We see hope in the young people who, denied opportunity due to racism, poverty, and systems rigged against them, find a way to achieve their potential and lead change in their communities.
We see hope in the families who, after losing their livelihood, health, or home, still dream of a different future; find ways to scrape, save, and struggle their way to a better life; and help others learn fromtheir experiences.
We see hope in the people who, working in rule-bound government agencies, serving as elected officials, or driving reform from the outside, find ways to renew outdated policies and champion programs that deliver results and change people’s lives.
We see hope in the social entrepreneurs who work every day in every corner of our country to run programs, reform systems, and make the success of underresourced students and families not the exception, but the rule.
And we especially see hope in the 100+ America Forward organizations that believe in the young people, the families, and the government—the collective expression of our democracy.
America Forward organizations are revolutionizing the way children learn. Our social entrepreneurs are reenvisioning what happens in and out of the classroom, achieving unprecedented results for students who face the biggest barriers to success.
America Forward organizations are helping families thrive. Our social entrepreneurs are embracing equity strategies to pivot away from traditional anti-poverty approaches, leaning into the resourcefulness and aspirations of low-income people to help them secure a better future for themselves and their children.
America Forward organizations are finding ways to restore confidence in government and inspire public engagement. Our social entrepreneurs are paving the way for reformers to rework public programs to achieve measurable results and channel civic activism into lasting change.
What’s more, the last decade has brought new tools, capabilities, and approaches that hold the promise of radical transformation. Science has taught us the ways our astonishingly malleable brains develop, respond to context, and learn. Data tell us which programs and interventions work and which ones don’t. Technology makes information available, and it simplifies communication, allowing for networking and navigation. And people who are closest to our most pressing problems, whose lived experiences have built critical expertise, have more seats at decision-making tables, developing new strategies and crafting solutions that work.
Thanks to these advances, we are poised to unite to make breakthrough change—to make our nation a place that stands for a fundamental value that no matter where you start you can grow up to be anyone and anything you want to be, if you work hard enough and have the supports you need. A place that confronts and redresses historic injustices. A place that creates the conditions where opportunity is rooted in equity and second chances are real.
Yet we know that today this vision is more myth than reality. Nearly half of Americans who grow up poor remain poor, while less than 1% of Americans who were never poor as children are poor in middle age. Black, Latinx,¹ and Native children are much more likely to live in poor families than are White children. Although only 14% of children in the U.S. are Black, more than half of the children who experience persistent poverty are Black, and a disproportionate share of persistently poor communities are rural. Only 3% of children who spend half their childhoods in poverty will go on to graduate from college. And despite many efforts across five decades, poverty levels, as measured by earned income, have barely budged and remain unacceptably high.
The reasons for the profound, stubborn inequality and inequity in our nation are many and complex. Some go back decades, some centuries. But they are refreshed every day when a child attends a low-performing school or cannot go to college. Or a working family needs food, housing, and medical care but can’t afford all three. Or adults facing obstacles, struggling to turn their lives around, have little hope for a second chance at a successful future. And it’s not the America we have to accept.
We can’t change the past. But we can secure a future that meaningfully stands for inclusive, equitable opportunity, if we embrace what’s best about America rather than what’s worst. That means confronting historical injustices while building a culture of equity, empathy, responsibility, ingenuity, innovation, accountability, excellence, and progress. It means saying goodbye to division, gridlock, and greed. In the words of the late civil rights activist Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, “we need a country as good as its promise,” in order to start a new chapter in the American story. And it’s clear that, in the words of late Senator John McCain, “our shared values define us more than our differences.”
WHO WE ARE
This book offers a path forward to create a nation where the place a person starts does not determine the place that person will finish. It draws on the insights of the over 100 results-driven innovators who are part of the America Forward Coalition and builds on the progress they are making, driving change and improving lives in over 15,000 communities around the country every day.
America Forward is a project of New Profit, a groundbreaking venture philanthropy fund founded two decades ago to support social entrepreneurs building lasting local solutions to some of our country’s most pressing and intractable social problems. In 2007, America Forward—New Profit’s bipartisan policy initiative—was launched to unite social entrepreneurs with policymakers and leverage this local impact into national change. Together, our Coalition members advocate for policies that advance equity, foster innovation, reward results, and catalyze cross-sector partnerships. Our ultimate vision was—and remains— audacious: to scale the most innovative and effective solutions, and to drive systemic change to expand equity and increase opportunity across America.
