Saving Promotes Aspirational Thinking

I grew up with the concept that each generation would be more successful than the generation before. “Successful” means achieving more, learning more, earning more, and contributing more to society.

Here’s what we know:

For the first time in many generations, young people are not entering or succeeding in post-secondary education as successfully as the previous generation. This fact is a pivot point that, if mitigated, could change the trajectory of poverty in this country.

Even as many in our millennial generation eschews higher education for entrepreneurship, the fact still remains that a college degree translates into higher earning power. For those living in low-income households, attaining a college degree is particularly challenging. Often parents in these households have themselves not attended college, so there is no assumption or expectation that a child would go. In addition, the expense of college often proves to be too big a burden for a household struggling to make ends meet. For these households, a financial emergency—even one as low as $400—a broken car, for example, could upset a balanced budget and in dire circumstances—a true reality for many—be the difference between living in a home and being homeless. In these cases, college expense is an unaffordable luxury.

But here’s what else we know:

If a child has anywhere from $1-$499 set aside in a savings account, she or he is three times more likely to attend college. And that same young person is four times more likely to graduate from college. If the savings account is specifically earmarked for college those statistics are even higher: children are four times more likely to attend college and six times more likely to graduate.

At Fedcap, we are continually looking at precise interventions that will interfere with the trajectory of economic instability. For example, we created PrepNOW! and Get Ready! specifically to disrupt the assumption that young people in low-income families could not attend college, graduate and compete in high level successful careers.  PrepNOW!™ was designed to help parents –including foster parents—create a college-going environment in a household where college may not have been an assumption or expectation. These interactive web based courses, facilitated by a success coach—help raise awareness and offers specific tools to support young people as they apply and enter college, persist and graduate. Get Ready!™  helps prepare young people ready for post-secondary education and career success by understanding the foundational skills necessary to present themselves, to communicate, and to aspire for goals previously considered unattainable. These programs have proven to be wildly successful, and I am happy to report, are being replicated throughout the country.

These innovations, along with those that create strategies for young people to set aside monies for college from the earliest ages, are how transformation happens. Setting expectations that a child will go to college is a well-researched predictor of her application and matriculation. Filtering these assumptions and expectations into all of our systems—early education providers, K-12 schools, libraries, community centers, healthcare centers, houses of worship, the workplace—and backing awareness with easy-to-access programs—is one way we can alter the trajectory of poverty.

Putting these innovations in place is how we ensure relevant, sustainable impact and it is how we ensure that the power of possible is manifested as concrete, attainable step to economic well-being.

I welcome your thoughts.

The Challenge of Making Smart Social Investments

Life skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. If a child is not motivated and stimulated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, the child will struggle in social and economic life.

–Dr. James Heckman, Nobel laureate, University of Chicago

What if we could solve the problem of poverty with one, targeted and precise intervention? What if the picture of the future did not include the faces of poor or hungry children—or adults?  While this is most likely not the case…there is a growing body of research around the importance of intervening during the first three years of life in order to significantly improve lifetime outcomes for children including health, educational attainment, long term earning, reduction in involvement in the criminal justice system and lifelong productivity.

Every day here at Fedcap, we work to eliminate barriers to economic well-being.   And because we believe that questions are at least just as important as answers, if early childhood education is the place to focus our energies (or at least part of  our energies)  then—what are the most effective strategies for investing in early childhood development, how much investment is the right amount and what are the most effective and targeted interventions?   

Next week, we will be exploring this question at our 13th biannual Solution Series. We will be joined by three national experts who well understand the need for investing in high-quality early childhood programs that could dramatically improve opportunities for a better workforce and a better future.  If you click on the invitation below you can register for the event.   I would love to see you attend!

According to the First Five Year Fund, a federal, non-partisan advocacy group, today, less than half of low-income children have access to the types of programs that could radically improve their future.

Our panelists will tell us that every dollar invested in quality early childhood education for low-income children provides taxpayers with a significant return (as much as 13%).   They will explore the economic implications of that investment—not just for those who reside in poverty, but for society as a whole, and particularly, what it means to the workforce of the future and the competitive position of our country in a global economy.

Our experts next week include Caitlin Codella, Director or Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Center for Education and Workforce; economist Michael Weinstein, Executive Director of Impact Matters; and Katharine Stevens, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. I urge you to join us for what promises to be a transformative conversation.  I welcome your thoughts, as always.

Early Education: Good for Business, Good for Society.

“If we don’t look at this seriously and think about early childhood education as our moon mission for the next ten years, then we miss the opportunity to build a workforce to keep us competitive for decades to come.” Larry Jensen, President and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Adviser

For many parents, the birth of a baby can generate hope and optimism for the possibilities of what lies ahead. It can also cause anxiety about ensuring the baby has what she needs to not only survive, but thrive in the world. Uncertainty lies ahead, and the most hopeful among us trust that the child will be safe and will discover a way to excavate her talents and live a fruitful life.

