A Macro Approach to Reduce Social Problems

As I’ve written before, despite the spending of billions of dollars by the public and not-for-profit sectors on all kinds of social problems, progress toward solving some of the problems is slow or nonexistent. One reason is that many of the problems are interrelated – they reinforce and compound each other, yet we tend to treat each of them in isolation from the others.

The public sector operates through silos that generally don’t communicate well with each other, while the not-for-profit sector is incredibly fragmented. Individually, many organizations do good work. But collectively we are not solving the big problems.

Bottom line: Overall, resources are not being utilized as effectively as they should be. Different approaches are needed. Here’s one.

  • At a high level (e.g. state or community), develop a scorecard that includes goals and metrics toward which resources can be aligned. High level goals should be designed to:
    • Drive up desirable social indicators such as high school graduation rates, post-secondary enrollment and completion rates, etc.
    • Drive down undesirable social indicators such as obesity, smoking, incidence of pregnancy among unmarried teens, recidivism rate of first-time offenders, etc.
  • Create networks of organizations that leverage their resources to accomplish what none could accomplish on its own. Each network must have one or more clear, measurable objectives that are aligned with the overall high level goals. The participating organizations should have complementary resources and mutual trust in one another. Their respective roles must be clearly defined, and they should strive for collective impact.

There must be a “backbone” organization with a strong infrastructure at the core of the network. The backbone organization “owns” the overall effort and is accountable for the results. It creates the network, keeps the various parts aligned toward the common goal, provides support as needed to the various players, and tracks and analyzes data. In some situations, a backbone organization might help strengthen the network by strengthening a strategically important partner. For example, the backbone organization might provide back office services to a partner organization that provides important direct services, but has a weak infrastructure. Of course, there might also be times when the backbone organization will find it necessary to replace a partner.

Individual organizations that desire to be part of a network must:

  • Understand their context. How does what they do relate to what others around them are doing? Where do they fit in the communities in which they operate?
  • Where do they fit in the field(s) in which they are engaged?
  • Have a realistic understanding of their strengths.
  • Determine how they might add unique value to help maximum long term impact.

The philanthropic sector can help by:

  • Supporting the development and/or growth of backbone organizations.
  • Supporting networks that are collectively working in focused ways toward a big goal.
  • Giving preference to evidence-based programs that have demonstrated long term impact.

Governments can help by:

  • Giving preference to funding of evidence-based programs.
  • Fostering the use of impact investing pay-for-success approaches that increase the productivity of tax dollars.
  • Creating their own networks to better leverage resources across public sector silos.
  • Focusing more on the change they want to occur as a result of the program or service they are funding and being less prescriptive about how the work must be done. They should focus less on how much is spent in various expense categories and more on the cost per outcome and, where possible, on ROI metrics.
  • As much as possible, ensuring that bureaucracies function in ways that are likely to enhance rather than detract from accomplishment of the goal.

Others might have better ideas than these. Regardless, the status quo is not an option.


4 thoughts on “A Macro Approach to Reduce Social Problems

  1. Jim,
    Thanks for another thoughtful column. I do enjoy reading them. This one reminded me very much of a column I read in the NYTimes last fall. It is here:


    The author estimates that we spend $21,000 per person in poverty every year; yet we don’t address the root issues. He suggests alignment of effort and better outcomes measurement as solutions.

    Again, thanks for the column. I’ll keep reading them.

    Ed Durkee

    • Ed, thanks for your comments and for the link to the NYTimes piece. It’s a good one I somehow missed.

      I appreciate your writing.


  2. Jim, I always enjoy your posts. What you describe below is actually happening in Winston-Salem as we launch a “Cradle to Career” initiative guided by the Strive organization.


    • Thanks, Art. Similarly, I’m involved in an effort in Indianapolis that is being patterned on what Strive is doing. I’m encouraged that a growing number of people are beginning to recognize and act on the need to more effectively leverage community resources to start reversing some of the social problems that have been getting worse instead of better.

      Thanks for writing.


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