Since America Forward’s founding, we have seen a seismic shift in the social innovation landscape. Some of our organizations are led by social entrepreneurs working to bring their programs and interventions to scale. Some of our organizations are working to reform the systems in which their programs operate. And some of our leaders are systems entrepreneurs who play the role of “orchestrators,” fostering collaboration and providing expertise that helps actors in a system to better understand their roles and see how they can “rewire” their work to alter the behavior of a system as a whole. Today, our full array of Coalition members delivering effective innovations in education, workforce development, and poverty alleviation are working with policymakers on both sides of the aisle on an exciting range of innovative programs and policies.
Together, the America Forward Coalition has unlocked over $1.7 billion for social innovation and driven hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward programs that are achieving measurable results for those who need them most. Our community helped craft the Social Innovation Fund (the first federal tiered-evidence innovation fund); influenced the creation of a White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation; and successfully advocated for landmark federal workforce and education legislation, elevating the critical role that nonprofits play in helping our education institutions meet the varied needs of students and driving federal resources to programs that deliver meaningful education and workforce results. We stood at the forefront of the evidence-based policymaking movement, and led the field on national Pay for Success policy, creating a new breakthrough federal outcomes fund through the bipartisan Social Impact Partnerships to Pay for Results Act, enacted in 2018, which provides $100 million in funding to pay for measurable impact and strategies that deliver real outcomes and improve lives.
But we know that despite these wins, millions of Americans are stuck in poverty. They, and their children, still have little hope of moving into the middle class. That’s not the America we, or anyone, want.
WHAT WE BELIEVE
In this book, we draw from the work of our Coalition members to underscore the three essential lessons we must learn as a country to secure a better future: how children learn, how to create conditions so all adults and families can thrive, and how to restore belief in government by equipping reformers to deliver results.
HOW CHILDREN LEARN
Science tells us that the brain grows, responds, rewires, and reshapes itself based on how it is stimulated throughout life, with several critical periods: early childhood, early adolescence, and the period known as emerging adulthood (late teens through early 20s). This means that ability is not static: Skills exist in a potential state in all children. We also know that all children learn differently, so we must provide personalized learning environments so that all children can thrive. These environments should take into account that learning is multidimensional—that social, emotional, motivational, and cognitive growth are connected. They should prioritize strong development of relationships, provide rich instructional experiences, inspire a sense of safety and belonging, and offer integrated supports, while intentionally developing the skills, mindsets, and habits that are key to successful learning. Families—and students themselves—must be a part of any solution to support and cultivate lifelong learners who can adapt to and thrive in the tectonically shifting economy and world.
What children learn in the early years becomes the foundation for future learning. As young people enter adulthood, their brains continue to develop and their experiences in and out of formal education settings continue to impact all aspects of their growth. These experiences also enable young adults to apply what they have learned, develop a sense of purpose while refining personal and career goals, and further build essential workplace skills. Learning experiences for emerging adults can happen during military, volunteer, or national service; on the job or through internships; in college classrooms or workforce development programs; through extracurricular, athletic, or civic organizations; and in many other settings. As with children, interaction with peers and more-experienced adults provides young adults essential learning experiences and helps them develop the confidence they need to navigate social and workplace settings.
Unfortunately, from early childhood through adulthood, while many positive factors can accelerate learning, negative experiences, including trauma and poverty-related adversity, can impede learning absent specific interventions. Faced with these hurdles, how educators approach the learning process can make all the difference—they can have dramatic positive effects or compound the challenges students face.
Across these ages and stages, America Forward organizations, and in some cases whole communities, have embraced innovative evidence-informed strategies to foster learning for learners of all ages, especially those facing the greatest challenges. Building from a deep understanding of how learning happens, our organizations prepare educators—and families—to help students learn and advocate for what children need. These organizations create environments for learning that change the equation for low-income students and respond to the unique needs of every young person. And these organizations bring the community in, to meet the broader needs of youth and greatly expand the resources available to them. Policy proposals in this book flow from that on-the-ground experience, with the goal of making learning happen for everyone, no matter their background or individual needs.