Everyone wants a child to grow to her greatest potential not only for her own fulfillment but to ensure the prosperity and future of society. Our well-being depends on the next generation of children who will become our citizens and our workforce. It is up to us to create an environment where we are cultivating our future by investing wisely in educating parents and early childhood practitioners in the “skills” that will ensure a prosperous society.

Experts in the area of early childhood development tell us that learning begins at birth and that the most critical learning imprints happen in the first five years of a child’s life. “Parents are a child’s first teacher” is a mantra familiar to many, meaning that a parent’s job is to cultivate a secure attachment where a child feels safe and has a healthy sense of self. Coupled with a parent’s efforts is the need for robust early childhood education taught by well-trained practitioners who understand the science of imprinting and learning that complements the work of the parent at home. Scientists are using their combined research to call for the need to create policies and to invest in early childhood education as a means of ensuring the future of business and of our society.

Research makes it clear that early childhood education is the catalyst for creating a vibrant, progressive workforce and society. According to a study conducted by the National Scientific Council Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, there are clear concepts to back their theory:

  • Child development is a foundation for community and economic development as capable children become the foundation of a prosperous and sustainable society
  • Brains are built over time
  • The interactive influences of genes and experience literally shape the architecture of the developing brain, and the active ingredient is the “serve and return” nature of children’s engagement in relationships with their parents and other caregivers in their family or community.*

In addition, investing in high-quality early learning programs for children from birth to age five yields high financial returns. Research shows that besides the social and cognitive benefits comes economic benefit, including higher earnings for the individual, increased tax revenues and decreased use of welfare and other social services, ultimately resulting in lower expenses for states and for communities. The earlier the intervention, the higher the return.

The business community understands all too well the importance of having a world-class education system as a pipeline for their workforce. Achieving a world-class education system means focusing on the all-important learning opportunities for children from birth to age five.

On March 29th, we are hosting our business Solution Series—Why Business Should Support Early Childhood Education: Building a Workforce Pipeline for the 21st Century. The forum will be an opportunity for businesses to come together to learn more about why it’s essential for businesses to care about investing in early education and how it can influence the bottom line today—and in the future. If you are a business leader, this forum will offer a fascinating lens onSS March 2017 copy the future of workforce development. I urge you to attend! You can register at Hope to see you there. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

*from the The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap Between What We Know and What We Do National Scientific Council Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University


Responding to Difference with Interest

One of the greatest joys of all time is watching a small child as she or he discovers something never seen before. She asks (sometimes over and over again), “What’s that?” “What’s THAT?” And, as a patient adult, you answer—after all, you have the opportunity to introduce the child to the world through your eyes, with your perspective. If you’re like me, you love the natural curiosity, as it is a reminder of what it is like to experience the world anew.

Research tells us—as does our experience—that children view things that are new—or different—with great interest and curiosity.

But what happens when a child sees someone moving in a wheelchair, or walking with a white cane or making unfamiliar noises? Natural curiosity would lead them to ask questions: “Why is that person in a chair with wheels?” “What is that white cane for?” “Why does that person sound like that?” These are natural questions that reflect a healthy interest in the world.

How we respond to those questions is the critical moment. When we respond by pulling the child back and saying, “It’s not nice to ask that question,” or, “Don’t point,” or whatever we do to divert the child’s focus on the other person—in that moment, we spawn discomfort, and potentially, fear.

And this becomes the next generation of stigma. This is how we create a sense of “other.” This is how those with disabilities become “them,” and not “us.”

In her essay, Stigma, An Enigma Demystified, Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown writes about the origins of stigma. She suggests that all of us carry with us a fear of being seen as different or separate from the rest of society—an “other.”  Any one of us, she posits, could become stigmatized at any time, given how rapidly our culture shifts over time.  For example, as we age, our status changes, and, in some cultures, age gives us increased status. In others, ageing decreases our status. And when we lose status, we lose power. Losing power means losing advantages and ultimately, losing control about the choices we get to make about our lives.

In addition, those who find themselves in a category or population that is stigmatized in one way or another become defined by our “otherness,” or what could be considered our disadvantage by those who are yet not stigmatized. We become part of what I referred to in an earlier post as a “single story,” defined by that “otherness” such as our heritage or our disability or our politics or our age or economic status, just to name a few ways of exclusion and segregation. If we have gifts or talents that are outstanding, they are highlighted in spite of our “otherness.”

I believe that stigmatization happens on both a conscious and an unconscious level. It is part of a defensive posture that many use to protect themselves from the exclusion that stigma brings. It is part of the message that is passed along to us as children when we are told to be polite and not point out differences. It is passed along in messages from the media and from opinions handed to us by those in authority.

But what if we were to respond to difference with respectful interest instead of fear? What if we allowed the questions: “What is your life like in that wheelchair?” “How do you know it’s safe to cross the street if you cannot see?” What might be the result?

