Ending Poverty Demands New Thinking

North Highland wants to create sustainable, long-term economic empowerment in the communities in which we live and work. Our end goal is to help stop poverty before it starts and we’ve made that goal our philanthropic mission.

We’re now 18-months into our journey, with several philanthropy pilots under our belts and new ones underway.

Lifting people out of poverty is a tough slog. It’s a complicated and humbling process, and no single individual or group has all the answers – more on our learnings shortly.  We’re excited to launch three additional pilots this year. In San Francisco, we’re focusing on ending youth homelessness by working with the largest provider of services for homeless youth. In Tallahassee FL, our efforts will transform outcomes for the working poor with a leading community partner; and in the mid-West, we’re finalizing the scope of our initiative.  Each will explore the potential for large-scale, disruptive impact, leveraging interest and/or involvement from the public and private sectors, along with corporate, private and community foundations.

In 2017, we set out to explore ways to disrupt poverty using our consulting expertise. Because we’re a business consulting firm, we’re approaching the fight against poverty the same way we approach complex business problems – using competencies such as data and analytics, strategy and transformation, performance improvement, and program management.

Partnering with a variety of community partners in the U.S. and U.K., our first year pilots tackled issues impacting a non-profit working with former foster-care youth, looked at the role of innovation in putting large groups of under- and unemployed people back to work, sought to improve the efficacy of workforce development programs in one of the largest cities in the nation, refocused workshops helping veterans find and maintain employment, and overhauled the core intervention program for inner-city youth. In the process, we learned some interesting insights which guided our selection of fewer, but bigger and more impactful, pilots for 2018.

Business Skills Matter Having a beating heart for a cause isn’t enough. We say this with great respect for the groups we worked alongside. Passion and caring are table stakes in poverty intervention but strategy, analytics and execution are as – if not more - critical.  In several of our pilots these fundamental business traits were missing, resulting in programs that didn’t deliver transformative outcomes.

Collaboration Drives Better ResultsWhat if non-profits with a similar mission worked together to accelerate scale, growth and outcomes? That was the premise of one of our pilots, albeit with mixed results. Our initial thinking about bringing a group of non-profits together was a step in the right direction. But due to high variance in size, scope and need, we had to extensively customize our approach. What if a next step was to gain consensus from funders to only support those non-profits which partnered, including sharing plans and metrics for program outcomes to eliminate redundancies. Might such an approach be more efficient and drive faster, better results?

Leaders Lead We strongly advocate for a respected, strong leader at the helm of any non-profit, particularly those where multiple stakeholders are tackling economic mobility initiatives. This is not the time to rule by committee because the work will simply not get done. Successful companies have unambiguous decision rights’ frameworks. Non-profits would benefit from adopting similar models.

You Can Lead a Horse to WaterAnother of our findings is that the rush toward social enterprise is irresistible to many non-profits. When central to mission, social enterprise works. When pursued as a revenue play to stay afloat it can be problematic. We counseled against a social enterprise pursuit in another of our pilots since it was not central to mission and had associated liability risk, but our advice was ignored. We wonder how many non-profits are acting contrary to expert advice they’re given, and whether funders are aware of such plans. Non-profit boards must play a stronger part in questioning social enterprise pursuits.

The Need for SpeedStaff turnover and lengthy delays in making decisions hobble non-profits. Executive directors who get involved in every facet of decision-making and struggle to delegate are their own worst enemies. Here, again, is where a board should be vigilant to ensure their non-profit’s most senior person is not attempting to do all the work, and that the right staff have been hired for the right jobs.

Size Matters Micro non-profits with their 1:1 outreach approach cannot make sizable impact. They struggle to fund-raise, face constant staff burnout, lack required business smarts, and waste energy competing for funds. Candidly, they should merge or dissolve.

Not HelplessOur last takeaway is perhaps the most critical. People in poverty or at-risk, may feel hopeless but they are not helpless. They must share responsibility for their climb out of poverty – and many want to. Non-profits on the leading edge of poverty disruption are those which mandate accountability from those they serve.  Such an approach ensures educational and job goals are met, addiction recovery is pursued where necessary, positive social networks are built, parenting and financial skills classes are taken, and that a stipend or other ‘sweat equity’ goes toward room and board for those in transitional housing. We’re closely following the success of these leading non-profits whom we view as models for others.

We’re excited by the opportunity to make a difference and we welcome comments from interested parties in our endeavors.