Mutual Accountability for Social Change is a monthly series exploring feedback in philanthropy with practical steps for donors. It serves as a primer for the 2021 publication of David Bonbright’s (co-founder and chief executive, Keystone Accountability) book on the emergence of mutuality — working on relationships and not just in them — as a breakthrough approach to philanthropy and social change.
The stories and advice are based on a 40-year journey to mutuality craft.
By David Bonbright
In May, Giving Compass shared how its impact philanthropy tenets can help us work toward a more just world. This framework, which focuses on equity, effectiveness, systems change, and transparency — fully aligns with the ideas of Mutual Accountability that I have been sharing in this series. But to what extent do nonprofits live by and communicate these principles?
To test this I turned to the recently published online annual report and website of LIFT, one of America’s most compelling anti-poverty warriors. All four principles shone out clearly, in a way that I think provides an inspiring benchmark that donors may use in their due diligence on any organization.
Equity – Ensuring resources and power are fairly redistributed so all humans experience dignity and opportunity.
The key word here is “redistributed.” The foundational equity issue for public policy and human services is one of leveling the playing field. LIFT focuses exclusively on helping those most marginalized in our society today. Put another way, to dismantle intergenerational poverty, LIFT is addressing the socioeconomic disparities that exist in society with an explicit understanding that race plays a role in inequitable systems.
To explain LIFT’s equity commitment in dollars and cents, the annual report notes that the average annual income for a LIFT parent is $15,700. LIFT provides resources and support to parents so they have access to the same opportunities for long-term success as others, whether that’s education or employment.
Effectiveness – Drawing on evidence, collecting feedback, and evaluating progress using quantitative and qualitative data.
LIFT’s approach ensures parents are at the decision-making table and sets out its evidence approach clearly as one of continuous learning that collects and analyzes three types of data: Process measures, outcome measures, and Constituent Voice. In 2017, it published “Constituent Voice: Fiscal Year 2016 Key Findings” that showed clearly that high member scores (i.e. deeper engagement with LIFT) predicted better progress on economic goals like increased earning, increased savings, and reduced debt.
Returning to the annual report:
For parents in our program who saw an increase in income [that’s 92 percent of “the families that walked through our doors”], the average annual increase was $14,360. Parents who improved their savings and debt reduction reported: $1,140 increase in savings and $1,750 decrease in debt.
Systems Change – Addressing institutional, systemic, and structural root causes to eliminate inequities in social outcomes.
Following the evidence trail from its work, LIFT arrived at a classic positive deviance solution to overcoming intergenerational poverty. It demonstrates a holistic approach that reforms the current system of human services to address three necessary building blocks for stable families: Personal well-being, financial strength, and social connections – or as LIFT called it at its 20th Anniversary gala: HOPE. MONEY. LOVE.
LIFT operates in several cities, including Chicago, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York – locations that each present unique conditions and challenges to families affected by poverty. To apply this to systems change, the message is clear: Its model to redress intergenerational poverty and the structures that perpetuate it works in diverse settings. LIFT achieves this, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, by “getting proximate” to its parents.
We know LIFT does this because the annual report tells us that its Constituent Voice surveys found that 91% of parents “believe they can turn to LIFT in a time of need.”
Transparency – Centering beneficiaries in the co-creation of solutions, ensuring integrity and accountability in processes and relationships.
LIFT is a poster child for this, though it would never utter the paternalistic usage of beneficiary, a term that in my view should be sequestered in its original domain of legal trusts (where, by the way, it conveys legally enforceable rights).
Here is how it describes its model for coaching support:
- All parents have the potential to achieve greatness. But equitable access to the resources and support they need to unlock that potential eludes low-income parents and their families.
- LIFT parents are the CEOs of their families. They know what’s best for their children, and what they need to succeed. That’s why we partner with parents, listen to them, invest in them, and build solutions together.
- Our program is designed for parents, by parents.
Imagine with LIFT co-founder Kirsten Lodal and CEO Michelle Rhone-Collins where we would be if all 6 million families living in poverty today in America had access to support and opportunity for long-term success like LIFT parent Ismane Fleurant did?
Whether you’re using your dollars to tackle intergenerational poverty or any number of causes, you can expect the nonprofits that you support to show how they live out these four principles of impact philanthropy as they work toward meaningful change.
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