Andrew Wolk
Apr 20, 2020

The New York Times began a series last week titled The America We Need. It began with “The coronavirus pandemic may have reminded Americans that they’re all in it together. But it has also shown them how dangerously far they are apart. It may not feel like it now, but out of this crisis there’s is a chance to build a better America.”

This could not be more true for the mix of tens of thousands of nonprofits, thousands of foundations, millions of individual donors and volunteers, government programs, and school models that are responding today. This is our chance to consider how the recovery can help reframe what success should look like for the rest of the 21st century.

I see only one way to turn that chance into a reality. We have to start where this blog began, seeking to answer the question: To what end? In other words, with everything we do, are we making enough of a difference and the right kind of difference. We must apply those criteria to everything we do. Otherwise, I fear that despite the myriad amazing efforts our sector is making right now to respond to COVID-19, as America re-opens its doors we will go back to the way things were before the pandemic faster than we can imagine. It would be a real shame if we slipped back into the status quo I’ve written about before, reverted into our silos, let all our new lines of cooperation and communication go quiet, and as a result missed the opportunity to reframe what all of us do so it is collectively helping people with what they actually need to survive and thrive.

As I’ve asked that question over the past year, it has become more clear than ever to me that our work must, at a minimum, help people meet their basic needs but also go further to ensure we genuinely help millions of people get on, and stay on, a Pathway to Lifelong Success. Our own success as a sector should ultimately be measured by whether our efforts meet that end, and whether that end reduces disparities based on race, gender, and geography. Based in part on the incredible work done by the Social Genome Project, the Pathway to Lifelong Success below is a starting point for what that the reframing ought to look like.

Prior to COVID-19, efforts defined and measured this way were helping only a very few across our country. Post COVID-19, that number threatens to be even smaller.

To see some of this reframing already happening, even if it’s not explicit, we need look no further than some examples of the response to COVID-19. Here are a few that have caught my attention these past two weeks.

Before the pandemic, the nonprofit Parents as Teachers affiliate in Guilford County, North Carolina (where Root Cause has a project with Ready for School, Ready for Life and the Duke Endowment) was visiting homes with young children, teaching parents skills to ensure their children are safe, healthy, safe, and ready to learn. Now, the program has been helping ensure those same families have basics they need, including food and toilet paper. What if groups that focus on early childhood learning also thought about the day-to-day life circumstances of the families they servecircumstances that are so often make-or-break for whether children can even focus on early learning? That would be a powerful reframing.

Then there’s Blue Meridian, the billion dollars pooled philanthropic fund that usually focuses on scaling nonprofits. In the face of the pandemic, the fund has recognized that individuals and families need access now to financial resources to meet their immediate needs. It has deployed an incremental $100 million to help people at the greatest risk of falling through the cracks, dispensing funds to organizations such as Family Independence Initiative,GiveDirectly,National Domestic Workers Alliance,One Fair Wage, andThe Workers Lab so they can, in turn, provide direct cash assistance. This kind of giving is a reframing that showcases the importance of focusing on income and allowing people to make decisions about how best to meet their basic needas I discussed in a blog post last month and my recent podcast What $500 Might Do?

Finally, there’s WIC, the federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children, which has waived a variety of requirements to ensure families receive the care and food they need without having to jump through hoops. What is particularly telling of this example is how easy it was to make that change and drop some of the onerous rules that can make it so difficult to initially access andkeep receiving the benefits. These sorts of barriers exist in many social safety net programs. A reframing ought to reconsider all of them, and make waivers like WIC’s permanent.

If there is one thing that is obvious in the current crisis, it is that there’s plenty of money available to address problems. The CARES Act alone, signed into law in late March, totals some $2 trillion. That money isn’t the federal government’s; it is ours. It is our tax dollars. The good news, then, is that money is not the obstacle to reframing what success should look like for the rest of the 21st century. It’s our collective will.

Let’s not lose the opportunity we’ve been given to change how we do things in our sector so that every one of our efforts when the pandemic is over answers the to-what-end question like this: Meet people’s basic needs and move them along a Pathway to Lifelong Success to stay.

How is your organization changing what it’s doing in response to the coronavirus? How might that help you reframe your efforts when this is all over to get basic needs met and move people along the Pathway to Lifelong Success? That’s how to think about the post-COVID future.