“I don’t subscribe to the notion that these two things are tradeoffs.”

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“Which would you want for your own child: a backpack … or reading proficiency?” I posed that question as part of a three-post series a few weeks back; taken together, parts 1, 2, and 3 encapsulate my thinking about the key question I want to inspire readers, and those of us involved in the work of improving people’s lives, to grapple with: To what end? If you haven’t already done so, I hope you’ll read those three posts, which are crucial to everything I’ve been writing about.

In those posts, I discussed the importance of understanding the different kinds of work we do in our sector, some of which is the first line of support to help people meet basic needs and some is more specific to helping people advance to meet milestones along a lifelong pathway, including being born healthy, acquiring a quality education, securing a well-paying job, and living a healthy and secure life. Each, I wrote, is essential, as is drawing a distinction between the types of work we do.

The juxtaposition of “backpack or reading proficiency” was clearly on the minds of some Root Cause team members at one of our recent monthly meetings we now hold to discuss Finding Common Purpose and the work we do.

I’ve asked the team to get together monthly as a forum for extending how we think about Root Cause’s role in improving lives, given we are only one player within a complex set of systems and organizations. I welcome these discussions for the sound additional thinking and alternative points of view they provide that, in turn, help me sharpen my ideas and focus more on that key question: To what end?  

I did not realize at the time that what I had written would elicit so many different points of view, but I’m glad it did. I had used the example of a program that provides free backpacks to students at a school and posed this question: “If a child in the third grade gets a backpack but is reading at a kindergarten level, what difference did the backpack really make?”

I think that over the course of the conversation we all came to understand that giving a backpack and teaching to read at a certain level of proficiency were not just standalone things, but also proxies for other kinds of help—one addressing a more immediate need and another something more long term.

The discussion opened with some of my staff wondering whether I had put the organization that distributed the backpacks in a “bad light” and thus, by extension, was diminishing more generally the work of certain types of “direct service organizations.” Some team members wondered whether I was elevating “teaching how to fish” above “giving a fish,” and in doing so mischaracterizing some types of direct service work by making it seem less necessary than other efforts that move people along a pathway to lifelong success.  

We should be giving backpacks filled with school supplies to children who have no other way of getting that stuff. That was the sentiment of some of the people in the room. It helps those kids not feel left out and builds confidence and stronger development at school, one staff member noted.

“We should frame direct service work in a different way,” one staff member said, “to make clear that we need these services because the system isn’t working. But once the system’s working we won’t need them as much.” Another Root Cause staff member told of a philanthropic organization that helps provide what it considers to be “essentials” to kids coming to her school district and giving backpacks to her own kids—backpacks they didn’t need, but that they brought home. She wondered whether she had taken scarce resources from someone else. Another staff member declared, “I don’t subscribe to the notion that these two things are tradeoffs.” The backpack versus proficiency question, added another, “feels shameful to have to answer.”

All these different comments had me thinking some team members had missed what I had written in the post: that “the ‘handoff’ between the two needs to be seamless so people can continue to survive as they move toward thriving.” I thought I had made clear that I was not elevating one over the other, but instead stating how they need to work together. And as a team member noted in the meeting, ideally we’re making sure organizations aren’t working separately.

It ended up that my team helped me realize that simple metaphors don’t capture the complexity of the work the social sector does. I had raised the metaphor initially for the express purpose of exposing its flaws—particularly that it seems to pose a false binary choice—and instead to explore more deeply the distinctions between “giving” and “teaching” and where they intersect and are reinforcing.

Toward the end of the meeting, I shared that I believe all of us whose work is helping make a difference in people’s lives—nonprofits, philanthropies, and the government—need to be more self-reflective about what we’re doing at this moment, at this time when the country really needs all of us. It’s not a choice between meeting basic needs and putting people on a pathway, but about doing both to serve the same end successfully, which in turn demands that our work be measured so we can see whether we’re making progress. And in this context, progress means more people on the lifelong pathway to success and a reduction in disparities, which in turn means fewer people needing help fulfilling basic needs.

Since I began writing this blog, some of my most satisfying experiences have been talking with people who are engaged in self-reflection about the work they’re doing to improve people’s lives. We are dealing with complex issues that present difficult choices that deserve serious discussions that I believe will result in better outcomes in the work we do. At its core, that’s my blog’s purpose: for all of us to be more self-reflective about our work and ask ourselves: To what end?

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