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Finding Common Purpose

Are we making enough of a difference? Are we making the right kind of difference? When those of us working to improve people’s lives—be it through nonprofits, philanthropy, schools, or government—begin our different kinds of work, do we ask the critical question: To what end?

I’ve been exploring these questions over the past few weeks since launching my new blog, Finding Common Purpose. This is the third post as part of a three-part series (click here for part 1 and part 2) focused on putting the question of to what end front and center in the work nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do.

In my last blog post, I suggested that population-level progress is measured by how many people reach milestones successfully at different stages of life—from healthy birth, to a quality education, to a good paying job—and that population-level change without reducing disparities based on race, class, gender, and geography is not acceptable. I see that as the 21st-century social contract, a prerequisite that must guide our work and to which our sector should be held accountable. This answers the to-what-end question, and—after 15 years of doing this work—I’ve concluded it’s the only way to ensure we remain always focused on people, with process serving that aim.

In this post, I discuss the second prerequisite to getting to the to-what-end answer.  Specifically, it’s to understand the differences in the work nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do—some of which is like giving a fish to someone who’s hungry; some of which is like teaching that hungry person to fish; and some of it sits between or straddles both.  

The objective of drawing this differentiation is to identify which specific efforts in our work are the first line of support to meet basic needs when people are not able to fulfill them on their own, and which efforts specifically advance people to meet milestones along a lifelong pathway. Each is essential, as is drawing a distinction between the types of efforts. 

Today, I believe policies, programs, and systems generally fall into one of the two “fish” categories—“feed” or “teach”— and some might do a bit of both. This differentiation can be applied nearly across the board, from a soup kitchen in a church basement to a program to prepare students for educational success after secondary school. The same can be said of government programs, whether they involve, for example, providing education to parents along with funds to buy food for infants and children at nutritional risk or that provide temporary financial assistance for securing childcare.

Understanding the distinction is key to creating the new 21st-century social contract. All of us working to help others want fewer people being handed a fish and more people able to fish for themselves. That has obvious resource allocation implications, and of course the “handoff” between the two needs to be seamless so people can continue to survive as they move toward thriving.

Surely nonprofits, philanthropy, and government can all agree that it is critically important to devote resources to helping those with basic, immediate needs who are not able to access or afford them. And it is certainly the case that many, if not most, programs—including many focused on hunger or homelessness—are also trying to refer people to “teach to fish” programs. All of this is part of a giant, complex ecosystem, one that in the 21st century has become a multi-billion-dollar “industry” employing tens of millions of people. That does not change the straightforward reality that some of those efforts are not—quite deliberately—aimed specifically at advancing people along a pathway to lifelong success, but often do provide support that may be able to prepare them to advance. Some other efforts, no matter how well intentioned, may be completely disconnected from the particular task of supporting people to meet milestones along the pathway.

Let me explain, using as an example a charitable organization that provides free backpacks to schoolchildren in a neighborhood where those kids really need them. Don’t get me wrong: giving backpacks to kids who don’t have them to carry their books to school deserves support. But at the end of the day, questions still remain: Does using whatever resources it took make the right kind of difference in those kids’ lives? Can our sector measure how it contributes to lifelong success? Does it advance genuine population-level change?

Thinking about and understanding the lives of the children who get those backpacks is what motivates the to what end question. Our sector uses ambiguous terms such as “impact” and “social change” and sometimes look right past whether what we are contributing makes a measurable difference in people’s lives, rather than counting number of backpacks kids received.

I often feel the “people” part of the work is an afterthought. I’m talking about differences that can be stated less ambiguously: for example, “ready to learn when entering kindergarten” or “able to afford food.” These are the sorts of things nonprofits, philanthropy, and government should hold ourselves measurably accountable to in whatever role we are playing to contribute to a 21st-century social contract, to a Common Purpose.

In that context, it’s okay to ask ourselves this: If a child in the third grade gets a backpack but is reading at a kindergarten level, what difference did the backpack really make? Which would you want for your own child: a backpack … or reading proficiency?

In the work nonprofits, philanthropy, and government do, I’ve come to realize the power of starting any of our efforts with the to-what-end question. Asking this question can be powerful, especially—but not exclusively—for helping us identify where those efforts are centered on the pathway to lifelong success. Making to what end the driver of what we do is a key to achieving population-level change. Imagine doing that in the backpack program. Reframing the effort by asking the to-what-end question before beginning could lead to making backpack distribution part of a larger set of activities to ensure reading and math proficiency—a redistribution of resources aimed much more clearly at reading proficiency.

Here are some other examples of why it’s important to differentiate between the kinds of help nonprofits, philanthropy, and government give to people. Consider a homeless shelter that gets people off the street. That’s a worthy endeavor, but other than potentially keeping them safe and alive for a longer period it doesn’t specifically help them get on a life path to be able to take care of their own housing security—an obvious element of lifelong success.

Another example of this approach would be a food pantry that gets food to people who need it right then and there, but doesn’t necessarily do anything to ensure they are able to afford food when that runs out—and so they have to return to the pantry. Likewise with food stamps: the government’s SNAP program may keep people from starving, but it doesn’t address food insecurity over a lifetime.

That’s why I used that old adage in my second prerequisite: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Shouldn’t 21st century progress be measured ultimately by reducing the number of visitors who need that food pantry’s help? Shouldn’t addressing homeless be more than getting people into shelters for a given night? Shouldn’t the objective—the to what end—be to reduce the need for food pantries and homeless shelters?

When I think about all of this, particularly when I am working on a project, I wonder whether our sector would see better results from all the capital—financial and human—that funnels through what some refer to as the “nonprofit industrial complex” if we simply distributed money directly to people we are seeking to help.

That’s a question for a blog post in the future. For now, I want to stay focused on this fundamental question: To what end? Keeping it front and center is really hard.

At Root Cause, this is what our team is now trying to focus on every day. We’ve made a fundamental change by posing the to-what-end question at the beginning of any of our work. Asking it forces us to make big adjustments—and important adjustments—in what we do. At the highest level, it changes how we see our role. Instead of offering the next “solution” to the organizations with which we work, we think of ourselves as in the business of being a partner in improving lives along that pathway to lifelong success. This is not an overnight transformation, but it is one to which we are committed. And it’s a shift we’d like to see in government, philanthropy, schools, and nonprofits.

The to-what-end question helps us define the roles nonprofits, philanthropy, and government play in a complex mix of systems and programs. Again, I believe asking the question before we begin our work will focus us on our roles and, ultimately, will give us a better chance at achieving population-level change and reducing disparities. I will continue to examine this in future posts, and next week I’ll be bringing Bob Giannino, the CEO of uAspire, into the discussion. uAspire is a nonprofit organization that seeks to ensure all young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to and through college. I wrote about the organization in a previous post.

Bob is also a member of the Root Cause board of directors. Together, Bob and I explore several of the issues I’ve raised in search of our Common Purpose.

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