An Interview with Nicole Truhe: PFS, SIPPRA, and the Road Ahead

Nicole Truhe was interviewed by Quantified Ventures' CEO Eric Letsinger

Photo courtesy of Trent Yarnell.

Photo courtesy of Trent Yarnell.

Nicole Truhe is the former Government Affairs Director at America Forward, New Profit’s bipartisan policy initiative. New Profit is a national nonprofit venture philanthropy fund that breaks down barriers between people and opportunity in America. She’s been one of the country’s driving forces behind a sustained effort to pass Federal legislation to further enable Pay For Success. The Social Impact Partnerships to Pay for Results Act (SIPPRA) legislation, years in the making, was finally passed as part of the February budget deal. The bipartisan legislation passed in a legislative environment that can be characterized as anything but bipartisan…and yet it happened. As practitioners in the Pay For Success field, our firm has supported Nicole’s efforts to champion this bill. But as time passed and administrations changed, it appeared further and further away from something likely to happen. So, when it passed, I simply needed to know Nicole better. I needed to understand what drove her…every day…through the desert…through the legislative defeats…through the “hurry up and waits”…through the disappointments. How did she succeed and what makes her thrive in environments full of uncertainty? Let’s hear what she had to say…


Eric: Through fruitful stints with Youth Villages and New Profit, you’re a woman of many talents and accomplishments. How did you find yourself running point on the SIPPRA legislation?

Nicole: Good question. It goes back to my time at Youth Villages where I started in their policy group. They had been operating under a performance-based contract with the State of Tennessee. So I lived first-hand under the notion that government can actually provide a stick to those who don’t perform and a carrot to those that do. I watched the government set a high bar for excellence and stick to it. So, I’ve always known that Pay For Success can work here…we lived it. The child welfare arena should be all about paying for outcomes and that’s where I cut my teeth, so I have it running through my blood. Most systems aren’t set up that way and I’ve always wondered why not? When I started looking at other federal and state systems, it simply didn’t make sense to me that paying for outcomes wasn’t the norm. There are many reasons, but no good arguments as to why. That said, the “how” is hard. It’s turning the battleship around…it’ll take years and it won’t be smooth sailing.

When I arrived at New Profit, I was lucky enough to be part of an organization that was leading this disruptive transformation. I brought a service provider lens. We had all seen this sea change brewing in the UK and decided we needed to do this here...this needs to be a U.S. thing.

The PFS bill was originally envisioned in 2014. It served as the foundation for this $100M bill that we just passed. Through the years, we worked with some tenacious congressional staff, think tanks, providers, and other thought leaders.  While it looks quite different today than when it started, the basics are in place…”what can the Federal government do to progress the social services field towards outcomes-based funding?”


Eric: What made you choose this career path? 

Nicole: As you know, there are always inflection points when you look back. For me, a major turning point occurred during my junior year of college when I was working at a shelter for battered women. I had a friend interning at Youth Villages where they were working with kids actually in their homes, not in shelters or jails. I was hooked. I spent the next 12 years working there. They were outcomes oriented and rooted in data. I was a political science major who thought I wanted to be a lawyer to make laws, but it turns out I just wanted to change laws…not make them as a politician.


Eric: When did you start pursuing your PhD? How’s the dissertation coming and what’s it about?

Nicole: My PhD is on the child welfare system…a cohort of young people in foster care making the case for in-home service rather than foster home approaches.


Eric: You have a reputation for never giving up. Where’d you get that?

Nicole: I was an oil and gas kid who moved every two to three years. You get good at making new friends and starting over. It allows you to see different parts of the country, which formulates who you are. There’s something unique about a nomadic existence. It makes you make the most out of every adventure as it’s presenting itself, because you might not be here tomorrow. I knew there were huge dividends waiting  with Pay For Success, and I knew it needed a sustained effort over time. To pass a bill like this you need good policy, process, and politics. More importantly, you have to be ready when that window opens and they all come together. Absent that, we wouldn’t have SIPPRA.


Eric: If you had a blank check, what would Congress pass or do to promote this?

Nicole: A few things need to happen to get this off the ground. Passage was the easy part. It’s now all about the implementation. Lots of legislation gets passed that doesn’t fulfill its potential. You have a department in charge that has not been engaged in PFS…we have work to educate them. We have work to do to make sure Congress stays engaged and affirms its commitment to these bipartisan partnerships - so they become a reality. They need technical assistance for states and cities and counties…to educate them on PFS and to provide support to navigate challenges.


Eric:  From your perspective, what are some of the highlights of the legislation that you’re most excited about?

Nicole: The bill started out with a (cost) savings lens. We got the social benefit or value piece in there. That was the best new-ish thing.


Eric: There’s a ton of issues or agendas you could have gotten behind. What drives you towards an innovation agenda?

Nicole: It feels like life…I work with some of the most entrepreneurial people in the social service space. There has to be a better way. We need to better address the needs of humans.  I’m surrounded by giants. If they weren’t in the nonprofit sector, they would be giants of industry. They have tenacity and ingenuity doing really cool work in the social realm. If can spend my days amplifying their work to people with power, then I’m all in.


Eric: Passing specific Federal Legislation, especially for something new, is a big mission. How do you stay motivated? Is it your daily impact on humans that you interact with or the future impact pay-out that the legislation will drive if passed that motivates you?

Nicole: I run marathons for fun. That likely gives you a little insight in to me.  I see and play the long game. Good policy motivates me. The community wanted this. It was a movement. We were all there when this idea started on June 18, 2014 – that was just the first mile on this legislative journey.


Eric: What do you say to those younger, future leaders out there who might be considering safer career paths rather than jumping into mission service?

Nicole:  Never be afraid to take the leap of faith. Lots of things in life are safe…the sweet stuff happens when you stick your neck out. It’s going to take hard work…you must be willing to do more than you thought it would require. It’s easy to get jaded…fight it and fight it hard.


Eric: What’s next for Nicole?

Nicole: I’m all about implementation of this thing. We’re not celebrating yet. We are full steam ahead to take this from being a section of a bipartisan bill, and making it bigger - bringing it to life now that we have this legislation. Issue by we come.

Eric Letsinger