Why I’m not Extraordinary

I’m growing very tired of all the nonsense being touted as “social enterprise.”  While I think the concept of social enterprise has promise, this budding sector is getting overpopulated with garbage that commodifies poverty and homelessness in order to present and sell it to a disengaged, educated, young, liberal demographic that is in no way a part of curing social ailments.  The poster-child for jump-the-shark social enterprise is a company called The Extraordinaries.  While this so called “micro-volunteering” company has won praise from fellow social enterprise Social Earth, which provides this nauseating piece on the value of The Extraordinaries, to me The Extraordinaries is at best an ineffectual company hopefully slated for extinction.

The Extraordinaries developed an iPhone app that enables users to “volunteer” from their phones.  The pitch is that we (liberal elite smartphone owners) are too busy to volunteer (because we are the liberal elite) but have five minutes here and there to mess around on our phones.  So why not use those five minutes to complete a micro-volunteering opportunity from our phone?

Answer:  Because micro-volunteering is stupid.

The only thing The Extraordinaries have been able to get their users to do is tag photos for online archives maintained by museums like the Smithsonian.  This is all fine and good, but hardly worth much praise, or investment, and clearly not a game changer, like was claimed by the Huffington Post.  What has me so in a tizzy about this company is their claim that they are a “Social Enterprise” focused on both providing social value and earning profits.  Frankly, I see them achieving neither.

We have serious problems as a country and a planet.  One in five children in the United States lives in poverty.  What can you do about that with your mobile phone?  Not a darn thing.  Efforts like the Extraordinaries create an illusion of social engagement that I argue is actually a threat to people like us who work on social issues in a serious way.  We do need help in the social sector.  We need better talent, we need more resources.  The Extraordinaries’ product is not social value, rather what they peddle is the falsehood that people who do not do anything for anyone can absolve themselves of that shame by clicking buttons on their smart phones.

I am not a surgeon.  There is no iPhone app that makes me feel like I am one, and that is a good thing.  If someone does not volunteer, is not engaged in their community, why should we sell them a placebo application to make them believe otherwise?


Thanksgiving Via Twitter

The following string of messages on Twitter are a good example of what Thanksgiving ought to be all about.  These messages all center around Mark Horvath, aka @hardlynormal, who is working in a homeless shelter in Glendale, CA for Thanksgiving day.

  • @hardlynormal: EMERGENCY! guest chef flaked so I have shelter w/ 10-15 ppl to feed ASAP! a place in Hollywood does takeout @ $20 prsn. Thoughts? Ideas?
  • @david_henderson: @hardlynormal do you have the raw ingredients and just need a chef, or was the guest chef supposed to bring all that stuff?
  • @hardlynormal: @david_henderson I have nothing – each one brings everything. We have a kitchen. I’m waiting until 1 if they don’t show up I’ll make it hapn
  • @david_henderson: @hardlynormal I’m fairly handy in a kitchen, let me know if you need extra hands. I can pickup some ingredients too. Call if ya need me.
  • @hardlynormal: @david_henderson not enough time although could be fun 🙂
  • @MarshaCollier: Can anyone help in Los Angeles help @HardlyNormal – he’s at a homeless shelter with a missing chef and no food
  • @hennartonline: @hardlynormal where exactly are you pls?
  • @hennartonline: Hey @hardlynormal thank heaven for miracles and YOU! Hugs!
  • @hardlynormal: Special thanks to @MarshaCollier @hennartonline@david_henderson – you made my thanksgiving special by showing compassion

Change.org vs the Church

I was disturbed to receive Change.org’s weekly newsletter with the title “The Church vs the Homeless”. The incendiary title fallaciously positions the entirety of a major religion that is a critical part of homeless service provision against the homeless.  This is not only a stupid title, it is a dangerous one.

The post on Change.org, is about a conflict in Washington D.C. between Catholic Charities and the local government over a proposal

..headed for a D.C. Council vote next month… [that would obligate religious institutions] …to obey city laws prohibiting discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

Fearful that they could be forced, among other things, to extend employee benefits to same-sex married couples, church officials said they would have no choice but to abandon their contracts with the city. (Washington Post)

To be fair to the author of the post on Change.org, the title on the site is the more exacting “Homeless Held Hostage by Catholic Church in D.C. Fight for Gay Marriage”. Indeed this is an interesting, complex, and difficult issue.  Personally I disagree with the stance the Catholic Church in D.C. is taking, but I think it is worth showing some sensitivety to the religious views of others, even when we believe those views themselves demonstrate insensitivity.

