What Business Can Teach Us About Fighting Poverty

Business has refined the use of gathering direct customer feedback and making business decisions based on non-stop analysis of data that's collected. Now, the social sector must catch up.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Fourth in a series of six.

Business has refined the use of gathering direct customer feedback and making business decisions based on non-stop analysis of the data that's collected. Political campaigns are also able to survey voters directly and adopt strategies based on continuous polling. Now, the social sector must catch up.

Recently, I served on the board of a large grantmaking foundation: The California Endowment. For me, our best investment was a staff proposal to increase understanding of the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, before the legislature was to vote on it in California. The staff proposed surveying communities that were the least knowledgeable about Obamacare and then developing and implementing a communications plan to educate those communities. They would then survey the communities again after implementation to gauge the effect of the communications. It was a wonderful success. In a very short time attitudes within the targeted communities changed from primarily a negative impression to a positive view of the Affordable Care Act.

More recently, Spotify, the popular online music provider, contracted with Family Independence Initiative (FII), the project I founded, to survey our families about their Kids and Family Initiative. They want to make it fun to use music to improve their kid's development . The problem is they didn't have a way to measure their impact in lower-income communities. They will use the direct feedback from families to improve or change their programming. Further, Spotify will be asking the families for their ideas on how to make their work more effective. Families will gain a voice. These lessons are made possible through FII's technology and analytics platform used by our enrolled families.

Business is constantly using technology to get direct feedback. I feel I get a survey every time I use a service, an app, or buy a product. While somewhat annoying, I also realize that they are giving me a voice. Currently, most funders in the social sector use the staffs of their grantees as the voice of the families. Technology is showing us another way-- let the people they serve dictate what works best. Blue Shield Foundation has also contracted to reach FII's enrolled families to get a better understanding about domestic violence. They want to understand what influences survivor decisions about turning to friends and get a better understanding of the role of the institutions they fund. Enrolled FII families that are survivors helped design the surveys and began conversations with other survivors. Now it seems that not only will the Blue Shield Foundation get a better understanding of this issue, but families across the country have started to organize support groups for one another. Families want to improve their lives in their own ways and making them part of the solutions improves the social sector.

In an election year, you see constant polling and so the expertise is there and well developed. The other thing to learn is that the polling is done on a continuous basis because preferences change. If a presidential campaign's messages are succeeding, ongoing polling helps gauge if they need to continue spending money in a particular state and, if they do, how that money is best spent. In the social sector, if a program is succeeding, it will also change conditions on the ground. This has to be gauged and those programs or funding should respond to that information.

I was recently at a meeting that included researchers looking at behavioral issues in low-income communities. They were taking data from across the country, then looking at national trends in behaviors. But taking single point data sets and hoping that national averages will lead to successful interventions on the local level are not likely to succeed. Communities are in constant flux, especially as you move from state to state and city to city. The social sector often takes one set of studies that identifies the common or average problem -- a good example is the number of words spoken to a child in their first three years. They then create interventions based on that research. But what's a problem or works for children of that age in a tight-knit Mexican community in Albuquerque is entirely different for Latinos in San Francisco or Oakland, California. A one-size-fits-all strategy may work, but more data and analysis targeting specific communities is likely to work better.

Businesses like Walmart wouldn't take the purchasing data from a huge region and then stock all its stores based on the data. Technology and survey techniques today allow us to understand the marketplace as it naturally segments itself based on local or situational conditions. FII has been testing business practices with our enrolled families and we are able to see patterns of behavior that do not necessarily break down by simple silos such as age or even city. But the more localized patterns can be recognized and can be supported. It's like the way Walmart will stock more baby carriages in stores where there is expanding market demand. Campaign polling firms, too, can break down the attractiveness of candidates by county and sometimes even by household.

Just as business changes its product mix, the social sector needs to make continuous improvement. The days of picking one strategy, implementing it and then evaluating it years later is old fashioned. We are at a point in history where ongoing learning, iterating and learning again should be the norm. Business already has the techniques we need. What is needed now is continuous analysis and adjustment to changing conditions for low-income populations. The social sector and its funders need to catch up to business and use the tools that it has developed, simply because they work. Solutions can now be crowd sourced and the very families we seek to help can actually lead that change. I'll address that more in the next part of this series.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot