Reframing our Purpose to Be More Transformative for People and Families

  • By Anand Dholakia, March 30, 2018

This year, the GEO community celebrates 20 years of making meaningful progress together. Throughout the next year, you’ll hear directly from members on what they’re grappling with, what they’re excited about and why they keep coming back to our community. Check back here each month for a new Perspectives post, and watch you inbox for more details on special 20th Anniversary opportunities.

Ever wonder whether your work is really making a difference?

I had the good fortune to participate in GEO’s Capacity Building Champions around the same time Andrew Wolk, our CEO, began interrogating our intermediary and consulting role and Root Cause launched a corresponding internal theory of change process. As part of that effort, I began reflecting more on my experiences getting to know our clients’ beneficiaries via focus groups, interviews, and site visits. I also reflected on my time volunteering with homeless families and sought out a local poverty simulation event to empathize with those whose lives we sought to improve.

Something seemed off. While Root Cause drove one initiative after another with apparent success, we had neglected to first understand the day-to-day lived reality of people and families and use it to shape our work. Did they believe their lives were improving? When I reframed my work in that perspective, I began to see a clear disconnect. I had been working to eliminate hardships from people’s lives, yet I did not grow up experiencing comparable hardships, nor did I live or work in struggling neighborhoods. I had few personal relationships and spent little time working directly with people who may be experiencing economic, education, health or other challenges.

This disconnect enabled me to maintain my preconceived notions of the people we aim to help. It also justified my work on numerous one-off ‘solutions,’ including but not limited to: business planning, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, social enterprise, scaling impact, capacity building, leadership development, many models for collaboration and coordination, countless technology platforms, evidence-based practice, and data for continuous improvement.

No doubt, these ‘solutions’ provide value to organizations, leaders and communities. The problem lies in approaching them as isolated silver bullets and justifying their importance to peoples’ lives after the fact. We had approached these solutions as ends in themselves versus as various means to the ultimate end of improving lives. We had been putting the cart before the horse.

As Root Cause began to question our purpose, it was critical we ask ourselves: How can we improve the lives of people and families in a way that they actually notice the difference, address growing disparities, and do that at scale across a neighborhood, town, county or even beyond? The GEO Capacity Building Champions program offered the opportunity to share these perspectives with foundation leaders. We discussed: “If we were to clarify the ultimate end, how might we approach capacity building differently as a means toward that end?”

At Root Cause, our approach now begins with a clear “North Star”: improving peoples’ and families’ lives through the successful achievement of life milestones along a pathway from a healthy birth to a quality education to a well-paying job. We believe a pathways approach can help all of us whose work aims to improve people’s lives by serving as a common frame of reference for action and results.

The “North Star” emphasizes the conditions that support or hinder people’s opportunity to achieve those milestones. It focuses especially on the equity challenge of how people disproportionately experience conditions based on race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, geography, and other factors. People do not face one social issue at a time, and their identities and context are often intricately intertwined.

A pathways approach provides clarity on our purpose and helps us better understand what is most necessary to help people and families achieve certain milestones. This can include possibilities like improved program quality, more available space in programs, more supportive policies, reduced barriers, and other issues we may not be aware of.

We now see our work only as the means to a larger end. Most importantly, we cannot do this effectively without meaningfully engaging people and families as partners in understanding the issues and planning, implementing, and evaluating our work. We now consider the irony in claiming we are too busy or too far removed to engage with people’s lives while striving to improve those very lives.

We are now beginning to apply this approach in our work. For example, we are a partner in the Get Ready Guilford Initiative, which is building a countywide early childhood system in Guilford County, North Carolina to advance outcomes along a pathway from birth to 60 months for all county residents. Led in partnership by local intermediary Ready for School, Ready for Life and The Duke Endowment, the initiative’s long-term goal is to ensure that each child in Guilford County enters the next phase of the pathway, kindergarten, on track and ready to learn.

Root Cause’s role is to strengthen and coordinate a cohort of public and nonprofit early childhood programs such as parenting workshops, home visiting, nutrition counseling, and prenatal health care. In just the first few months, the pathways approach has led us to take on our role vastly differently than we would have in the past, as outlined in the table below.

Before: “Traditional” Approach After: Pathways Approach
Ask: “Which programs should we select for the cohort and how can we build their capacity?” Ask: “What do families need most to improve their early childhood outcomes, and how can we best support that via our role?”
Interview select local stakeholders and jump into our work Study Ready/Ready’s family focus group and interview notes, examine population and transportation maps, and crisscross the county with a rental car and cell phone camera to establish context and understand the barriers that families face
Develop a premise for how to work with the program cohort Engage families in the design and execution of our work with the programs
Focus on nonprofit programs ‘in need’ of capacity support Prioritize programs with significant reach and leverage in the early childhood system, including both nonprofit and public programs housed within county and state agencies
Define and assess program “quality” based primarily on evidence-based practice Reframe program “quality” to also include effective referrals, accessibility, and customer service, that families emphasized as their most critical early childhood service challenges

We believe there is great potential in the pathways approach, and have set out to learn from promising practices across the country that reflect elements of a life course pathway. We hope that this work yields a common sense of purpose, more effective practices, and a way to align our efforts for all of us working to improve people’s lives.

Anand Dholakia is a Principal at Root Cause. He currently leads Root Cause’s support of a national portfolio of 50 W.K. Kellogg Foundation grantee organizations that are improving family economic security via a combination of direct services, systems change, research and technical assistance.