Social Connectedness / 2013

LIFTing up Constituent Voice to positively impact poverty perception practice and policy

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by LIFT-Los Angeles

LIFT believes that all people, regardless of socio-economic status, need the following three-dimensional supports to overcome poverty’s cycle of crisis and move ahead in life: economic resources (money in our pocket); internal capabilities (self-confidence, problem solving skills ); strong community networks (people in our corner). When clients come to LIFT-LA for support (to secure housing, food security, employment, educational opportunities) they are immediately connected with a trained volunteer advocate who partners with them to navigate through the complex social service delivery systems and map to economic security. LIFT-LA’s premise is that 1) we all have shaky ground moments, regardless of income, and deserve the same types of support in times of crisis— dignified and caring support; 2) constituent voice is needed to devise systems and allocate funds that will effectively move people out of the cycle of poverty; and 3) an empathetic response unleashes potential for both individual and institutional change. To turn up the volume on constituent voice to debunk the myths of poverty and erect more sound policy, our big idea is to bring the constituent voice to the forefront of informing and reforming the way we address poverty in LA. Myth: Poor people do not have a voice. Author and activist, Arundhati Roy states that "there is no such thing as the voiceless. There are the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard." There is much that nonprofits can learn from the for profit sector about the benefits of acting on customer feedback. Companies, who are more responsive see profit margins 30-40% higher than those who do not take satisfaction into account. These gains are transferable to the human service delivery. The Gates Foundation, for instance, has found that the best way to test teacher effectiveness is, well, to ask the students. Furthermore, there is direct correlation with academic performance. Applied to our social service delivery system, it makes sense that if clients are able to rate their experience, it would inform and drive more efficient and effective programs that will better the outcomes for clients and communities. LIFT-LA will develop an interface (like a Yelp App) to scale constituent voice that the county can use to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs and expenditures, and that funders can use to guide their philanthropy. Social service delivery programs will be incentivized to properly serve their customer! Myth: Only poor people face life challenges. The reality is that life is complicated for everyone no matter what race, gender, income level, zip code. So much time is spent trying to keep the pieces together--with child care, lawyers, accountants, personal assistants, family and friends-- in order to keep up the appearance having it together. LIFT-LA’s Shaky Ground Moment campaign invites celebrities and high profile public figures (those who are at the forefront of keeping up appearances) to speak up about their shaky ground moments in order to uncover a shared understanding about what we all need in order to get by in crisis—moral and material support from our networks. By elevating their voice in a way that we are not accustomed to, we strip down the sense that needing to reach out for support is a condition of poverty, while heightening the realization that a holistic and humanitarian response is as vital as material resources in times of need. Myth: Poor people are weak and lazy and systems are there to help. In reality, poverty is complicated and getting help should not be, but low-income individuals often find themselves lacking the knowledge of overcomplicated matrix of community resources to find solid footing. In order to challenge assumptions and change perception, LIFT has developed a simulation called LIFTopolis, a city where social service providers are understaffed, underfunded, and overburdened by unmanageable caseloads, much like what occurs in real life. The participants in this exercise—policymakers, philanthropists, social services professionals, etc—assume the identity, circumstances, budget, and goals of a real LIFT client navigating a room of service providers and trying to achieve their objectives (e.g. housing for the family, stable income, nutritional assistance for their children, etc). Through the experience participants gain a greater understanding of what low-income families need from a system, and they collectively build new solutions that can be taken to market and tested. Government did not design the social service system from a human-centered perspective, and thus is unable to address complicated and interconnected problems, or foster trusting relationships between service providers and the families that most need help. The Shaky Ground Campaign, LIFT Yelp App, and the LIFTopolis simulation will bring the client voice and experience at the core of guiding practice and policy change.

What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

LIFT is a national organization that was founded over fourteen years ago. Since its founding, LIFT has helped over 70,000 low income community members work side by side with volunteer advocates to help them achieve their goals. Today, LIFT operates 11 resource centers in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.. Over the last decade, LIFT has established a track record of success in supporting families on their path to economic security. In Fiscal Year 2012, 730 advocates helped 11,000 individuals and families move forward on path to economic self-sufficiency. At a time when the economic climate makes the job market hard to enter, affordable housing hard to find, and resources hard to secure, LIFT is telling a different story for its clients. Last year, LIFT generated $13.7 million in wage increases, tax refunds, public benefits, and housing assistance for its clients, providing $1,245 in value for the average client.

