Anti-interventionism combats poverty and threatens the nonprofit sector

There is a subtle shift taking place in pockets of the social sector, challenging the historically interventionist approach to social change. Microfinance was perhaps the first in modern memory (or at least my memory) that eschewed the conventional wisdom that nonprofits know the path out of poverty better than the poor themselves, extending loans to low-income families to use as they saw fit.

More recently GiveDirectly has popularized the concept of unconditional cash transfers, whereby cash is given to low-income families with no strings attached. Domestically, homeless services are increasingly realizing the futility of trying to “treat homelessness” while people live on the streets, and instead are shifting resources toward simply putting people into homes.

Similarly, at the Family Independence Initiative we are investing in the initiatives low-income families are taking across the United States to improve their own lives and their communities. What all of these approaches have in common is that none of them make any assumptions or judgements about who the poor or homeless are. There is no real theory of change in the traditional sense. No layering of one expected outcome that ought to come before another.

Instead, these are straight forward common sense approaches that put trust in the poor and make them the center of social change. If someone needs a loan, let’s give them one. If someone is extremely impoverished, let’s transfer cash. If an individual is experiencing chronic homelessness, extend that person permanent housing.

All of these approaches are inherently anti-interventionist, and they seem to work really well. So why don’t we see a tidal wave of anti-interventionism?

The anti-interventionist threat

While anti-interventionism is great for the poor, it’s an affront to much of the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits raise funds on the assumption that their programs and services hold the key to lifting low-income families out of poverty.

These anti-interventionist approaches greatly reduce the role of nonprofits, as in the anti-interventionist’s view the nonprofit is no longer the driver of change, but the impoverished themselves. In a world of anti-interventionists, nonprofits are reduced to distributors of funds rather than architects of change.

In the interest of self-preservation, nonprofits have and will continue to argue against anti-interventionism. However, thus far the evidence is not on their side.

We in the sector talk a big game about “working ourselves out of business”. To the contrary, we have worked damn hard to stay in business while consuming dollars that are better spent by the poor themselves. As anti-interventionism grows, the social sector will have to more publicly reconcile its pro-social rhetoric with its own self-preservation.