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Finding Common Purpose

In launching this new blog in March, I defined my starting point as a firm belief that what we have all been building over the past decades—be it through nonprofits, philanthropy, schools, or government—can be harnessed today as a major force to help bridge the growing divisiveness in the United States and enable more people to achieve lifelong success. And so I read, with great interest, the April 4 column by David Brooks in the New York Times“Winning the War on Poverty: The Canadians Are Doing It; We’re Not.”

I read Brooks on a regular basis. I don’t always agree with him, but I find his sociological observations to be generally spot on.

I should state at the beginning that I’ve never been a huge of fan of that phrase—“war on poverty.” In the United States, the line below which one is officially impoverished is way too low; and the term is too negative.

Poverty is something we strive to get people out of; I want us to be striving toward, not away, from something.

It also always reminds me of why we need real measures along a lifelong pathway, from a healthy birth, to a quality education, to a well-paying job, and to a healthy and secure aging. Such measures can tell us, community by community and not just nationwide, where people stand.

Canada,” Brooks reports, “reduced its official poverty rate by at least 20 percent” between 2015 and 2017, and the country today enjoys “its lowest poverty rate in history.” This was accomplished because the Canadians “organized their communities differently” and “adopted a specific methodology to fight poverty.”

I do like how the Canadians use the term “poverty” in a way that conveys a single, unifying target that all other targets can work toward. From my perspective, that’s the living wage that is increasingly part of the debate in the United States, across the spectrum of political ideology—spurred by our already high level of income inequality that continues to rise. (I’ll be devoting a blog post to the “living wage” in the near future.)

To contextualize the Canadian example for American readers, Brooks describes “what it’s often like in American poor areas”—and hits the nail on the head. “Everything is fragmented. There are usually a bevy of public and private programs doing their own thing. In a town there may be four food pantries, which don’t really know one another well. A common model is one-donor-funding-one-program. Different programs compete for funds.”

In my work here in the United States, I confront that sort of dysfunction all the time. The federal government will enact a policy and funnel millions of dollars into programs across the country, and then I find communities where a single donor—often someone who inherited a lot of money or sold a business for millions and believes she or he knows how to “fix” this or that ‘social problem’—dangles a sizable donation to an organization predicated on taking the group off mission for what that person believes is the “answer.”  In our sector, it’s hard to turn down almost any contribution given the day-to-day challenges the people they are serving face—so this ends up fueling programs to be distracted from their core work.

Brooks’ description gets to the core of so much of what’s wrong in what I have been referring to as our U.S. nonprofit industrial complex.

“They justify their existence using randomized controlled experiments, in which researchers try to pinpoint one input that led to one positive output. The foundation heads, city officials and social entrepreneurs go to a bunch of conferences, but these conferences don’t have much to do with one another.” In my own experience, the focus at these conferences is almost always on process, with little or no attention paid to the to-what-end question that seeks to answer what we’re really trying to accomplish for people.  Ideally, discussions of process at conferences should be only in the context of whether they are serving specific outcomes we seek, and if not, how they can be improved.

All in all, we end up missing out on opportunities for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. “Every day,” writes Brooks, organizations “give away the power they could have if they did mutually reinforcing work together to change whole systems.”

In other words, we lack a Common Purpose—whereas Canada seems to be embracing a social contract for the 21st century.

“About 15 years ago,” Brooks continues, “a disparate group of Canadians realized that a problem as complex as poverty can be addressed only through a multi-sector comprehensive approach. They realized that poverty was not going to be reduced by some innovation … It was going to be addressed through better systems that were mutually supporting and able to enact change on a population level.”

A focus on population-level change already puts the Canadian approach way ahead of how most efforts in the United States work.

“So [these Canadians] began building citywide and community-wide structures. They started 15 years ago with just six cities, but now they have 72 regional networks covering 344 towns.”

We’ve seen some movement in a similar direction in the United States—I gave some examples in a previous blog post—but it is far too little. Lots of things stand in the way in this country, most notably out-of-whack incentives that force U.S. programs to scrape for the same money rather than incentives to work together. And here in the United States we focus on education as the ultimate outcome, as opposed to achieving a living wage. I plan on taking up these and the other obstacles in future posts.

It’s also obvious that the Canadians have taken the to-what-end question to heart, which is absolutely critical to establishing measures along a pathway to achieving lifelong success. As Brooks describes it, “First … their focus is not on how do we give poor people food so they don’t starve. It is how do we move people out of poverty. Second, they up their ambitions. How do we eradicate poverty altogether? Third, they broaden their vision. What does a vibrant community look like in which everybody’s basic needs are met?”

They are addressing both giving people fish and teaching them to fish—as I described in another recent blog post. And it appears they’ve thought through this idea of a pathway and how each stakeholder needs to work together toward the Common Purpose. “A food pantry might turn itself into a job training center by allowing the people who are fed do the actual work. The pantry might connect with local businesses that change their hiring practices so that high school degrees are not required. Businesses might pledge to raise their minimum wage.”

All of this started at the community level. I am particularly impressed that community involvement was not sought in the form of input after decisions were made, but rather by engaging a substantial number of people from the community in the planning from the start. “They begin by gathering, say, 100 people from a single community. A quarter have lived with poverty; the rest are from business, nonprofits and government.”

Ultimately, writes Brooks, “The plans involve a lot of policy changes on the town and provincial levels—improved day care, redesigned transit systems, better workforce development systems.” The demonstrable successes spurred national action. “By the time Canada’s national government swung into action, the whole country had a base of knowledge and experience. The people in the field had a wealth of connections and a sense of what needed to be done.”

Brooks closes with some thoughts from Paul Born of The Tamarack Institute, “which pioneered a lot of this work …” Born “doesn’t think you can really do social change without a methodology, without creating community-wide collective impact structures.” Brooks adds to that: “But in many American communities we’re mostly scattershot. That’s the problem with our distrust and polarization. We often don’t build structures across difference. Transformational change rarely gets done.”

Finding Common Purpose is the key to breaking down that distrust and getting on with the business of transformational change. Canada has a lot of lessons to teach us here in the United States.

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