The gap between public perception and reality

I once heard a newspaper publisher make a speech in which he bemoaned the fact that people didn’t really understand the newspaper business. I thought about this a bit and came to the conclusion that any of us could probably say something similar about the businesses we are in. Even if we once thought we understood someone else’s business, organizations that survive over long periods of time aren’t standing still. They’re changing in ways that are often not visible to the general public. Public perception often lags reality, and the faster the rate of change within an organization, the greater the gap between what the organization actually is and public perception of it.

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has evolved at such a rapid rate that even people who have been relatively close to the organization are not aware of some of what we are now doing, the approaches we are taking to our work, or the impact we are having in the larger community.

For starters, most people have no idea we are as large as we are. With 3,000 employees – two-thirds with a disability, criminal history, low education level, or other barrier – we are still doing what the founder of Goodwill set out to do more than 110 years ago – provide work for people with few options. We’re just doing it for a lot more people.

We have also become significantly involved in public education – especially of older youth and adults. This fall we will operate 10 schools with a total of more than 3,000 students. Nine of those schools are Excel Centers – a unique concept we created three years ago that enables adults to complete requirements for a high school diploma and begin working toward a post-secondary credential that will enhance their earnings potential.

More recently, we have begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership, a highly effective home visitation program that helps first-time mothers in low income households improve pregnancy outcomes, child health and development, and the economic self-sufficiency of the family. Our nurses are currently working with over 350 expectant moms and new moms to whom 220 babies have been born. It’s a 30-month program with lifelong benefits.

Equally exciting is the extent to which we are now able to link individuals and families with education, employment, health and family services in a holistic approach to help people move out of poverty. We don’t provide all of the services ourselves. Rather, we work with many other organizations whose capabilities and resources complement Goodwill’s. As this approach has grown in recent years, our organization has begun resembling a network of networks – an approach that makes better use of overall community resources and is much more effective than the more common fragmented approach.

The financial base for what we do is provided by our donated goods/retail operations, which also employ two-thirds of our 3,000 employees. Thus, we are dependent on hundreds of thousands of residents who donate goods and shop in our stores.

All of this is a lot more than meets the eye of the general public. Lack of knowledge or – worse yet – misleading information or misinformation that can arise from taking small pieces of what we do out of context can be damaging. One of our challenges is to find ways to improve public knowledge of Goodwill’s wide array of services and the impact of those services in the lives of people and the communities in which we operate. The better we can do that, the better we will be able to reduce the gap between perception and reality.

Networks – a way to reduce social problems

Poverty, low education levels, crime rates, teen pregnancy, and a host of health issues are all interrelated. They tend to reinforce and compound each other. Yet, as a society, we don’t treat them as if they’re related.

The public sector consists of a lot of large silos – among them are health, education, social services, workforce development, law enforcement, housing, transportation – that don’t often communicate well, if at all, with each other. There are even silos within the silos that don’t communicate well with each other. Meanwhile, the not-for-profit sector is incredibly fragmented, consisting of hundreds of thousands of mostly small organizations that do good work, but that are typically focused on one problem or one target population or one often tiny geographic area. They have great difficulty aggregating capital or talent to replicate what works and achieve scale.

Neither sector is structured to deal effectively with complex social problems. Perhaps this is a major reason why so many social indicators have worsened over the last forty years, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations.

It is unrealistic to think we can remake either sector. And experience indicates that if add another layer of bureaucracy in an attempt to better coordinate the activities of various silos, we will most likely accomplish nothing significant other than to further increase costs.

So what can we do?

A lot of what exists is good. But we can do a much better job of aligning and leveraging the resources and capabilities of various entities in focused ways to improve overall impact and make much more effective use of the total resources. We can do this by creating networks that bring together organizations with common interests and complementary resources to work with each other to accomplish a goal with clear, measurable objectives.

There must be a strong organization at the center of the network; the roles of each participant must be clearly defined; and the participants must trust each other. If all of these ingredients are present, a lot can be accomplished. Here is one example from our own experience.

