Looking to Low-Income Families for Solutions

I first got to know David Henderson when we both wrote from Change.org, which then had lively blogs on poverty and homelessness. Before and since, he’s used his formidable technical and analytic skills to help nonprofits collect and use data to measure outcomes.

That, of course, is what donors want. But David’s main concern has been to help his clients maximize their impact on the causes of poverty and its personal harms.

He recently steered his career in a different direction — for reasons that are, at the very least, thought-provoking.

Basically, he’s rejected our predominant social services system because, he says, it is “based on a misguided paradigm … of providing solutions to distressed ‘clients’ in ‘need’ of answers.” This, he adds, “doesn’t only oversimplify the poor, it plainly gets them wrong.”

The organization he’s joined — the Family Independence Initiative — seeks to learn what families do when they, rather than case managers or other social workers have “control over their paths forward.” And it seeks to learn from them “what works — and what doesn’t.”

Quite a role reversal here. Families set their own goals and decide what actions to take. The FII liaisons, as they’re called, just listen and sometimes ask questions to gather stories and deeper understanding.

Deeper understanding — for the families themselves, as well as FII — comes from online journals they add to monthly. They input information on things like income and savings, education and skills, health, housing and, very importantly, leadership and connections.

“Very importantly” because FII seeks to strengthen relationships participants have with friends and relatives. To this end, participants are responsible for forming groups, which in one way or another, provide mutual support, accountability, advice, resources and the like.

Families get paid a modest amount for sharing information via their online journals — some capital they can invest in their further progress, FII’s founder and CEO explains. The organization in turn develops resources to help families achieve what they themselves have chosen as priorities and to meet needs they have identified.

These resources include an online community that enables participants who’ve initiated actions of various sorts to share successes and how they achieved them — and for other participants to seek advice.

FII will also link participants who’ve started — or want to start — small businesses to lenders it’s partnered with. And it provides support for lending circles, i.e., self-formed groups of people who contribute to and can then take interest-free money out of the pot they’ve all created.

The FII approach isn’t altogether novel. As I’ve mentioned before, pilot projects in developing countries have given cash to some very poor people, who, for the most part, used it to improve their lives — sometimes by starting businesses, developing their skills, building savings and the like, sometimes by paying for basic needs like food, clothing and housing.

But, as we can see from the project evaluations — and in at least some cases, the project designs — the cash-givers had preconceived notions of what the poor people should do (and not) with the money. Reported successes clearly reflect their value judgments.

What FII says it’s doing seems quite different. It’s what’s known, David told me, as demand-driven philanthropy, i.e., investments in what families are already doing to improve their lives and communities.

What will come of FII’s approach remains to be seen. What it will learn also, though one thing it clearly has learned is to refrain from helping families avoid seeming mistakes.

What it learns isn’t an end in itself, however. The organization aspires to “transform stereotypes, beliefs, practices, and policies that undermine families’ efforts to get ahead.” Learning, in other words, has to reach deep into the social services system and the minds of decision-makers that shape it.

A tall order for one relatively small nonprofit. And it’s encountered pushback from professionals, as well as cold shoulders from prospective funders.

But the challenge it poses to the prevalent model, the stories it shares and the data David crunches could provide a needed antidote to programs that in principle and/or practice treat low-income people as lesser beings who don’t know what’s best for them — and won’t do it unless their benefits are at stake.

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