My issue though is not to debate the particulars of the D.C. conflict, but rather to condemn the riduclous, sensationalistic, overreaching title used by Change.org to promote this story.  There are so many things wrong with this:

  1. “The Church” is a meaningless concept as there are many churches and many denominations.  The gross generalization can only serve to be damaging to those who have nothing to do with what is presently a local conflict.
  2. Religious groups are a crtitical part of our social service network.  They have strong fundraising bases, provide critical spiritual services, and operate some of the most effective programs in our country.  They are an important part of the social safety-net.  Anyone actually involved in social service provision on a planning level would know better than to belittle the faith community.
  3. Change.org speaks to a lay audience.  There is tremendous value in this.  They have the ear of those who are interested in important issues, but are not a part of the social service sector.  Teaching  this group of people to view “The Church” as an enemy of the homeless is reckless.

My point here is not to defend the stance of the Catholic Church in D.C.  My personal views are that all people should be afforded the same rights and benefits, regardless of sexual orientation.  But I can respect the views of those who don’t agree with me.  As a liberal, I view tolerance as an important value.  This is of benefit to me in life as well as in my work in social services.  I find it ironic that Change.org, a site that positions itself as a liberal haven, would write such a bigoted title as “The Church vs the Homeless”.

Where I Belong

I think about class standing a lot.  My lawyer friends think about the law, my academic friends seems to spend their days opining.  So I think it only natural that I, someone neck deep in social services, think about poverty.  But just as any sociologist would tell you, you can’t take the research subject out of the research, not when the focus is social.  This idea holds true in the work I do in social services, and I know occurs to many of my colleagues as well.

I don’t just think about the poverty status of others, I think about the privileges I have in life and how that contrasts to the people we serve.  At times I get external pressure to move out of the social service sector, that a career in social services is a “get poor quick” scheme.  So the saying goes that with the privileges I’ve had in life such as a good upbringing and a fantastic education, that I don’t belong in social services.

I had an interesting exchange the other day with a person who shall remain nameless, but is very dear to me.  She argued both that poverty is such a complex problem that it is insolvable, and that I am too bright and too well educated to work in social services.  I asked her “if I am so well educated, and so bright, then shouldn’t I use my talents on the most complex and important social issue we face as people?”

Making money is very doable.  Selling products to people who have everything, specializing in the happiness of people numbed by pampering and entertainment, we’re collectively good at that.  Providing opportunity to the one in five kids living in poverty, or the 50% of youth who will be on Food Stamps at some point in their childhood, these are things we suck at.

I am exactly where I belong.  In going exactly where I belong, I realize I have been to places I probably should never have been.  I have been in neighborhoods that people like me don’t frequent, befriended people who, due to class standing, should be invisible to me.  I work twice as hard as the people who would otherwise be my peers for a fraction of the pay.  And I really couldn’t care less.

I get the point, if I weren’t in social services I could have a nicer place, a nicer TV, and my ex-girlfriend.  I assure you, I don’t want any of it.  I am exactly where I belong.

At alleffective.org?

I’ve written extensively on how the social service sector needs to be more data driven, that data and outcomes analysis should drive what we do and how we do it.  This argument is not unique, pretty much everyone makes this argument.  The real question is how do we determine what is working, and what is not.  This is a question of metrics in social services, and establishing universal guidelines so we can compare organizations to one another, and direct resources accordingly.

About a year ago I wrote about an organization, the Alliance for Effective Social Investing, which aims

To drive more funds to high performing nonprofit organizations by helping donors adopt sound social investing practices.

They plan to do this by creating an evaluation standard by which organizations can be compared to one another.  I recently wrote a post for Inforum where I provided an update on what the Alliance has accomplished (nothing).  Last night I had the displeasure of reading through the group’s most recent paper, Social Investment Risk Assessment Protocol, 11th Version.  The document provides a questionaire and framework for non-profit evaluators.  The idea is that if all evalutors use this assesment tool, then we will have common metrics.  There are two problems with this approach.

