Vocational Foundation (VFI)

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    GiveWell aims to find the best giving opportunities we can and recommend them to donors. We tend to put a lot of investigation into the organizations we find most promising, and de-prioritize others based on limited information. When we decide not to prioritize an organization, we try to create a brief writeup of our thoughts on that charity because we want to be as transparent as possible about our reasoning.

    The following write-up should be viewed in this context: it explains why we determined that (for the time being), we won't be prioritizing the organization in question as potential top charity. This write-up should not be taken as a "negative rating" of the charities. Rather, it is our attempt to be as clear as possible about the process by which we came to our top recommendations.

    A note on this page's publication date

    The last time we examined the charities working primarily in the U.S. was in 2010. As of 2011, we have de-prioritized further work on this cause.

    The content we created in 2007 appears below. This content is likely to be no longer fully accurate, both with respect to what it says about the organization and with respect to what it implies about our own views and positions.

    Published: 2007

    Vocational Foundation applied for a grant GiveWell offered in 2007, but did not receive the grant. The information below explains why.

    In a nutshell

    What they do: VFI works with disconnected youth and puts them through a 15-week program including GED prep, skills training, "soft skills" training, and followup. It aims to place them in jobs paying around $10/hr on average.
    Does it work? We believe that VFI's clients benefit substantially, relative to what they could likely do on their own.
    What do you get for your money? We roughly estimate that it costs VFI about $17,000 to sustainably place a disconnected youth in a relatively low-paying job (averaging around $10/hr).
    Where they rank: VFI and HOPE are the two strongest organizations we've seen in the category of helping extremely disadvantaged people obtain relatively low-wage (around $10/hr) jobs. We are more impressed by HOPE, but recommend VFI over other organizations with this goal.

    The Details

    Whom do they serve?

    VFI serves “disconnected youth”: 17-21 year olds who are neither employed nor in school. VFI's entrance requirements are less strict (in terms of the level of education required) than those of Year Up or the skills training programs for Highbridge and St. Nick's, although we believe that VFI's population served faces fewer barriers than those of organizations like CCCS, Covenant House, and HOPE.

    Selection. VFI gets its clients through referrals from the New York City Housing Authority, DOE, and other organizations (Attachment A-2 Pg 2). The program requires at least a 6th-grade level proficiency in reading (Attachment A-2 Pg 2), and the numbers on Attachment A-2 Pg 2 imply that applicants must be between 17-21, and classified as "low-income" (we aren't sure exactly what this means). VFI conducts a several-stage screening process, and about 2/3 of those who originally express interest end up self-selecting out, although VFI accepts all or nearly all of those that meet its fairly basic requirements (the source for this information is a response to our initial draft of the review, which we do not have clearance to make public).

    Attachment B-4 Pg 10 makes it sound as though VFI's screening process is unusually involved, and thus ends up causing more people to self-select out, than is typical. We don't know whether this is the case, though (it could easily be true that HOPE and Covenant House conduct similar screening and experience similar self-selection).

    Characteristics. VFI states that its clients have the following characteristics (Attachment A-2 Pg 2):

    • Ethnicity: predominantly African-American and Latin-American.
    • Income: Low. 25% are on government assistance, which implies being below the federal poverty line (we see a "self-supporting" income as being roughly twice the federal poverty line).
    • GED/HS degree: 23%
    • In public housing: 75%
    • Past conviction: 15%

    What do they do?

    VFI offers a fifteen-week, 7.5 hours/day program, including:

    • Vocation-specific training (medical administrative assistant, office support specialist, computer technology, security guard and bank teller – see Attachment A-2 Pg 1).
    • General job training (writing a resume, what to wear to work, etc. – see Attachment A-2 Pg 3).
    • Pre-GED literacy and GED training (Attachment A-2 Pg 3).
    • Job placement services.
    • A relationship with a counselor who continues working with graduates for two years after program completion (Attachment A-2 Pg 3).

    What are the results?

    Below data is from Attachment A-4 Pgs 1-4.