HOW TO CREATE CONDITIONS SO ALL ADULTS AND FAMILIES CAN THRIVE
All families have goals and dreams, but families do not have equal means to achieve them. Much as learning involves the whole person, the path to economic success is paved with many interrelated factors, including employment; savings that enable families to respond to crises (or to seize opportunities); and the ability to find and pay for good and reliable health care, child care, transportation, safe and appropriate housing, and resources to access other critical services when needed. That road is exponentially harder to navigate for people living in poverty.
Contrary to common stereotypes, low-income families are resourceful, and many find ways to improve their own financial and general well-being. While some do slip back—a rent hike, illness, arrest, or even a cut in work hours could send a whole family into a downward spiral—low-income families are resilient. Nonetheless, we know systemic barriers constantly challenge families’ abilities to leverage their assets, strengths, and capabilities.
Innovative organizations are breaking down these barriers. America Forward Coalition organizations create the conditions that enable low-income families to achieve goals they set for themselves. We have watched what happens when families can control their choices, rather than having others direct them. Armed with the insights gleaned from the families we work with, America Forward Coalition organizations catalyze change in close partnership with communities. Policy proposals in this book flow from that learning, with the goal of taking these lessons to scale.
HOW TO RESTORE BELIEF IN GOVERNMENT BY EQUIPPING REFORMERS TO DELIVER RESULTS
Too often, government agencies operate under a set of norms that focuses on compliance rather than outcomes, resulting in disconnected programs that can’t evolve to achieve better results. But that’s not true of every publicly funded effort. Government works well when it gets the right people striving toward solutions together, in and outside of government. Government works better when it looks at the full context of a problem to diagnose and address it. Government works best when it asks those closest to the problem to design strategies and provides flexibility to implement them. And government reaches even higher levels of impact when it uses data to track outcomes and then creates a learning loop that enables innovation and pushes resources where they will achieve the most effective results.
Many barriers inhibit public agencies from acting this way. But across this country, America Forward Coalition organizations are leading a movement to empower changemakers in and outside of public agencies to do what it takes to make government deliver results and work better for everyone. We’ve helped policymakers and agencies develop Pay for Success strategies tying funding to results, integrate disconnected programs, use data effectively, and listen to the students and families they serve. As a movement for measurable outcomes evolves, our Coalition is leading the way, catalyzing change across government by making better outcomes for people, families, and communities central to public funding, through an approach that includes those closest to the problems and puts equity first. Policy proposals in this book flow from that learning, with the goal of changing how government operates not just in a handful of pilots, but as an operating norm.
All of these lessons, gleaned from the experiences of our America Forward Coalition organizations, point the way to a better, more equitable future.
Our country faces other big problems that we don’t tackle here. But if we work to change the systems that control how learning happens, how families succeed, and how governments work, we could change the trajectory of the country.
We invite others to join us, United to Move America Forward.
HOW DO WE START
Government, nonprofits, business, philanthropy, and ordinary people must work together to change the practices, power dynamics, and policies, as well as the resource flows, relationships, and mental models that perpetuate problems and hold the key to sustainable change. We need:
PUBLIC LEADERS WHO TAKE ACTION — AND CARE ABOUT OUTCOMES
We can’t innovate to get better results if policymakers won’t work across the aisle to solve urgent problems. For example, although there is broad consensus that we have a burgeoning college debt crisis, the major federal legislation addressing higher education access and affordability was last updated in 2008. It was targeted to be reauthorized in 2013 but is now years overdue. In the meantime, student debt has grown by a staggering $1.3 trillion. This inaction has huge societal implications. Student debt is the reason many millennials are deciding not to have children or buy a home. It also keeps the wealth gap between Black and White families startlingly wide. Today, young White families have 12 times as much wealth as their Black counterparts. Remarkably, student debt accounts for more than half of this wealth gap. We need public leaders who recognize the urgency of problems like these, look clear-eyed at the data, and refuse to let politics stand in the way of finding solutions to this and many other problems that can only be solved by a government that actually works.
Nor can we expect better results if public officials will not recognize and lift up the central and largely unrecognized role that nonprofit innovators are playing to fill the gaps, knit together solutions, and reform the systems that affect the lives of the most under-resourced people in our nation. Where these organizations receive public funding too often comes with unnecessary restrictions and at a high cost. Many solutions are right in front of us. But it is not until public leaders summon the courage and wisdom to follow the data that we will make real traction on stubborn social problems by unleashing these solutions.