  1. Inherently not scalable – it is a fantasy to think every organization can get independently evaluated in any meaningful way, with any regularity.  If we can’t do this to every organization, or even a reasonable fraction, there will be no common metrics because the number of evaluated organizations won’t be significant.
  2. Subjectivity – the evaluation methodology proposed by the group is based on the subjectivity of the evaluator, rating organizations on a scale of one through five on issues like whether or not an organization holds staff accountable through performance reviews.

On Wall Street, companies are not invested in based on whether or not they have performance reviews.  Companies have performance reviews because it keeps productivity and innovation up.  Higher productivity and innovation means greater profits.  However, presence of performance reviews, in and of itself, is not meaningful.  For companies, they are evaluated in large part on their profits.

So what is the common currency by-which social service and non-profit organizations should be evaluated?  That is the central question, and the one that the Alliance completely fails to address.  The real point should be to evaluate what gets done, not how we do it.  The inadequacy of the Alliance’s approach is on their focus on the how.  In evaluation speak, we refer to this as focusing on outputs, what we do, rather than outcomes, what results we get for the people we serve.

A better common metric are client outcomes such as changes in poverty status, housing status, food insecurity, educational outcomes, etc.  It’s funny how evaluations are incredibly trendy to discuss right now, yet nothing is really being done to move the sector any closer to meaningful evaluation metrics.  So far, this is largely the case in both the domestic and international spaces.  While the Alliance, to date, is a non-factor in seriously providing evaluation frameworks, I’m interested now to see what the Acumen Fund does to move this issue forward with their highly anticipated Pulse evaluation system.

Homelessness, Sponsored by AT&T

Last week I attended a homeless walk in Los Angeles.  The idea of the walk was to raise funds for organizations that provide homeless services and to raise awareness about homelessness.  During the walk I saw groups of people from all sorts of corporations such as Wells Fargo, KPMG, and AT&T.  What I didn’t see were any homeless people.

I get that corporate donations are really just marketing opportunities.  I’m not naive to the quid pro quo, nor do I fault any non-profit organizations raising funds for playing ball to get the funds they need.  But I couldn’t help but be struck, in a bad way, by a group of AT&T employees marching in front of me with big, bright orange company t-shirts.

I don’t watch TV, I don’t even have cable.  All the shows I watch are on Hulu.  Before any show begins a message comes up stating “This show is sponsored by” such and such a company.  In America, we’re good at commodifying anything and everything.  Indeed last weekend, homelessness was sponsored by AT&T.

Gangster Golf

Gangs are something I find really interesting from an academic standpoint, and incredibly destructive from a social service provider view.  My work at Idealistics allows me to work with organizations that address a multitude of problems like poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, etc.  We’ve done a bit of work on gang issues, such as connecting people to services when they re-enter society from prisons, as well as some data analysis work.

Today I met with the Executive Director of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles who gave, in part, a childhood development angle on why kids get involved in gangs, and especially gang violence.  He said that most kids engage in sports as a way of getting out physical energy as well as learning important social skills and determining what it is they are good at.  Sports, he said, are one way we prove ourselves as kids.  Youth who fall into gangs don’t have access to such outlets, perhaps they are academically ineligible to play sports at school, or they aren’t even in school.

Therefore, the gang not only provides a family support structure that a youth might be seeking, but it also provides the opportunity to prove ones self, both through physical prowess as well as leadership acumen.  If it is true that gangs fill, in part, the needs of these kids to use their physical skills and grow as individuals (albeit in a destructive way) then it would make sense to provide youth sports programs specifically for these kids.

The problem, of course, is that these are difficult kids to work with.  Existing recreation programs have any number of requirements that make them exclusionary to this demographic, such as fees, academic eligibility standards, behavioral standards of conduct, etc.  Also, such programs, even if available to all people, are not as aggressively marketed to those susceptible to falling into gangs as gangs themselves are.

I often write about how the data should guide intervention strategies.  In this case, assuming the above analysis is true, and it were to bear out empirically, then it seems we are missing a big opportunity to help provide structure and outlets to kids who currently end up as gang members.