LightbulbIn 1997, on my first day as a program developer at Phoenix House, a nationwide evidence-based substance abuse treatment program, I started to learn bottom-up program design. And, to ensure I really understood the journey of those we served, I spent a lot of time in our programs across Texas – participating in group counseling sessions at alternative schools, touring and talking with clients in prisons, and engaging as a mentor. And, I spent a lot of time with the data, asking difficult questions: why did some clients repeat offenses and some did not? Can you change the trajectory of a young person exposed to childhood trauma? These investigations started my love affair with research – and not just the research found in books, but that of lived experience. I spent a lot of time asking questions of addicts, homeless individuals and those that served them – social workers.

It wasn’t until I read Bridges Out of Poverty that the threads of this decade-long exploration came together. It is more than a book; it presents a refined model that suggests professionals and communities can systematically reduce poverty first by getting into the mindset of the customers they serve. The mental model provides a snapshot of the different daily experiences of Americans in poverty, the middle class and the wealthy.

And, for me, a lightbulb went off. I now understood why there are so many program misfires in the nonprofit space. We operate from our own mental model – which drives how we view the world as well as how we develop programs for others – even when they hold a different worldview. For example, I grew up in the middle class, so would, unintentionally, drive the goals of programs toward achievement, which may or may not have matched our clients’ values and interests.

The developers of Bridges Out of Poverty suggest that poverty isn’t about whether you are above or below a certain income, but instead about “the extent to which an individual does without resources.” These resources include a broad range and mirror many we use in the self-sufficiency matrix: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems and relationships. So, someone could have financial resources but lack other resources – leading to their own form of poverty.

Relationships Mental Model

For people in poverty (without many resources, including financial), the resources in the mental model are essential for survival, and tightly interconnected, so when one piece falls out of place, the rest of their lives are affected. It is why many of us in the space say that they are “living on the edge” or “one crisis away.” The model asserts that one of the ways people in poverty stabilize their lives when a resource is taken away or lost is by relying on relationships. Individuals reach out to family and friends to provide transportation to the doctor or child care when they are at work. One of the challenges the model developers found is that support is often withdrawn at the first signs of recovery when, in actuality, people’s lives are being held together by temporary agreements between friends. Ongoing support is needed during the transition to help people in poverty achieve their goals and ensure all the resources are stabilized together. Bridges Out of Poverty also does not assume that all people in poverty want to become middle class. The model simply suggests that people in poverty want their lives to be stable to the extent that they have a choice among resources – they can pay for child care or they can rely on relatives; they are not forced into the option that is cheapest or least resource-intensive.

So, as program or system designers, it is our role to present a system or program that allows for this choice. In fact, to create lasting impact for people in generational poverty, Bridges suggests that nonprofit organizations need to work together to provide supports long enough for individuals to achieve stability. To accomplish this system-level thinking, you can take one of two approaches. First, you can start from scratch by using design thinking exercises to better understand your client/customer and how to better design a system that works for them. Or, you can start with mapping exercises, like the one we created called ecosystem mapping or a similar one that Bridges suggests called the Community Sustainability Grid. It identifies key actors and strategies that must be addressed to systematically improve the lives of those in poverty. While nonprofit leaders can use the grid to assess the ways a particular organization creates change, it can also be used to identify areas that need additional support – either through a new organization or initiative of an existing nonprofit. Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can record peer organizations in the grid that are working to identify the gaps in key areas of services. Some cells in the grid will have multiple players, indicating potential market saturation in a particular area. Identifying all the actors in the early stages of planning can help entrepreneurs avoid duplication of services and address real, underserved needs in the community.

By addressing poverty in a systematic way and working with all actors involved, we can begin to make a real, lasting difference.

Our colleagues in the nonprofit sector come from all walks of life. By considering how our customers’ lives are affected by how we operate – our hours, location, policies, services – and really trying to understand, rather than judge their practical challenges, we can more effectively partner with them to find solutions on their own terms, not temporary fixes. We would love to hear how you’ve been a “bridge out of poverty” for your customers.


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