Fifth in a series of six.
The narrative that the best way to help people is to look for what is going wrong in their lives is flawed. The narrative that we can solve poverty with top-down solutions or programs is also flawed. Both of those narratives are based on the false impression that those who experience poverty are helplessly stuck there, not knowing what to do. But as pointed out in the second of this series, the census bureau studies have consistently found that the average duration that a person or family lives in poverty is only six months, with more than 96 percent working their way out of poverty within three years.
So since the vast majority of families already know how to get jobs and get out of poverty, why don’t we trust them to show us what is working for them? Why don’t we just find out what they are doing and give them some of what we spend trying to help them, so they can continue to more independent lives? With few if any benefits available to them once they escape official poverty, they predictably fall back into poverty when their hours are cut, their car breaks down or they are hit with some other unexpected expense.
Internationally, one organization, Give Directly, has shown that giving funds directly to families in poverty leads to good decisions and outcomes. They have done pre and post surveys to gauge the progress made by those investments. Getting direct feedback from those we are targeting for change also worked for the California Endowment when it wanted to increase awareness about Obamacare.
The Family Independence Initiative, FII, collects ongoing feedback from low-income families and, based on the initiatives those families are taking to escape poverty, it invests in those initiatives. Incomes jump more than 20 percent within two years and kids do better in school as the family becomes more economically stable. In all these cases, direct feedback from targeted families can improve the outcomes that funders and programs want.
But this information plays two other very significant roles. In the case of FII, the families get to see their own progress data in real time somewhat like the progress reports used by Fitbit and Mint.com. FII has learned from business how to use cloud-based real time technologies to make information available to users. That information feedback is a great motivator. The enrolled families appreciate seeing their own progress and accomplishments and some provide the data monthly as a way to gain more control over their lives.
There is one more advantage of collecting ongoing information directly from families. It seems that people like to know what their friends and neighbors are doing. One of the strongest motivators is “keeping up with the Jones’s”. There are studies about the behavioral concept called FOMO or “fear of missing out.” The actions that our friends and neighbors take strongly impacts each of us. At times their success could inspire us or make us envious but role models can change our entire perspective on the possibilities of life. In FII, evaluators have found that seeing the ways that peers are succeeding has been the biggest driving force that motivates enrolled families to take initiative and improve their own lives.
In most groupings of people there are what are referred to as “positive deviants” or those that succeed where others haven’t. When those examples are shared, others take up the idea, and the best ideas form new paths towards economic independence.
The ways that technology has added to this reality is that people now do searches on the internet for solutions to what they face. FII families are doing the same. They search for peers who might have succeeded in buying a home and then reach out to get advice or support. Basically, FII is “crowd sourcing” solutions to poverty.
Times have changed. Technology gives business a way of better understanding the demands of their customers and so business has developed ways of analyzing data, predicting future purchases of customers and of improving what they sell or do. The social sector, both the funders and programs they fund, are way behind. Yet the funders have the resources to expand their own use of technology and encourage, even require, programs to update their use of information technology. Even more important is that funders can now skip the nonprofits as the sources of information but instead funders can go directly to the targeted families they seek to help.
As the above examples indicate, if families have a direct voice and their opinions are heard, it begins to empower them, encourage more initiative and more home grown solutions. We as a sector can begin to learn from the families we seek to help, which will bring about a dramatic paradigm shift in how we address poverty and socio-economic mobility.
But the most dramatic shift will come from the families themselves. Technology now allows them to learn from one another, reach out and help one another. Networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn as well as the networking site UpTogether developed by FII, allows families to see what others are doing, to connect and share and support one another. We can truly start to crowd source solutions and funders can then follow those trends. There won’t be as much need for new “theories of change” or top-down innovation. The funding can go straight to on the ground solutions. The innovation will be bottom up and those are the changes that can lead to changing expectations and behaviors in entire communities.