Recently, our organization has begun operating Nurse-Family Partnership in Indianapolis. This is a highly effective nurse-led home visiting program for first-time parents in low income households that begins during pregnancy and continues until the child turns two. Implementation in other states has proven to have immense long term impact. In our community, Goodwill is the implementing organization. Funding comes from a federal grant and is administered through a contract with the Indiana State Department of Health. Referrals come from an array of sources including hospital systems, other health-related organizations, schools and social services organizations. A community advisory board includes nursing experts in prenatal and early childhood, physicians, hospitals, and social services representatives. An independent continuous quality improvement system established under the direction of the State Department of Health measures and tracks performance.

In addition, Goodwill is connecting parents who are enrolled in the program with education and employment opportunities. Goodwill also provides assistance in solving problems related to housing, transportation, and child care.

Our approach enables families to access education, employment, health-related services, training in good parenting skills, and other services through a long term relationship that we believe can substantially improve the lives of the Nurse-Family Partnership parents and their children and help break a cycle of generational poverty. It is a holistic, whole family approach that leverages existing resources to help accomplish something that otherwise probably would not be accomplished as well, if at all.

This is one example in one community. But it illustrates an approach that could be taken by many organizations in many communities to help improve overall impact and the productivity and effectiveness of both the public and the not-for-profit sectors.

Goodwill and Politics

During my career, which now spans four decades, there have been leaders from both major political parties at various times at local, state, and national levels. We’ve worked well with both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Goodwill is fortunate to have a mission that transcends politics and has appeal across political lines. Our employees, members of our boards of directors, donors, shoppers, students, and others we assist have political leanings that cover the entire spectrum. However, as we go about our work, we tend toward the practical rather than the ideological. We agree on a goal, find common ground around the means to achieve the goal, work together, and accomplish a lot. We’re mainly interested in what works – as long as the means are consistent with our values and basic principles, some of which are:

• Every individual has value, and we strive to treat everyone in a respectful manner.
• Work adds meaning and purpose to life.
• Goodwill offers opportunities, not charity, and fosters development, not dependency.

Opportunities we offer include employment for people who have had limited options because of a disability or other barrier. We also offer opportunities through our Excel Centers for adults who want to earn a high school diploma and begin work on a post-secondary credential that will enhance their employment options.

During the recession of the early 1980’s, we concluded that nothing would help our organization or the people we assist more than a strong, growing economy. That continues to be the case. Also, it seems to us that the better we develop the potential of our people – especially by increasing education attainment levels – and provide conditions that enable people to productively use their talents, the stronger the economy is likely to be.

As our organization has evolved, on numerous occasions we’ve redeployed resources from efforts that were marginally effective to initiatives that showed more promise. Over time, this shifting of resources, combined with a substantial increase in our pool of talented people – our human capital – has enabled the organization overall to grow not only in size, but in long term impact.

Unfortunately, over the last forty years, we’ve seen in our society negative trends in a lot of social indicators, including poverty rates, education attainment levels, incarceration rates, and a lot of health-related issues, despite a lot of well-intentioned programs that have cost enormous amounts of money (see my July 6, 2011 post). Fortunately, there have also been a few programs that randomized controlled trials have shown to be highly effective in preventing problems and developing potential. One of those is Nurse-Family Partnership, which Goodwill is implementing in Indianapolis.

In the face of massive federal deficits, it would seem reasonable to reduce or eliminate funding for programs with marginal effectiveness and increase support for evidence-based programs that produce significant long term impact. The future economic and social benefits could be enormous.

Reasonable people can and will disagree over many things, including how best to reduce social problems and generate a higher rate of growth in the economy. However, in the face of such disagreements, reasonable people must try to find common ground and not allow their view of the perfect to be the enemy of the good. My hope is that enough of our elected leaders in both major political parties would resolve to overcome and move beyond a toxic political atmosphere and resulting gridlock that have been preventing steps that might lead to a stronger, healthier, more civil and economically vibrant society that would benefit all citizens, including those we assist at Goodwill.

The law of unintended consequences

It still amazes me how many well-intentioned efforts end up having negative unintended consequences. With some pieces of federal legislation now encompassing well over a thousand pages, it seems a corollary to the Law might be “The magnitude of the unintended consequences is directly proportional to the number of pages in the bill.”