CITIZENS WHO VOTE, VOLUNTEER — AND RUN FOR OFFICE
Rather than wringing our hands, we ought to be rolling up our sleeves to build the government we need. Public institutions of all types need the engagement of the public as well as the talented staff to make a difference. But just 2% of Americans, and even fewer Black and Latinx Americans and women, have ever run for political office at any level of government. Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military or civilian national service each year; less than 3% have ever served. Only 7% of the federal workforce is under 30, and the government struggles to hire young staff. Six in 10 Americans did not engage in any political activity during the 2018 election, and those who did engage were likely to be college educated and White. Even though voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election increased across all demographic groups, only half of all voters turned out to vote.
We should not cede the responsibilities of our democracy—and the power that comes with it—to a subset of Americans. By signing up and taking action, we can get the government we need—one that is responsive to the needs and knowledge of those currently underrepresented.
BUSINESSES THAT PROVIDE GOOD JOBS – AND DO WHAT’S RIGHT
We need business to not only provide jobs and make investments, but also be contributing members of the community. Voters want companies to act responsibly but doubt they will act in the public’s best interest. Sadly, trust in all types of institutions, including corporations, is at an all-time low.
Supreme Court decisions have given corporations many of the rights of citizens in this country—the right to own property, to equal protection of the law, and to speak out, “contributing to the ‘discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas’ that the First Amendment seeks to foster.”² What if corporations also shared the ethical responsibilities of human citizens—not just to pay taxes and obey the law, but to make a sincere and conscious effort to leave the world better than they found it? We can’t build the country we deserve without all sectors stepping up, doing what’s right, and working together in common purpose. Our organizations stand ready to partner with companies that share our commitment to a better world.
PHILANTHROPY THAT FUNDS INNOVATORS – AND ADVOCACY
The diverse individuals and organizations that make up America philanthropy play a critical role determining which nonprofit organizations grow and thrive, or wither and die. Most philanthropists take a well-worn path, giving to individuals, institutions, and interventions they know well and understand. Too few philanthropists are willing to take risks on people or programs that are outside of their circles, especially those proximate to problems they hope to solve. Too few are willing to offer the long-term flexible funding that programs need to build their capacity, and too few will partner proactively, sharing their social capital and professional expertise. Too few look to address root causes and support systems change. And way too few are willing to support advocacy efforts, even though the law permits nonprofits to educate—and lobby—policymakers.
If we are to spur, nurture, and sustain the solutions that will secure the promise of America, we need philanthropy to go beyond business as usual, take risks, and resource the results-oriented people and programs poised to do what it takes.
ORGANIZATIONS THAT FIND SOLUTIONS – AND CHANGE SYSTEMS
Across America, results-driven innovative organizations, including those in our Coalition, are finding solutions to the most intractable problems we face by tapping the tools that business uses to develop better products, reach new markets, influence consumer choices, and create new narratives that open up possibilities for communities. These organizations are using data, listening to the people they serve, and iterating their offerings to get better results. And they are doing this, for the most part, without the kind of unrestricted funding that businesses are able to access.
To our fellow innovators, we say “keep it up,” and don’t stop trying to change the conditions that prevent you from taking your insights “public.” That means doing the hard work of democracy—speaking out, showing up, and sticking with it even after setbacks. On top of the groundbreaking work you do every day in communities, you must educate others, and advocate to seek impact on a higher level and make a difference at the scale that is needed.
While all of these players can make progress on their own, solving the complex problems our nation faces requires united action by communities; federal, state, local, and tribal government agencies; businesses; philanthropists; nonprofit organizations; and people of all stripes. We’ve got to get better at setting bold goals, valuing innovation and results, and marshaling all available forces to find solutions, measure progress, and redirect as necessary. We’ve got to go beyond pilots and proof points to systemic solutions that are scalable and sustainable. To find these solutions, we’ve got to marry the expertise represented by the people proximate to the problems with the experience of results-oriented nonprofits and lessons gleaned from data. And then we must spread them through market strategies and the scale potential of government. We all need to go all in.
That kind of unity is what this book is about.
A PLAYBOOK FOR UNITED ACTION
The following sections offer a playbook for policymakers who see the need for unity, and who believe that prosperity is the right of anyone willing to work for it, not just those born into it. The playbook draws on the lessons that our fellow innovators in the America Forward Coalition have learned throughout decades working in thousands of diverse communities and partnering across sectors, including every level of government.
