Respond – Recover – Reframe

Andrew Wolk
Dec 21, 2020

On the cusp of our nation swearing in a new president, I have found myself reading books on polarization and the rebuilding of trust from a number of different points of view. The books include Them by Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska; Trust by Pete Buttigieg, just announced as the Biden nominee for secretary of transportation; conservative evangelical David French’s Divided We Fall; and Polarization by Ezra Klein, the progressive founder of Vox. The consistent theme in all four is that tribalism is keeping us divided—that we’ve reached a point at which whatever one side is for, the other side is against by default. Certain issues have become a perpetually divisive focus, such as religious liberty, cancel culture, abortion, and police reform. They distract us from what could unite us: more people having enough to eat, being educated, and making a livable wage.

There may be another path to unite us: the remarkable local responses to Covid-19 by the mix of tens of thousands of nonprofits, thousands of foundations, millions of individual donors and volunteers, government programs, and school models. They offer us an opportunity to consider how the recovery can help reframe what success should look like for the remainder of the 21st century.

I see only one way to turn that opportunity into a reality. We have to start where I 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 in people’s day-to-day lives. We must apply those criteria to everything we do. Otherwise, I fear that despite the myriad amazing efforts being made 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 success from cradle to end of life. 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 success cradle to end of life framework 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 serve—circumstances 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 dollar 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 InitiativeGiveDirectlyNational Domestic Workers AllianceOne Fair Wage, and The 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 need—as I discussed in a blog post back in March and on my 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 and keep 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, totaled some $2 trillion. Governments don’t have any money of their own; they collect taxes, and “their” money is all ours. 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 about how it’s spent, and our collective will.

Let’s not lose the opportunity we’ve been given to change how we do things 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.