As David Bornstein wrote in the New York Times (January 2012), “If the American Dream is to be resuscitated for many of nation’s poor, there is a great deal that we can learn from LIFT.” LIFT’s socially innovative model has received national and local attention -In the NYTimes, Huffington Post, and other publications. -At gatherings of thought leaders like the Milken Global Conference, LA 2050's Meet Up on Income and Employment, and Chicago Ideas. -LIFT ED, Michelle Rhone-Collins, was also able to get a mention of LIFT-LA on HBO’s Enlightened -LIFT-LA has been on KIRN, Persian Radio, is soon to be on KPFK, and has garnered interest from KCRW field reporters—all with the idea of getting the stories of what our clients face daily in order to break the stereotypes and create understanding.

After 5 years of feasibility study, a thorough environmental scan performed by Nike Irvin, and seed funding from the Goldhirsh Foundation, we have recently open up our landmark LA office in January 2013 with a beautiful ceremony held in March 2013.

LIFT-LA’s executive director was able to secure space in the reputable and like-minded Magnolia Place Family Center.

In the year since Michelle has been on board, she has built a strong board including Claire Hoffman, Eric Lodal, Cash Warren, Coddy Johnson, Carrie Southworth, Sonia Isaacs, Tonia Davis, Laura Smolowe, and Michael Muller. Together they have raised over $250,000 before doors opened.

In the 8 weeks that we have been open, we have served 90 clients, and word of mouth has already kicked in with community members hearing about us from their neighbors, in churches, and at community gatherings.

We have already reached our capacity for advocates with volunteers coming from USC, UC Irvine, Azusa Pacific University, University of Phoenix, and Loyola Law School. Several other colleges and universities are seeking to partner with us when we have space to include additional volunteers.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

*The Magnolia Community Initiative (MCI) which unites 80+ community organizations in an effort to create sustainable and scalable community improvement; *Propper Daley, a social impact agency that works with passionate individuals who have the personal, financial and/or social capital to champion meaningful causes and ideas; *David Bonbright of Keystone Accountability, an expert in gathering and analyzing constituent voice in order to improve performance and foster a culture of mutual accountability; *Technology and social media execs in Google, Facebook, Activision, and NALA Investments to capture the constituent voice feedback loop; *The County Board of Supervisors Office to participate in LIFTopolis and share evaluation findings.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

LIFT is engaging Keystone Accountability, a London based evaluation firm which helps nonprofits and foundations develop better ways of measuring and reporting social change, to develop and test its constituent voice system. Constituent voice is a groundbreaking program management tool that provides nonprofits with a way to measure performance against their intended results while fostering relationships of trust between staff/volunteers and their program participants. Nonprofit organizations working for social change lack a unifying performance management principle to ensure they are making progress towards their mission. Constituent Voice makes the perspectives of the people who are meant to enjoy the benefits of the social service– the primary constituents – visible to decision makers at the organization. The voices of participants should be central to performance measurement and decision-making. Constituent voice provides a constant stream of feedback data that organizations use to be accountable to the experiences of their constituents and improve performance. By combining feedback data with other evidence of results (e.g. job and housing placements, increased savings), constituent voice helps nonprofits discover which feedback is most predictive of participant and overall program success. The process includes:

1) Collect Feedback: Ask constituents a rotating series of 2 to 5 questions after every meeting through a confidential survey. 2) Analyze Data: Interpret feedback alongside other data sets (e.g. economic outcomes, 3rd party evaluations, observations). 3) Refine Program: Review program effectiveness and assess staff/volunteer performance against feedback data. Develop plans for improvement and highlight areas of success. 4) Report Back to Constituents: Validate feedback and dialogue with respondents about the plan for improvement. 5) Share with the Public: Report feedback results and program adjustments to clients, donors, partners, and the general public.

LIFT-LA will utilize the data gathered through constituent voice to inform program design and improve overall performance. The feedback that clients provide through ongoing surveys will directly affect decision-making at all levels of the organization – from our top executives to program staff to volunteers. By comparing this work with economic outcome data, LIFT-LA will make adjustments that respond directly to the needs of our clients. We are committed to continually refining our program to ensure it provides the highest possible value to our clients.