The America Forward community of innovators stands ready to work with federal, state, and local leaders, as we join together, United to Move America Forward.
Throughout this book, we talk about a few concepts that deserve further explanation. We include this section for reference because there are many definitions of diversity, equity, inclusion, innovation, social entrepreneurs, systems change, and Pay for Success, and we want to share the way we interpret these concepts.
DIVERSITY, EQUUITY, AND INCLUSION
Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. While diversity is often used in reference to race, ethnicity, and gender, we embrace a broader definition of diversity that also includes age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. Our definition also includes diversity of thought: ideas, perspectives, and values. We also recognize that individuals affiliate with multiple identities.
Equity is the state where predictability of success or failure is not correlated with identity or cultural markers such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. Equity strives to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups, and increase justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of institutions or systems, as well as in their distribution of resources. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society.
Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people. It’s important to note that while an inclusive group is by definition diverse, a diverse group isn’t always inclusive. Increasingly, recognition of unconscious or “implicit bias” helps organizations to be deliberate about addressing issues of inclusivity.
Definitions adapted from the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the independent sector
The concept of “innovation” is poorly understood in the context of education and social service programs. Most often, it is talked about as a state of being with an emphasis on the phase of development (e.g., a new program or organization) rather than an ongoing process that is essential to improving, continuously, the way we solve problems. Such a process requires several interrelated components:
Inventing – discovering an insight into how to do something better or more cost-effectively;
Testing – determining if the invention is really an improvement over the status quo;
Implementing – trying the invention out on a small scale, rigorously measuring impact, and making adjustments;
Investing – providing resources that will enable a successful invention to take hold on a large scale; and
Improving – beginning the cycle again with new rounds of testing that offer innovative insights.
This process may be better understood in the business world, where new value is created every day through innovation and market forces. There, the concept is simple: A product, service, or process is invented and tested. If successful, it attracts investment to take it to market, and then to expand its reach. Profits gleaned from the invention can be reinvested in research and development efforts that will result in continuous improvement or inventions that will displace the original one.
Now think about the social sector, where innovations occur every day in both large and small, new and established, organizations. Some of these innovations will be breakthrough strategies, while others will be less successful. Ideally, organizations would have the resources to learn from failures and make improvements that lead to higher levels of impact.
While many definitions of “social entrepreneur” exist, the words of the late Greg Dees, a founder of social entrepreneurship as an academic field, sum up this complicated concept well:
Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by:
Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value);
Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission;
Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning;
Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand; and
Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.
Some social entrepreneurs and change agents are “system entrepreneurs,” who recognize the full set of conditions that hold social problems in place. They play the role of “orchestrator” to spark shifts in the behavior of the system as a whole. They do this by fostering collaborations and providing expertise that helps actors in a system to better understand their roles, see how they can shift elements of a system, and together “rewire” relationships within that system in order to transform it.
This systems-change paradigm recognizes explicit policies, practices, and resource flows that work together to hold problems in place at a structural level. It also acknowledges the way these conditions interact with a deeper, more implicit set—relationships, power dynamics, and mental models—that collectively reinforces and holds in place inequitable status quos. These conditions, all of which interact to reinforce each other, are depicted in the “Six Conditions of Systems Change” schematic below:
Source: Kania, J., Kramer, M., & Senge, P. (2018). THE WATER OF SYSTEMS CHANGE. Retrieved from http://efc.issuelab.org/resources/30855/30855.pdf
PAY FOR SUCCESS AND PAY FOR SUCCESS FINANCING
“Pay for Success” (PFS) is a policy approach to catalyze systems change by making better outcomes for people, families, and communities central to public funding. PFS emphasizes innovation, prevention, accurate data, and “PFS contracting,” which makes payments in part or entirely based on measurable outcomes.
Pay for Success financing is a tool through which mission-driven investors, including philanthropies, fund services and are later repaid (usually, though not always, by a government entity) through success payments, if those services achieve key outcomes as measured by an independent evaluator. This approach is sometimes referred to as “social impact bonds.”
A growing number of PFS projects have featured no PFS financing and no external investors.
Both PFS and PFS financing are part of a larger “outcomes movement” that seeks to transform how governments partner with communities and direct dollars with a human-centered, equity-driven lens.