There is nothing like the fall conference season to instill wonder and weariness. Wonder in the intelligence, creativity and dedication of people who want to create better lives for others. Weariness at the thought that after two months and untold inspiration, you may have been a part of an intellectual feed lot that ultimately leads good ideas to slaughter while calving next year’s bounty.
By October’s end I’m usually suffering from silver bullet syndrome, a condition in which one cannot sit through one more presentation about the next big thing that creatively disrupts everything to create the change we need. Storytelling. Mashups. Social media. Audience targeting. Community organizing. Research. Messaging. Politics. Lobbying. Public relations. Programs. Videos. Killer websites. Micro-targeting. Each in their own bucket. Never the twain shall meet.
But something different was afoot this year. Comprehensive approaches to creating social change were making a comeback.
It started when I tagged along with Professor James Heckman during two of his rare appearances in Washington. The first was a small discussion at the Brookings Institution that wrestled with how to reduce economic inequality. The other was a talk at the International Monetary Fund hosted by the Chicago Economics Society. Someone asked Heckman the same silver bullet question at both events: “If you had X billion dollars to spend, what one thing would you invest in to reduce economic inequality?”
Heckman responded that the best investment was in a range of programs and resources that build a scaffolding of support around young, economically disadvantaged families and children. That means prenatal care; parental education; voluntary home visiting; early nutrition, health and learning for children; and the development of cognitive and social skills throughout early education, formal schooling and career training.
In short, the “one thing” is a long list of comprehensive and coordinated things. It’s sound advice, but a bad sound bite (the very thing I’m hired to prevent). Building such a scaffolding is often beyond the attention span of politicians, thought leaders, philanthropists and nonprofits. The only thing harder than building a system is selling one.
Heckman’s family scaffolding would take a massive marketing effort among grassroots and grasstops groups, gobs of political capital among those on the left and right, and the coordinated lobbying of multiple legislative committees and government agencies to create both the demand for and supply of this comprehensive approach to fighting inequality. Impossible? No, just hard work and persistence. One of our clients, the First Five Years Fund, is seeking to do just that with the backing of visionary funders who know that change only happens on multiple fronts.
Others are thinking the same thing. We saw it at the recent UN Foundation Social Good Summit in New York City. While focused on the power of social media to create change, speaker after speaker acknowledged the need for the original social networking: physically talking to people, meeting them where they are and connecting them with others to achieve mutual goals. Melinda Gates spoke about the need to put programs together into a comprehensive approach. She said that when you talk to mothers about vaccinating their children, they talk about their other priorities such as employment, transportation and food. Poverty isn’t an empty wallet; it’s a ladder with wide gaps between the rungs.
Similarly, people at the Aspen Institute’s Ascend ThinkXChange Conference grappled with how to move vulnerable children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. One participant raised a great question: with so many promising early education and health programs for children and so many innovative resources for parents, how do we put the them all together into an efficient support system? In the past, typical conference attendees would have dismissed that as process getting in the way of progress. Yet, the ThinkXChange participants acknowledged that while they were focused on doing their one thing well, they had to do better at creating linkages between programs and coordinating other advocates, practitioners and institutions.
I returned home from my conference voyages to find Dave working on an effort to create healthier foods by leveraging advocates, mainstream consumers, suppliers, producers and regulators into market-driven social change. Sarah just came back from Social Media Week Chicago, where she spoke on a panel about social media and social impact that was coordinated by our friends and colleagues at Frequency540.
“I told them that they could win in social media and lose in social impact if they didn’t have a campaign that integrates grassroots, grasstops and lobbying,” she said. “I was a little disappointed that nobody threw me out of the room.”
Comprehensive is making a comeback.