April 10, 2014

Give People the Tools to Change Their Own Lives and Their Communities

Courtesy Family Independence Initiative

There’s a quicker path to transformative scale that doesn’t hinge on the actions of government or business. It focuses on a dramatically under-utilized asset in the social sector: the people we are in business to serve.

By: Willa Seldon

The nonprofit and philanthropic sectors have begun to recognize that incrementalism isn’t enough. While society has benefited from organizations and programs that deliver services, we now understand that growing organizations and replicating programs will fall far short of reaching the impact or scale to solve our most pressing social problems.

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So where do we turn for the impact we need? How about capitalizing on existing scale? That means vastly improving the impact of government investments in programs and policies that already touch the lives of millions. Collective impact initiatives are partly aimed at this, as are efforts focused on investing government resources in programs with proven results—generally known as the “what works” movement.

Business also provides a ready opportunity for scale. What if the business sector began to focus on social impact as well as shareholder returns? One example of scaling business interests for public good is the push to provide high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of the nation’s public schools by 2017. Apple, Verizon, Microsoft, Sprint, and other technology companies are contributing $750 million to achieve this goal, which will provide social as well as bottom-line returns. Stepping up efforts to improve the impact of government programs and the social commitment of business could result in exponential social sector change. While these are worthwhile goals, both will require many steps to get from commitment to execution.

Alternatively, there’s a quicker path to transformative scale that doesn’t hinge on the actions of government or business. Rather, it focuses on people as agents of change. The people we are in business to serve, I’ll use the term constituents to describe them, are a dramatically under-utilized asset in our sector.

The business sector starts with consumer choice as a given and builds around that, achieving remarkable scale with goods and services. We can do the same in the social sector by providing tools and resources to constituents to shape solutions to their own problems. Tapping the insights and energy of the people we are serving is a promising approach to social change, and we can begin acting on it now. We already have some powerful examples where constituents have been trained to understand data, track their own progress, and hold themselves accountable for making good choices.

The Family Independence Initiative (FII), founded by Maurice Miller in 2001, aims to help low-income working families build their own pathways to self-sufficiency. This approach is rooted in the belief that low-income people can advance together by employing the same resource sharing, mutual support, and role modeling that has historically helped immigrant families advance to the middle class.

FII establishes groups of families who meet on a regular basis. They track and share some 200 data points about their lives. FII staff does not make decisions or give advice to the family groups. Instead, the staff shifts the responsibility for setting goals, finding solutions, and initiating action to the participants themselves. Families receive small cash stipends for documenting and sharing their progress.

FII’s success is notable. In a recent review, participating Oakland, CA, families reported income gains averaging more than 25 percent over the two-year enrollment period, as well as significant improvement in the level of savings (up 144 percent) and in the grades of school-aged children. From its initial site in Oakland, FII has expanded to San Francisco, Oahu, and Boston. At each of those sites, the organization has produced similarly positive results.

FII shows that using an infrastructure of peer-to-peer encouragement and social networking can help to build more resilient and sustainable communities. It’s a striking alternative to typical antipoverty initiatives. Data analysis and constituent self-help also works in a school setting. Friendship Public Charter School, a $72 million charter management organization (CMO), runs six charter and five turnaround schools in Washington, DC, and Baltimore. Like many CMOs, Friendship initially drew upon research-based strategies to increase student achievement: longer school days, double doses of math and reading, and team teaching.

But by 2006, student achievement gains had flatlined, prompting COO Patricia Brantley to search for new ways to get better results. Friendship ultimately decided to engage its primary constituents—students, parents, and teachers—to codevelop a new approach to performance management that would enable continuous improvement.

Friendship gathered recommendations from students, parents, and teachers to create a list of leading indicators that drive student achievement. But, according to Brantley, Friendship realized that to “truly enable breakaway performance required making the data useful for students and parents.”

So teachers posted simple scorecards of classroom performance, including measures such as attendance and discipline, and offered incentives that motivated students to work together to improve. And they taught students how to track their own data.

“We expect students as young as kindergartners to be able to explain and provide evidence of their progress to their teachers, their peers, and their parents,” said Brantley. They also are taught to use the data to set more ambitious goals for themselves, and share progress at parent-teacher “Data Nights.”

By involving students in tracking their own progress and setting their own goals, Friendship engages students and parents as partners in the design and implementation of the performance management system. And the effort is paying off. Achievement at Friendship schools is moving upward again. Ninety percent of the schools have seen sustained gains in reading and math scores, and attendance. Brantley credits this upward trend to sharing data with students, which motivates them to improve.

The message here is clear. People are capable, when given the tools and opportunities, to create their own solutions and make changes in their lives and communities. It’s a message the social sector should take to heart. We need to shift much more of our attention from our organizations to how we position our constituents to be in charge of their own change.

Willa Seldon is a partner based at The Bridgespan Group’s San Francisco office.

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