What’s the Best Tool for Ending Poverty? Hint: It’s Not a Tool

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Fall, 2011; Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review | In a new essay, longtime urban development leader Ben Hecht reflects on the evolution of his thinking about how to transform the lives of low-income people. Noting that he spent much of his professional career in search of the answer, the magic lever, he initially concluded “it” was safe, affordable housing. Later, he shifted to viewing strong community organizations as key agents of transformation. Still later, he advocated for the Internet as the most impactful tool for ending poverty. At each stage, his high-profile advocacy influenced public policy and philanthropic investment patterns. Now he believes the very metaphor of lever, or tool, is faulty, and that his search was as doomed as the quest for the Holy Grail.

For the past four years, Hecht has been President/CEO of the Living Cities funding collaborative. Initially organized 20 years ago as the National Community Development Initiative, it brought national foundations and financial institutions together to scale up investment in promising neighborhood development efforts and to shape federal programs to yield additional community development resources. The main focus of collaboration was to grow both project investment and organizational capacity of community development corporations in U.S. cities.

More recently, Living Cities has intentionally worked to shift its focus away from solely financial investment in “proven” tools for community development. It is moving to cultivate deep collaboration that coordinates not only funding but also expertise and influence; not only among funders but also between funders and local organizations, and among local organizations. The operating metaphor is an ecosystem. The purpose of collaboration is to connect many players, across sectors, who can sustain effective work over the long haul to address complex issues.

Admittedly, the shift in thinking is full of buzzwords. And the concepts are being tested in just five pilot cities as the “Integration Initiative.” But the effort catches our attention because it addresses several critiques about the nonprofit funding environment that we’ve covered recently; over-infatuation with “innovation”; the Social Innovation Fund’s focus on “scaling up” vs. “seeding” new ideas; and problems caused when funders require pre-set program outcomes outside of the host community context. Notably, the Integration Initiative establishes shared learning as a direct, funded goal; it doesn’t specify which strategies grantees should prioritize, and local expertise appears to be respected as both a means and an end for social change. Are you seeing this ecosystem framework elsewhere? Is the metaphor helpful?—Kathi Jaworski