What’s Next in the Fight Against Poverty? How About Common Sense

by Feb 6, 2017Society

Amrit Dhillon

Amrit Dhillon is the vice president of communications at LIFT. She is responsible for the strategy and execution of internal and external communications, leading a team committed to engaging people across the country in LIFT’s antipoverty work by sharing stories, creating the right messages and building relationships that raise up the organization’s mission. Read more here.


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Former General Motors CEO John F. Smith once said, “We listened to what our customers wanted and acted on what they said. Good things happen when you pay attention.”

Like Smith, leaders in the private sector recognize the value of asking what consumers want – or don’t – and deliver against that or risk destroying their bottom line. Unfortunately, in the nonprofit space we sometimes fail to understand how critical that concept is, especially in human service organizations.

We presume expertise, or worse – ineptitude, on the part of the people we work with. The result is often not much more than gradual progress, on the micro and macro levels. But in the world’s largest and wealthiest economy, where 43 million people live below the poverty line, and more than four million of them are under the age of five, maybe it’s time to pay attention.

Over nearly 20 years, LIFT, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending intergenerational poverty, has connected 100,000 low-income individuals in cities across the country to the people, tools and resources they need. Over that time we’ve realized one key assumption: the families we serve often know best what they need. If we simply ask them what that is, we’re more likely to help them reach their goals.

So how do we do that? We borrow directly from the corporate sector and embrace customer feedback. And guess what, it works for nonprofits too.

Three years ago, LIFT rolled out Constituent Voice. It’s our methodology for systematically collecting responses and then looping that back into our program design and implementation. One way we collect comments is by asking members to complete quick, five to eight question surveys on an iPad each time they visit LIFT.

Another way we get feedback is through listening tours. Last year we engaged parents and caregivers around the country to find out what was most important for their families. The results? That they want the same things we’d argue every parent does, including:

  • Secure and stable housing in safe neighborhoods
  • Healthy parent/children interactions
  • Strong role models for their children
  • Strong social networks for themselves
  • Access to physical and mental health services and healthy food
  • High quality education for both themselves and their children

That’s no surprise given that today we are on the ground in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.; communities with some of the highest rates of concentrated poverty. From the South Side to the Bronx, our regions experience challenges common in most urban areas, including:

  • Affordable housing
  • Safety
  • Quality education and child care
  • Reliance on public transportation

Our approach in each of these cities is simple. We believe our members, the parents and caregivers we serve, should be the ones guiding the work because they are the chief architects and CEOs of their own families. Our simple goal is to help them reach theirs.

But it’s not just about identifying those big dreams or big problems. Another common theme we picked up on from simply asking? Low-income families want and need more than just a fiscal fix. Much like middle and upper class families, overcoming barriers and achieving aspirations aren’t predicated on money alone.

Using our experience, what we heard and emerging research, LIFT identified three key pillars to help empower families to break the cycle of poverty:

  • Personal well-being – Health (both physical and mental), resilience, confidence and efficacy, all of which are all critical to how an individual thrives.
  • Social connections – Healthy relationships formed among people, the community and institutions promote trust and belonging that can offer a shield from depression, anxiety and stress.
  • Financial strength – The ability to meet basic needs, obtain education, secure stable employment and understand the impact of building credit and savings, which increase a family’s capacity to achieve economic security.

Once again, common sense helped us establish a holistic approach that we think can actually make a long-term difference in a centuries-old battle to combat urban poverty.

So what next?

Asking the right questions and finding out what parents and caregivers need to start to make a better life for themselves and their children is only the first part. If our purpose is to help families achieve more stability and provide children with a better chance at mobility, there is another important – but equally simple – piece of the puzzle: relationships matter.

LIFT’s model is all about connecting our families to volunteers who act as coaches and engage one-on-one with them for as long as they need it. The goal is to build a trusted relationship with someone who becomes your advocate. (And that’s what we call them, advocates.) LIFT advocates help parents set objectives like securing a safe home, living wages or a better education. And then they connect them to the financial resources and networks they need to make those dreams a reality. Anchored by these supportive relationships, parents are able to build confidence, resilience, social connections and financial strength.

Is it working?

Through our customer feedback survey, we continuously ask questions around five categories:

1) Relationship quality

2) Service quality

3) Overall loyalty

4) Personal well-being

5) Social connections

That data, and behavioral science, tell us we’re on to something. LIFT members who work with an advocate are three times more likely to achieve their most important goals. Members’ social capital and self-efficacy showed improvement while working with LIFT. And over time, 40 percent of members report increased social connections and 50 percent report increased personal well-being after engaging with LIFT. That stronger social capital and self-efficacy also translates into more progress on goals, with high scorers on those traits completing twice as many as low scorers.

So, yes, poverty is complicated. But how we start to address it shouldn’t be.

We believe that if we simply ask families what they need and then mobilize the right partners and relationships, we can start to open doors, leverage resources and create real opportunities.

And that can only lead to “good things.”

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