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Finding Common Purpose

This is the second post in a three-part series on the critical questions that have been informing all my thinking about the work nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do—whether we’re making enough of a difference and the right kind of difference—all in the context of to what end.  

Last week, I wrote about what I called a critical moment in our history—today, when for so many people in this country it is difficult to navigate successfully along life’s pathways absent a good education, a good-paying job, and other things our sector know help make that success possible. I suggested that zooming out to see this full pathway is how we need to focus our attention and realize our potential to advance population-level change in the 21st century.

I put forth two prerequisites to realizing this potential: I discuss the first one here; the second will be the focus of my next blog post.

For those of us working to help others, we must come to agreement on what constitutes America’s 21st-century social contract, and it must apply to everyone in our country. I see this as our Common Purpose. Without it, we won’t be able to answer the critically important question that ought to be informing all the work we do: To what end?

When I think about what might be our 21st-century social contract, I find myself going back to the answers I’ve gotten from others to my question about success.

What those answers reveal is that defining success begins with a simple idea, one that isn’t really new: that success is a lifelong endeavor.

Stated that way, I think those of us working to help others can at least agree that for each individual, the endeavor is launched with a healthy birth; it moves along to entering school ready to learn and finishing school career-ready; it proceeds to finding a solid job; and, eventually, as the years advance, it becomes living a healthy and secure retirement. Of course, there are many important milestones along the way.

I’m sure nonprofits, philanthropy, and government are all committed to the proposition that everyone deserves an opportunity to achieve that success—and it’s never too late to provide the opportunity. If so, then population-level progress is measured by how many people reach the milestones successfully at the appropriate stage of life. But even then, we’re not done. 

Population-level change without reducing disparities based on race, class, gender, and geography is not acceptable.

But can nonprofits, philanthropy, and government come together and unify around this as the answer to the question of to what end? I see that as the 21st-century social contract, a pre-requisite that can guide our work. Actuating it, I believe, means leaders of nonprofits, philanthropies, and government must always begin any work with that end in mind. It doesn’t matter whether the effort is by a small or large nonprofit organization, a government entity, a religious institution, a school or school district, or any institution whose primary mission is help people. The guidance implied by the to-what-end question is critical to focus our activities.

The good news is that our sector is beginning to see some nonprofit intermediaries and state and local governments across the country establishing a common set of measures for a community to track progress and coordinate activities that speak to the to-what-end question. At the earliest stage of the life course, EC-LINC is a network of 14 communities that have been working together to develop a set of outcomes and indicators for early childhood wellbeing. Measures include: healthy births; on-track development at 12, 18, and 36 months; and entering kindergarten ready to learn.

There are also efforts at the next stage, beginning with kindergarten and, in some cases, extending beyond graduation from high school to employment. Two examples among nonprofit intermediaries are StriveTogether, a network of 76 communities that describes itself as a “national movement to improve outcomes for kids in communities across America,” and Promise Neighborhoods Institute, which focuses on “cradle to career solutions” and uses a “set of indicators that objectively measure progress” toward shared goals in 13 communities. At the government level, the Best Starts for Kids initiative in King County (Washington state)—funded through a tax—is aimed at “putting every child and youth … on a path toward lifelong success.” Both include clear measures for K-12 success, such as reading and math efficiency in different grades along the way.

For a very long time, we’ve used relatively simple measures such as high school graduation rates and unemployment rates, often substituting what these might say about the overall “health” of a school district or the economy for what they ought to tell us about how individuals are really doing. Measures of this sort are fine, but they aren’t enough to provide the much fuller picture of how people in the 21st century are doing along their lifelong pathways and guide us to ensure we’re hitting all the critical marks in our work. Even simply adding more and more robust measures, though, won’t be enough. As my colleague Julie Zack points out, “We have not been able to build and sustain programs and systems that [both] address the inter-dependencies among different but related outcomes and sufficiently consider people’s day-to-day lived experiences.” For example, when our sector considers key milestones along the pathway from high school graduation to employment, we must consider what indicators prior to graduation will better ensure people are prepared for the workforce and better ensure they sustain that employment (an interdependency). Yet creating a system that effectively links education and employment for people remains elusive. 

I certainly have my own opinion about the measures our sector doesn’t use but probably needs to, based on current efforts and evidence. I know that whatever measures we do use are typically insufficient, inconsistent, and full of gaps that make it difficult to see whether we’re making individual or population-level progress. What I want most is for us to agree on the right measures, figure out how to use them, tie those together so they can be used interdependently, and have all of us—government, philanthropy, and nonprofits—commit to being held accountable for making progress on our 21st-century social contract, our Common Purpose. Without taking this step, I don’t see us making enough of or the right kind of difference that will result in population-level change at any part of the pathway.

Obviously, there can only be accountability where nonprofits, philanthropy, and government have real data and the ability to analyze those data. To get there, we have to figure out how to establish some kind of baseline that corresponds to whatever the accountability measures end up being, so we can see the progress people make toward the desired outcome—or that they are not progressing—over time. Additionally, it is critical that any data collected are disaggregated and reported based on race, class, gender, and geography in order to focus our activities not only on realizing population-level change but also on reducing disparities.

Nonprofits, philanthropy, and government have to develop robust indicators for things such as proficiency, completion, and other measures that are abstract until they are linked directly to some milestone in one’s lifelong endeavor. Surely the technology exists to accomplish these sorts of analytics; we just need to access it, tailor it as needed, and—most important—put it to use.

I realize there are substantial barriers to this, not least of which is the willingness of individuals to share their data. However, to give us a fighting chance, philanthropy and government—the key stakeholders with the resources and leading the systems—must take the lead.

To sum it all up: nonprofits, philanthropy, and government are going to need not only to come to agreement about these measures, but also establish a baseline from which we can then consistently collect data we can use to track progress and be willing to be held accountable for making progress. That is how we will be able to answer the to-what-end question and hold ourselves accountable. That is foundational to establishing the 21st-century social contract, our Common Purpose.

All that, though, is only about the first of the two prerequisites I stated earlier. A detailed discussion of the second one—differentiating between the kinds of help our sector gives to people—is the subject of my next blog post.

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