In 1975 Steven Kerr wrote a now-classic article titled, “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” The article is no less applicable today, and examples can be found in innumerable aspects of life and work.

For example, I have always considered it dangerous to base a significant part of anyone’s compensation solely on hitting a number. In far too many cases, people will find a way to hit the number, but in ways that will be damaging in the long run.

A similar situation might be seen in the complex formulas used to determine school funding or to evaluate the performance of schools. While there are seldom simple solutions to complex problems, it seems to me that the greater the difficulty explaining a formula for funding or evaluating schools, the greater the likelihood of unintended negative consequences.

There’s also a danger in over-simplification, though. For example, most people would agree that helping students achieve is important and that teachers and schools should be held accountable for their performance. However, many well-intended efforts to improve student academic achievement levels base individual student performance, overall school performance, and the effectiveness of teachers primarily on standardized test scores. In addition, standardized test scores or letter grades determined by them are often the only measures of evaluation published in mass media. Unfortunately, with stakes so high, we are seeing an increasing number of instances where cheating has occurred or administrators have found ways to “game” the system to improve their ratings. Meanwhile, other important aspects of what many consider a good education are given far less than optimal attention, if not completely ignored.

Maybe this is just an application of the old adage that every time you solve one problem, you create another. Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer complexity of our world. Yet, efforts to construct complex solutions or seemingly simple solutions to complex problems frequently end up being ineffective or even harmful. We simply can’t anticipate every possible situation or combination of circumstances.

All of these examples underscore how important it is that we go to great lengths and take great care to try to get the metrics and incentives right. And always be mindful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Goodwill’s Directions

Over the past decade, Goodwill in central Indiana has developed and now operates several small high schools. More recently, we have launched services for very young children and their moms. These are not areas in which Goodwill Industries around the country have typically been directly involved, and I am occasionally asked why we have moved in those directions.

At Goodwill, we have an overriding desire to help improve lives and communities and, as best we can, help solve serious social problems. We generally prefer to:

  • Strive for long term impact
  • Take a holistic approach with individuals and, in many cases, with their families
  • Enhance education levels and the attainment of credentials that will improve an individual’s employability and earning potential
  • Prevent problems and develop potential rather than engage in remediation

Strategic planning in our organization has morphed from a discrete event we used to do every few years into a strategic thinking process that is continuous. Changes in our environment are occurring at a very rapid rate, and we find ourselves with more new opportunities than ever before.

Every major step we have taken over the past twenty years has been a result of (1) what we have learned from previous experiences, (2) what we know about the communities in which we operate, and (3) how we believe we can have the greatest possible impact in the lives of people and in the larger community.

Key factors that have heavily influenced our recent directions include:

  • A recognition that many major social indicators have become worse over the last 30-40 years, despite massive increases in public spending and a huge proliferation of not-for-profit organizations. Many existing systems have not adapted well to changes that have taken place in our society. The silo structure of the public sector and the fragmented structure of the not-for-profit sector are part of the problem. Fragmented approaches have not worked and will not work to solve complex social problems, regardless of how much money is made available. Neither will highly bureaucratic, overly prescriptive approaches. One size does not fit all.
  • A belief that there are no quick fixes to many of our society’s problems, and we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with gradual, incremental progress. We need long term thinking and long term solutions. We also need a strong sense of urgency.
  • A recognition that many of the pieces needed to solve societal problems exist, but in relative isolation from other pieces that could also be part of a long term solution.

I believe that two of the most important elements necessary to reduce generational poverty and its accompanying social problems are:

  • Raise the education levels of children, youth, and adults in low income households. This is why we developed and operate the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School and The Excel Centers.
  • Ensure that children are behaviorally and cognitively ready when it is time for them to enroll in kindergarten. There is powerful evidence of the enormous positive long term impact of high quality early childhood development programs for children in low income households. We must greatly increase the availability of such opportunities – and there must be a strong sense of urgency to do so. Goodwill has taken a major step in this direction by launching Nurse-Family Partnership in Marion County.

It’s also important to emphasize that on all of these initiatives we are working with a lot of other organizations that have compatible interests and complementary resources. In some cases, those relationships are evolving into networks that I believe will play an increasingly important role in developing human potential and reducing serious social problems.