Research and Social Work: Unexpected benefits of randomization

Author: Leigh Lynes

“Social workers sit at the juncture between those with too much power and those with not enough.” - Gloria Steinem

In most situations, being a “middleman” isn’t something that any person—or organization—strives to become. But in LEO’s quest to help people move permanently out of poverty, that’s exactly where we want to be. Why? Because we believe that nonprofit service providers are best suited to deliver change and policymakers best positioned to scale change across the country. But first they need to know what works and why. That’s where LEO—and objective research—comes in. 

Similarly, our nonprofit partners must rely on their staff to deliver their theories of change to those experiencing poverty. Throughout 90 LEO partner organizations across the United States, these employees have a wide variety of talents and approaches, and sit between well-intentioned donors, managers, and those in need. These integral people in the middle are known broadly as “social workers,” and this is the story of how research has impacted their approach. 

This is one of a three-part series about the intersection of research and social work. Read the other stories about Practice Makes Perfect and Catholic Charities Fort Worth


Areli Leyva is a Housing Specialist at Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose, California. Her job is to help people at risk of losing their housing by administering emergency rent and deposit funds. Finding affordable housing for those experiencing homelessness is a tough job almost anywhere in the U.S.; in San Jose—where the average home costs over $1.1M—it’s practically impossible. But the social workers at Sacred Heart Community Service (SHCS) are no stranger to San Jose or its evolving needs: the organization started over 50 years ago as an ad hoc food pantry in local founder Louise Benson’s garage.

When a potential client arrives, Areli first assesses their needs and determines which program is the best fit. Historically, this has been a relatively qualitative assessment, where Leyva’s training and understanding of SHCS’s offerings play a crucial role. She could also offer clients a curated guide for their housing search, including internal and external resources specific to her experience having to turn clients away after not qualifying for their programming. 

Knowing those who need help from SHCS intimately, Areli’s primary concern when she first heard about the research partnership with LEO was privacy. “There might be occasions where clients worry about where their information will be stored, if it’s going to be shared, and how it’s going to be used,” she explains. Many of their clients are walking a fine line between their normal lives and experiencing homelessness; any external indication of their vulnerability could put their jobs and relationships at risk. 

Leyva’s next concern was randomization—how could LEO ensure the selection process required to run an experiment was fair? Luckily for Areli, not only did LEO equip her with the ability to explain how randomization works to her clients, together they also established a numerical rating system to take the subjectivity out of deciding who needs which program to begin with. This helps Areli direct clients to the right services, while giving her confidence in how she is prioritizing those with the greatest needs first. 

Most importantly, the applicant scoring system helps SHCS to steer clients to the services they need in a fair and unbiased way. Whereas in the past, a client’s likelihood of getting help could hinge on how their timing matched with the ebb and flow of monthly donations, now Areli has a way to offer consistency to those in need of help. Armed with quantitative results, Sacred Heart Community Service looks not only to understand how to serve its clients better, Areli hopes that her work can help social workers make a greater impact across the country.