LIFT-LA’s proven humanitarian approach should receive attention from influencers in policy to rate their own programs, discover gaps, and consider adopting similar care-based strategies to their own service delivery systems.We will leverage our results to impact broader perception, policy, and practice in the social service sector - establishing LIFT as a leader in the conversation around effective approaches to fighting poverty.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

In some LA neighborhoods, 2 in 3 people are living in or close to poverty! The problem is more than income, it is about the systems that fail to help families get a toehold, and ultimately, discourage them from achieving their goals. Services are often fragmented, bureaucratic, and are built on the stereotypes that uphold the belief that those with less resource are to blame for their circumstance. In contrast, what we find every day in LIFT offices is great resilience, resourcefulness, and endurance that exists in the face of tremendous challenges and stigmas of poverty. LIFT-LA knows that systems built on false premise of who poor people are and what poor people need perpetuate the cycle of poverty (50% of those who move out of poverty will fall back into poverty in a year’s time). It is due to this built-in shortsightedness that billions are spent annually in the fight against poverty without moving the needle significantly over the decade. This is an economic issue for all Angelenos, but also one of social connectedness. A critical piece of the puzzle is still missing: relationships and understanding, aka social capital. We have all faced moments of crisis in our lives when we relied on the guidance and emotional support of friends and family to help us overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. Likewise, community members struggling with poverty need more than financial assistance; they need help accessing services; they need social connections and emotional supports; they need an empowered voice.

LIFT-LA’s model features volunteerism, empathy, and resource connections that are client-centered attending to both immediate needs and long term aspirations. On average, LIFT helps clients secure 2.5 major outcomes – employment, housing, healthcare - per family. LIFT’s model has been vetted by the Robin Hood Foundation to have a ROI of 3:1. LIFT’s approach demonstrates how a human-oriented safety net system might work for LA.

The Shaky Ground Campaign combined with LIFTopolis helps to shift the perception of poverty to create the stage for client centered evaluation. Channels for developing empathy are created through our constituent voice strategies. The LIFT app will allow for clients to speak up about how well (or not) they have been helped by a given provider. Constituent Voice is at the forefront of innovation in the public sector; the world largest charity rater, Charity Navigator, recently added constituent voice to its new set of rating criteria. This rating informing philanthropy provides huge incentive for optimal service delivery which would in turn create a more economically just LA. This voice, when heeded, has the power to change policy to more effectively allocate tax and philanthropic dollars to create economic opportunities for individuals and transform communities. Empathy + Consumer driven evaluative measurement = Empowered change!

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

LIFT-LA’s deployment of these strategies will provide a cutting-edge model for other nonprofits and government agencies to improve performance and adapt their programs to better meet constituent needs. In doing so, we will fundamentally change how we design and deploy social service programs throughout the county. Through the Shaky Ground Campaign and LIFTopolis, by 2050, there will be a changed perception of people who are poor— an important step that needs to be made in order to bring about effective policy. Because of being able to make connections to personal shaky ground moments, people will begin to break down the walls of “other” and start to think of what we all need when reaching out for help. And then recognize, through LIFTopolis, that it is neither fair nor just that proper dignified treatment is not in place for people when most vulnerable. Constituent voice will provide the data for organizations to improve programs and the subsequent results needed to lead the conversation about effective solutions to the persistent problem of poverty. Client feedback will demonstrate how a welcoming office environment, trusting relationships, and exceptional customer service support client progress on the path to economic stability. Constituent voice will prove that the “soft skills” that clients develop during their engagement with LIFT (self-confidence, problem solving) are not soft at all; they are what drives long-term change in clients’ lives.

By incorporating constituent voice as the anchor of our evaluation strategy, by 2050, we will prove LIFT’s core hypothesis: If clients receive support across all three dimensions of well-being - economic, internal, and community - they will accelerate their economic gains and sustain them over time. Funding, and tax dollars would be well spent in actually helping someone to move to a place of well being and stability, not just barely getting by. Together, we will raise the bar for the entire social service system – helping low-income families across the county achieve their dreams. Social service delivery programs will finally live up to its name, delivering individuals out of the cycle of poverty through social connectedness.