In the nonprofit community, we often talk about our clients “falling through the cracks.” We spend a lot of time conducting case management sessions to help each and every client navigate “the system.” But, these are often only temporary fixes for our clients; the opportunity for better long-term outcomes lies in the system itself. If we fill the cracks and fissures in the system, we can make it easier for clients and the organizations serving them to be successful. At Social Impact Architects, we have spent the past three years redesigning systems in various communities for this reason. As the past two posts have shown – we are big fans of Bridges Out of Poverty. The book’s publisher offers training, called Bridges Out of Poverty, on the concepts presented in the book to help communities across the country redesign their systems. I attended their community training in Dayton, Ohio, and wanted to share some of the aha moments I had on how their approach can help communities. They call it the triple lens – individual, institution and community. By looking at poverty through all three lenses, you can create better outcomes across the board.

Individuals fall through cracks because communities are organized in silos.

This aha moment was validating for me. We have written in the past about why individuals are confronted with multiple, interconnected problems (e.g., health issues, low educational attainment, credit issues), yet we have stand-alone organizations to serve each problem. In some cases, these organizations refer to each other, but often they do not. Bridges has a facilitated process to work alongside organizations that do not traditionally work together (e.g., education, criminal justice, homelessness) to fill these cracks and focus more on collective success rather than individual success. Social Impact Architects uses our process of ecosystem mapping to help achieve the same goal in communities; it examines how we design an ideal system together, understand our current system opportunities and challenges, and work toward building a better system.

Institutions should re-think outcomes focused on declining economic well-being.

This aha moment was game-changing for me. Bridges’ viewpoint is that we should focus less on terminal outcomes (e.g., graduation rate, poverty rate) and more on intermediate measures (e.g., persistence in high school, multigenerational poverty rate) that highly influence terminal outcomes. How do we measure the early warning signs that individuals as well as our community are starting to decline? How do we implement solutions, monitor progress and continuously improve? This is the same conclusion that the Knight Foundation found in their seminal work on The Soul of a Community. Data is only good if it leads to insights that are used for better program design and evolution. What if we can collect data at mid-points, find likely failure points, and course correct as we go?

Communities themselves can have a poverty mindset.

This aha-moment was revolutionary for me. How many of our neighborhoods, communities and states are “just getting by”? Bridges shared some indicators of distress, including middle-class flight, lost manufacturing and rising food insecurity. When communities are faced with these challenges, it is easy to lose sight of the greater good. We fight (often literally) for our piece of the pie instead of working together to grow the pie? We put Band-Aids on problems rather than addressing root causes. We neglect long-term infrastructure investments over short-term gains. We jump on shiny, new projects instead of investing in our local capacity. It is important for policymakers to recognize that our own mindset may be what holds us back from accomplishing real change within communities.

Bridges Out of Poverty – whether we use it with clients, institutions or our communities – provides a thought-provoking lens to evaluate our system and determine whether or not it is a “bridge out of poverty.” It also helps everyone understand why individuals stay stuck and how our systems can be redesigned to better support movement out of poverty. We would love to hear your ideas about how your community has become a “bridge out of poverty” and how you tackle system-wide change.

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