In a 2015 article, New York Times writer Eduardo Porter, noting that one in 20 Americans fall below the poverty line, deftly summarized the poverty research of Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond: “Deep poverty … is an ecosystem, where bad individual decisions occur within broken environments, where the social glue has come unstuck.”
“Indeed, deep poverty has no single, or most important cause—not family, neighborhood, job or education. Plucking at one or the other, alone, won’t do.”
The UN’s Multidimensional Poverty Index was first published in 2010, highlighting the need to understand and address aspects besides traditional monetary measures of poverty. This approach challenges the commonly held assumption that poverty can be fixed by addressing a single cause—low incomes.
The “deep poverty” that Desmond describes is persistent, where severe deprivations across multiple dimensions collectively ensnare individuals in poverty. Government and social programs provide many basic services but often fail to adequately consider the linkages between them.
Social entrepreneurs working with vulnerable populations have learned the hard way that addressing the full range of supports a community needs can be resource-intensive. The longer they work with a community, the more apparent it becomes that the issues are all interconnected—health, housing, education, income-generating opportunities, etc. A multidimensional problem demands a multidimensional solution, but comprehensive solutions can quickly become expensive and challenging to scale to new communities and geographies.
Friends-International works with marginalized urban children and youth, their families, and communities to help young people become functional, productive citizens. When Friends first began work in Cambodia, it noticed that the young people it was working with were facing a wide range of connected issues. In Cambodia, there were few social services available to vulnerable youth, so Friends decided to build those services itself. The organization soon found itself offering a range of vocational training, protection, social services, and placement opportunities in businesses established by Friends partners.
As its work expanded to other countries, Friends soon realized that it had to adjust its approach. It learned that what worked in one context might not be an appropriate or effective approach somewhere else.
“In Indonesia, we depended largely on connecting to others since there are a lot of services already in place. There was no need to build your own services, but what you needed to do was build access to those services—building your network,” says Sébastien Marot, Founder and Executive Director at Friends-International.
Marot found that the trick was to identify gaps and create the necessary linkages. In the Indonesian ecosystem, both the government and civil society organizations were already providing significant services to a great portion of the population. Friends worked with youth that fell through the cracks in the system; instead of trying to replicate existing services, it focused on helping excluded youth access what already existed.
“Starting in Cambodia was a little special because you could explore and try things out yourself. It was easier than if we had first started in an existing ecosystem like Indonesia. We probably would not have built the same type of organization there,” Marot reflected.
For Friends, making the linkages to important social services meant the creation of The ChildSafe Alliance, an alliance of NGOs and government services working together to ensure that vulnerable youth and their families had access to the holistic set of services they needed to thrive.
Health Leads focuses on medical patients’ social needs as a unique approach to effective healthcare delivery, helping health systems play a direct role in addressing some of the root causes of poor health beyond the walls of the hospital. It establishes desks at healthcare institutions that enable doctors to “prescribe” social and economic services like food stamps, fuel assistance, low-income housing, and other resources that affect the health outcomes of low-income Americans.
After proving its model with a handful of early partners, Health Leads turned its eye towards the future, envisioning a US healthcare sector using its influence and purchasing power to advocate for the social services the poor need to be healthy. While it could have sought to scale the reach of its direct service, Health Leads engaged influencers in the field.
“We think of scale in terms of impact, not as replication of an activity. We didn’t need to be running a million desks; we needed a few clutch partners,” says Kelly Hall, Managing Principal of Transformative Impact at Health Leads.
Health Leads soon began spreading its help desk concept to other health systems, including a strategic partnership with Kaiser Permanente, to begin cultivating an ecosystem where addressing social needs might become a “new normal” in healthcare delivery.
For Friends-International and Health Leads, scaling impact beyond early successes and partnerships means building coalitions. In convening like-minded actors, they are able to empower others to replicate and adapt core tenets of their innovations without their own direct involvement. Learning from each other yet operating in their own unique environments, coalition organizations are able to spread the original innovation much further than either Friends or Health Leads could do on their own.
“To be authentic to our mission, we have to bring all sorts of actors to the table. The sector would be better off if more organizations were doing what Health Leads is doing,” says Hall.
Drawing from their credibility as direct service providers, social entrepreneurs play a unique role in building others up to carry out their work in new communities and parts of the world. At first glance this appears to be a cost-effective maneuver, but while not as capital-intensive as providing additional services themselves, the coalition-building process can be operationally intensive. Creating a platform, convening the right actors, and building trust amongst coalition members can consume a great deal of resources.
So how does a social entrepreneur build a successful coalition? The key is to center the coalition’s goals and framework around a core methodology without creating a top-down structure. Recognizing that coalition members can only be successful through self-management and deep understanding of their beneficiaries, the social entrepreneur must assume the role of convener.
“You need to look at what exists. Mobilizing the network becomes strategic to grow impact through others and change the system,” explains Marot.
Empowering service delivery organizations to take ownership of the coalition requires careful planning on the part of the social entrepreneur. There is delicate consideration involved in bringing together the right people and knowing which core elements to reinforce while opening up others to each organization’s own interpretation and application. In doing so, a guiding mission is created while giving coalition members the flexibility and respect they need to operate as equals under that framework.
Creating the backbone of the coalition comes with some financial considerations as well. Working with a diverse set of actors often involves the development of informational materials and communication tools. The value of face-to-face interaction cannot be overstated, and that physical convening effort, too, requires capital.
Fundraising for coalition-building work can be challenging given that donors are often output-oriented, meaning that they want their dollars to go directly to service provision. As such, it is essential for convening organizations to be strategic about obtaining the support of funding partners that fully back their coalition-building strategy.
Poverty is a complex issue and social entrepreneurs understand that in order to drive large-scale change, partnerships and collaboration are essential to address the many dimensions affecting the lives of the poor. They must bring like-minded actors to the table who, together, can provide the wide range of services vulnerable populations so desperately need. Successful coalitions, though built around a social entrepreneur’s original framework, are fueled by relationships and the flexibility each organization has to adapt concepts to its own context.
As we continue to grow our understanding of the interconnectedness of poverty-related issues, it is essential that we spotlight the places where social entrepreneurs are able to connect these dots and build a more just future for the world’s poor.