    Spring 04 Fall 04 Spring 05 Fall 05 Spring 06 Fall 06 Spring 07
    Enrollees 94 108 110 108 150 150 150
    Graduates (%enrollees) 62 (66%) 77 (71%) 70 (64%) 79 (73%) 114 (76%) 123 (82%) 125 (83%)
    Placements (%graduates) 56 (90%) 66 (86%) 59 (84%) 72 (91%) 98 (86%) 105 (85%) 105 (84%)
    3m retained (%placements) 53 (95%) 64 (97%) 57 (97%) 69 (96%) 96 (98%) 103 (98%) N/A
    6m retained (%placements) 45 (80%) 59 (89%) 54 (92%) 69 (96%) 94 (96%) 92 (88%) N/A
    12m retained (%placements) 42 (75%) 58 (88%) 53 (90%) 67 (93%) 86 (88%) N/A N/A
    24m retained (%placements) 35 (63%) 50 (76%) 38 (64%) N/A N/A N/A N/A
    Avg wage $8.08 $7.98 $8.16 $8.40 $9.13 $9.22 $9.82
    Career advancement wage ? $9.96 $9.39 $10.75 $10.71 ? ?
    Took GED 39 37 17 46 35 57 36
    Passed GED (%took GED) 18 (46%) 25 (68%) 12 (71%) 17 (37%) 23 (66%) 37 (65%) 23 (64%)


    VFI places about 60% of its enrollees in sustainable employment (lasting at least 12 months).

    Graduate to enrollee ratios have improved dramatically as time has gone on; going forward, we'd expect 80% of enrollees to graduate (as they have recently). Placement-to-graduate rates have held pretty constant in the 85% range. 12m retention, as a percentage of placements, has generally been around 90%. 80% * 85% * 90% =~ 60% of all enrollees placed sustainably (12m+).

    We have very little data on 24-month retention, but what we have shows further attrition (note that VFI defines retention as having no periods of unemployment lasting 3 months or more - see Attachment A-4 Pg 4). We ignore this for purposes of discussing "sustainable job placements," because (a) it is a small sample; (b) we don't have 24-month retention data for our other applicants, and are using as consistent as possible a definition of "sustainable job placements."

    25% or fewer of those who are sustainably placed also obtain their GED through VFI, which presumably improves their future earning potential (see immediately below). ("Or fewer" is meant to account for the fact that the GED figures may include those who were not placed in jobs.)

    Incomes and career paths

    Clients initially earn an average of around $10/hr; career paths vary by occupation but appear generally limited.
    Attachment A-4 Pg 8-10 indicates that VFI trains people as bank tellers, security guards, and administrative assistants (general and medical). According to the US Department of Labor data that VFI included with its application, bank teller appears to be the role with the best career path, starting at $9-12/hr and getting up to $30,000-50,000 (pg 8); no salary data is given on administrative assistants, and security guards are stated to be in the $8.50-$13/hr range (pg 9).
    Attachment A-4 pg 5 tells a slightly different story, with more variation in occupations, but similar wage data, in the $8-10/hr range to start. It also reveals that bank teller is less common than the other placements, with only 9 of the 150 being trained for this in Fall '06, (7 were placed, according to the percentages), and apparently none in Spring '06. The bank teller track is also the one with the strictest requirements (see above).

    The range for Spring 2005 is cited as $5.15/hr to $13.50/hr (Attachment A-4 pg 6).

    Does it work?

    We would bet that VFI's clients are substantially better off than they would be without its help, though there is substantial room for improvement in our confidence level. We would be more confident if we had more information about the likely outcomes for people who fit the profile of its clients, but do not go through its program.

    We lack strong "comparison group" data that would help us identify just how much VFI is helping clients, beyond what they could likely accomplish on their own. Instead, we consider the following perspectives:

    • Logical: what does VFI provide that clients could not obtain otherwise? VFI may provide connections to employers, training in specific skills (data entry, medical coding, and a state license for being a security guard), and "soft skills" training that helps applicants make a better impression in interviews. It also provides GED training, though as we note above, this seems relevant for 25% or fewer of those sustainably placed. Overall, the value-added of this program is not as clear to us as it is for programs like Year Up, St. Nick's, and Highbridge (which prepare people for higher-skill jobs) - intuitively, it appears to us that the main qualification for these lower-skill jobs is motivation. However, we know relatively little about the job markets, and can also see how what VFI provides can be beneficial.
    • Comparison to census data. Our census analysis estimates that about 18% of those with similar profiles to VFI enrollees make $20k+/year. As stated above, about 60% of VFI enrollees are placed in jobs paying $20k/yr on average. This difference appears smaller when you consider that census analysis leaves out the motivation needed to enter a job training program (as stated above, in VFI's case this may filter out up to 2/3 of the relevant population); on the other hand, those coming to VFI have not only motivation but need (low incomes - see "Whom do they serve?" above).
    • Difficult-to-interpret data from another funder. VFI attached data from a large funder that shows its placement and retention rates' slightly outperforming those of what the funder terms "peer" organizations. We aren't sure how the "peer" group is constructed, and we don't have information on just how similar peer organizations' populations served are to VFI's. Unfortunately, the funder wishes not only that this information remain confidential but that the funder remain anonymous, so we can't share the details.

