, report, and use data to guide key growth decisions.

As a result of Cicero’s work in phase 3 (ongoing), Cicero is now helping the client to provide advising services to over 17,000 students through 6 partners in 3 states. With the support of more than 180 school advisors, 2021 findings show that overall postsecondary enrollment improved by 10.5% compared to 3-year baseline data from the same schools prior to The Alliance’s involvement. It is also important to note that these outcomes occurred even when faced with significant educational challenges during the pandemic including school closures, learning loss, and postsecondary opportunity changes.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways​

As a result of Cicero’s engagement, this client was able to refine its program strategy, refine and develop M&E processes and tools, and make a considerable impact on student outcomes over the past four consecutive years. As The Alliance continues to expand into new partnerships and geographies, the Cicero team will continue to provide ongoing M&E refinement and strategic recommendations based on current, comprehensive data.

As exhibited by this client, there are several key takeaways from Cicero’s phases of engagement that can also help other organizations looking to create, develop, or refine their M&E processes. One, establishing a clear strategy and theory of change is crucial to designing an effective program and measuring its impact. Measurement is not responsible for the organization’s results; it is simply a tool for understanding and communicating the effect of the offerings provided. Two, a measurement framework should be developed early on to demonstrate the impact of a program and allow for continual improvement of services. Finally, as an organization scales, it’s important to develop new systems to manage data and partners, and to ensure ongoing support for data collection and analysis to guide key growth decisions. As organizations become diligent about establishing ongoing M&E processes, they hold the power to transform not only their own operations but also the communities they serve, creating positive and lasting impact for years to come.

Visual Representation of Project

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