The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect is a concept derived from the field of meteorology. It suggests that a tiny disruption—such as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings—can create a ripple effect that creates a significant and powerful shift in conditions—such as a tsunami—far away. Our work at Fedcap is not unlike the Butterfly Effect. One tiny and very precise intervention or disruption in the stream of an existing process or structure can gather momentum and ultimately create a huge shift in what appears to be a well-established and predictable system.

We approach our work—both from a strategic point of view and a tactical point of view by asking the question:  What is a precise and simple change we can make that could potentially and significantly alter the existing outcome we strive to impact?

For example, we know that:

Seventy-three percent of people of working age with significant disabilities are unemployed.

Sixty-three percent of individuals leaving prison are arrested within three years.

One in six children live in poverty.

Seventy-four percent of youth leaving foster care end up homeless, jobless, in prison, or pregnant.

We also know that to overhaul an entire system that would instantly change these statistics would require huge political, cultural, industrial, and business changes. And so we strive to pinpoint very specific interventions, that—like the Butterfly Effect—will ultimately result in a change of these bleak statistics.

Here’s an example: we looked at the issue of youth aging out of foster care and asked the question—what is an intervention that would offer a stable and equitable avenue for youth to thrive after foster care rather than fall prey to homelessness or incarceration? The answer that seemed most viable was: attending college. And so we asked: Why aren’t more youth attending college? And ultimately: What does it take to inspire youth to want to go to college and to follow through with application and enrollment? After much research and consultation with child welfare experts, the answer was clear: young people need huge support at home to guide them through the application process. But: what if foster parents themselves need guidance to help support these processes? And we discovered that many foster parents did not have the tools to help their foster children navigate the transition from high school to college—let alone the transition out of the foster system.

In answer to the question: what is a precise and simple change?, we created our PrepNow! and our GetReady! programs. PrepNow! offers parents a step-by-step guide with support to help them as they help their foster children prepare for college. GetReady! is a guide for the youth themselves—helping prepare them for the challenges—and rewards—of a college education. Ultimately, it offers them a way out of the 74% chance of lifelong economic instability.

After several years’ intervention, we now see the results of our action: The Administration for Children’s Services has adopted PrepNow! and GetReady! as part of their foster parent training. And we are seeing a downward shift in the difficult statistics of youth aging out of foster care. Our intervention is working.

I would suggest that the Butterfly Effect is a viable and productive lens through which to see possibilities of societal change. These types of interventions are replicable and scalable. These are the types of interventions we work toward every day.

What essential questions might you ask to effect a simple, yet essential change to a system you care to improve?