Monday, 7 January 2013

Why Social Programs Fail

I had a friend approach me today and ask me an interesting question. 

See, we work alongside each other on the issue of poverty and homelessness in Red Deer.  Her job requires her, among other things, to spread the word about the issue to stakeholders and citizens of this town. My experience in the private sector has provided some interesting perspective to a group that is predominantly made up of people from service organizations.  Her question to me was:

What are 3 to 5 key things I need to remember when trying to engage local business?

So, it happens to be a bit of a sore spot for me.  I've been a little surprised at the slow progress of the committee I sit on.  I can tell I've been indoctrinated by the private sector.  In our world, the approach tends to be, "ready, FIRE! aim."  In the world of public services and social support, we try to get everyone's finger on the trigger at the same time.  So much time is spent gaining consensus that precious time for action is wasted.  In my mind, you're better off to accidentally solve the second most pressing issue than to waste the extra months and years getting the data to such a fine point that you know exactly what recommendation to make.

Another observation: when you hold a forum on a social issue, guess who shows up: the social support agencies.  And bless them - they do such important work.  But their role: they are on the razors edge of the issue, embroiled in the controversy.  They can tell you every nuance of the problem.  But they are so steeped in it that it's hard for them to see outside the current methods.  They're experts.  Experts have such ingrained patterns - they're really good at solving a problem.  The way they always have.  Their neural passageways are totally entrenched.  They provide a really valuable perspective.  They will tell you all about the need.  But they might not be able to find a new way to fix it.

So, who do we need at the table?  The creative class, the entrepreneurs.  The ones who can come up with a totally new method.  Or at least provide a new perspective.  Problem is, these people RUN when they sense consensus gathering.  Because you will never. have. consensus.  There are too many people.  Too many perspectives.  The problems are like fish in a barrell.  The solution isn't to ponder how you're going to kill all the fish, because there are so many.  The solution is to start shooting.

So, how do you engage business-minded people in your social concerns?  Think like them.  Here are the 3 answers I gave my friend, expanded (with her permission):

1.  Make it human.  The issue that I'm involved in relates to poverty and homelessness.  Specifically, the eratication thereof.  When business people think of homelessness, they think of the chronically homeless.  Drug addicts and panhandlers, who pester them for change in the grocery store parking lot.  What they don't realize is that there is a VERY LIKELY CHANCE that a co-worker or employee lives below the poverty line.  Poverty is not a distant, abstract concept.  We work daily with people who are one financial incident, one missed paycheck away from losing their residence.  If business owners understood that these programs are made to help people JUST LIKE THEM, they might sit up a little taller in their chairs.  I know it was a wakeup call for me when I realized that.

2.  Be results oriented.  Forgive me if this sounds callous.  Business owners have all had an employee who drove them crazy with sob stories.  "I'm late because my car wouldn't start." "My sister was having a breakdown." "Another one of my uncles died." The reason business owners can come off as unsympathetic is that they've been taken advantage of by employees, and have been given every excuse in the book as the offender tries to get out of the consequences.  So if your 'pitch' comes off even remotely as a plea for pity or sympathy, you might find them getting impatient or just checking out.  Spare them the sob story.  Business owners work hard for what they have, and they take a lot of risk.  What do they pay attention to?  Results.  Tell them what you plan to do and how.  Tell them how far you've already come.  Show them that you are getting stuff done.  If they offer you a job, you're on the right track.

3.  Give them action steps.  Don't raise awareness.  Believe me - anyone who has walked downtown is aware that there are homeless people in town.  They don't need to be made aware of the problem.  They need to be made aware of the SOLUTION.
Anecdote time.  There's a business I really respect in town, who does a lot of work for local charity as well as charities abroad.  Recently, I watched the owner of the company host a luncheon for about 70-100 of her peers - local business owners.  She told them about a recent trip she had made to an impoverished area of the world, and shared her experience and the impact it had on her.  Then she told them what she planned to do when she brought her staff out to the same area in 6 months.  She reminded them how far their donation would go there, compared to what it would mean to them here.  Then she asked.  And for the cost of lunch and a room, she probably raised about $70,000.
She gave them a simple action step: "I'm asking you to do this..."  Included there was a suggested donation.  It was simple - they could write a cheque and forget about it - it wasn't a time commitment or a request to change their priorities.  If someone felt so convicted, I'm sure she would've been happy to speak with them after about how to get further involved.

It's not that business people aren't 'bleeding hearts'.  I believe that there are many wealthy people in this town with HUGE hearts for local and international issues.  But the issue is that you cannot appeal to them by emotion.  They make decisions analytically - they've had to learn that over time, one money-losing emotional decision at a time (at times when they couldn't afford to make them).  And now, they don't have a lot of tolerance for fluffy stuff.

But I also believe that these business minded people are an absolutely essential ingredient.  We need free enterprise's innovation, creativity, and resources.  We need to facilitate their involvement, and make it worthwhile to be in the business of solving societal issues.  Because there's money to be made in free enterprise, it attracts some of the best brains.  And we need those to solve these complex and challenging issues.  We need to find ways to get caring entrepreneurs to the table. 

I don't profess to be an expert here.  So please, if I've missed something, go easy on me.  I'm new in this field, so teach me something I don't know.  Tell me if I'm off track.  But tell me if you agree, too.  What we need more than anything is a little more progress.


  1. The problem is that if a charitable initiative blows its credibility, it seldom gets a 'round two'. I'm not concerned about tackling the 2nd most important issue, I am concerned about upending the whole initiative by missing something critical and relatively easy to avoid right off the bat.

    I think consensus isn't just important and beneficial, it's sometimes essential! But it requires a meaningful restriction on the number of voices at the table. It's better to tackle a smaller project well, than jump in over your head, and get lost in the red tape. If you get as few decision-makers as possible together to put a plan in place (like 5, 6 tops), then you will gain from the accumulated perspective, vision and power.

    Dan, every decision has an emotional and a rational component. Even people that have learned not be rash are still often impulsive (and may even pride themselves on it!). They are certainly feelings-driven on some level, although they might not even be able to appreciate that. The reverse assumption would be that so-called emotional people don't need to see an effective plan, or a focus on results before they commit. Those two assumptions are equally likely to endanger effective buy-in -- important as you champion this kind of innovation. :-)

  2. Dan, I love the perspective and insights you bring, and yes, agree that you are most definitely 'on track' with the majority of your points. It is for that reason that we have needed you and others like you at 'the table'. Do I now have your permission to share this further with some of our working group members, as I think it very valuable and something each need and perhaps even want to hear. We all want action and we all want to see results. People have invested significant time, resources and energy and I think that, like me, many (if not most) would find this refreshing.
    And, Brad, I absolutely appreciate your comments as well and agree with the very real danger of consensus, as well as your comment about credibility.
    Great thoughts -- both! Thank you.