    All of these approaches to determining the "VFI effect" are problematic, but looking at all three, we would bet with low confidence that the effect exists.

    Costs and scalability

    It looks like 300 people per year is where VFI has put its own "optimal people served" (just based on the fact that that's been the constant number over the last three years – some scalability issues are discussed in Attachment A-4 Pg 2). VFI has told us that their building has space on another floor, which they hope to use in the next three years as they expand to 500 people served annually.

    From VFI's audit (hard copy only, but Form 990s are available on GuideStar), we see that total expenses were $3.2M in 2006 and $2.9M for 2005. Assuming $3M of expenses and 300 enrollees per year, that implies about $10,000 per enrollee, and $17,000 per sustainable job placement. Note that this calculation is not attempting to measure what VFI literally spends on each sustainably placed person; rather, it's looking at what you get for your dollar, across the whole organization - including costs of overhead and of enrolling students who don't end up placed in jobs.


    VFI is a standout in terms of providing clear, thorough documentation and evaluation of itself; we find it second only to HOPE in this respect. It also places a large proportion (~60%) of people in jobs, sustainably, despite serving a highly undereducated population.

    We lack strong comparison group data for any of our organizations, which would help us more clearly identify how much they help clients beyond what the clients could likely accomplish themselves. We rank VFI behind HOPE, because we find HOPE's results more impressive for the population it is working with (this is partly because we have more semblance of comparison group data for HOPE, and partly simply because of our intuitions about the difficulty of serving HOPE's population).

    We'd like to know more about:

    • Comparison group data. We still lack the information necessary to look at a moderately relevant "comparison group" for VFI, in order to gauge the extent of its impact beyond what clients would likely accomplish without its help. Above we describe a couple of attempts to get a very rough sense of this.


    A. Application and response

    B. Program related attachments

    C. Organization related attachments

    See Attachment A-4 for general organization information.

    D. Financials

    The audit we were sent is available in hard copy only. Form 990s are available from GuideStar.

    The Vocational Foundation's response to GiveWell's review:

    Our clients come to us with a host emotional issues such as depression and anger management, low literacy/math levels (have trouble articulating their skills), substance use, histories of cutting classes, trouble showing up on time and seeing something through to the end, unstable home environments, little or no work experience, the stresses and responsibilities of teen parenting, health issues, etc. Or have you thought of meeting counselors who work directly with disconnected youth and asking them what difference a training and placement program can make?

    We give them skills that boost their self-esteem and sense of self worth. You should see them and their families at the graduation ceremony””this is the first time that someone is celebrating their accomplishments. Like other groups, we also give them certifications. We teach them how to type, how to use MS Office Suite, how to write, how to solve quantitative problems, how to answer phones, how to conduct teller transactions, how to take blood pressure and other vital signs, how to do patient accounting and billing, etc, etc. We help them put together a resume, introduce them to employers, help them get professional attire, do mock interviews with them, and follow up with them after the interview. When they feel like not going back to work because their boss spoke to them in a way they didn't like, we give them some reality counseling. We give them psychological therapy that costs most people $100/hour to help them to cope and deal with personal issues. We put them on a long-term path to get their GED (it is a two year proposition for someone with a 6th grade reading level and 2nd grade math level).

    We choose to serve a more needy client base, and because of that, we target the best possible entry-level jobs out there for teenagers/young adults who lack a high school diploma and work experience, i.e. customer service rep, medical office assistant, legal records clerks, security guards, etc. These jobs are not easy for our specific target population to get without our training and help. They have nothing to put on their resume, and they are not as polished as a middle-class kid from the suburbs.

    Most of the jobs held by our clients prior to enrolling in VFI are part-time, dead-end service jobs without medical benefits. Most of the jobs that clients secure after training are full-time, and 70% have full medical benefits.