I would suggest that the result would be greater empathy and ultimately, greater understanding of what it is like to be in another’s shoes.  We might come to discover that the “other” is, in fact, very much like us. We might be inspired by them—and ultimately, by each other. It would require that those of us in both the stigmatized and non-stigmatized groups be willing to have the conversation.

We all want to be part of the non-stigmatized majority. If we were to work together, we could indeed all be part of the that majority if we would reshape our thinking and our language. “Them,” then, becomes “us.”

This March, as part of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, I ask: what would it take for us to recognize our own unconscious stigmatization of others—no matter what the difference might be? And ultimately, what would it take for us to turn to the world of differences with respectful interest instead of fear and discomfort?

I welcome your thoughts and responses.

Building a Culture of Organizational Resilience

Every day, I marvel at the resilience of the individuals we serve. I see veterans wounded both physically and psychologically with the scars of battle; I see men and women who have lost their homes, their jobs, and their families; I see young people who have moved from foster home to foster home—and I see those who have suffered from substance use, and those who have been incarcerated only to re-enter society burned by the stigma of their past.   Yet  in so many, I see above all, extraordinary resilience.  I am inspired by their ability to not only recover—but to bounce back from unimaginable trials. They have been through a great deal—and still they have the stamina to walk through our doors and find hope, meaning and, most importantly, possibilities for a new future.

While the issues  are clearly very different, organizations, too, are also susceptible to the impact of the environment.   In our organization, like many nonprofits, the only constant is change. Contracts shift. Foundation awards run their course. Federal guidelines change. The political climate shifts with new leaders. Staff move into new roles. These forces create stress.   But also like people, organizations can build their resilience muscles so that change is less a cause for stress, and more viewed as  an opportunity.

What are the catalysts for resilience? There is much research out there about what makes resilience in human beings. To sum it up, resilience is found when an individual feels:  competent—well-built skills to meet whatever challenges arise; confident—in their various abilities; connection—to a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a family member who has faith in their success; contribution—to something greater than him or herself; and control—over the basic and most foundational aspects of their lives.

These characteristics can be applied to organizations as well. These “c’s” of resilience are essential to creating a positive and growing organizational culture.

For an organization to feel competent, there needs to be a common understanding of mission and the skills required to accomplish agency goals.  From hiring, throughout the lifecycle of an employee, it is essential that every employee understands the work, how to do it and where to get information to enhance skills.

Organizational confidence comes from leaders who are clear and focused on the right things at the right times.

Organizational connection is essential—to each other, to our Board, our funders, our stakeholders, and of course, to those we serve. These connections help us feel a part of something greater than ourselves.

Contribution, is an easy “muscle” to fall back on as every day we are able to see the fruits of our hard work in the successes of those we serve.   This “doing” makes us feels good, makes us resilient.

And finally, control…while we really have little control over the future, we do have the ability to prepare for it by carefully attending to the environment and the trends.

How resilient is your organization?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Why Together is Better.

If we are not growing we are shrinking.  My staff have heard me say that many times.  Every year it costs more to do our work—more in salaries, health care benefits—so if you are not growing, you are shrinking.

One of the strategies for growth we have employed is to join with reputable, like-missioned organizations.  People often ask me exactly why this strategy for growth?   My response:  because together, we are better.

The driver behind all of our work is comprised of three key concepts: we must be relevant, we must be sustainable, and we must have impact.

In order to be relevant, we must continually look at ways to solve the problems that challenge economic well-being. Needs evolve, policies change, government and foundation budgets grow and shrink, and innovations are happening every day. Part of our strategy is to not only keep up with all of those changes, but also to lead the way in guiding policy and thinking. By joining with organizations that are also focused on solving the problem we have a much better chance at creating relevant solutions.

For our work to be sustainable, we look to long-term outcomes, not just quick solutions. For example, twenty years ago, sheltered workshops were seen as cutting-edge solutions to integrating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) into employment. As a result of our learnings about sheltered workshops, it is clear that not only can people with I/DD work and work well, but most are able to work in the community, contributing great work in a variety of settings.  And so the next generation of understanding support of those with I/DD includes closing sheltered workshops, working alongside businesses and families to inspire not only the possibility that an individual with I/DD can work, but that he will make a huge contribution to his family, the workplace, and his community.  Combining with organizations that are forward thinking helps us to maintain long-term sustainability.

And, for us to have impact, our work must be about both changing the life of an individual, but  ultimately changing the system itself—we aim to change hearts, minds, systems, and processes so that even those who do not come through our doors are impacted by the work we do.  By leveraging our work and the efforts of our family of agencies—we have a tremendous opportunity to make real impact.

And so we seek to partner with other organizations whose work adds to ours—so that together we are not just 1+1=2, but more like 20 or 30…better together.

And when we find ways to leverage the brands within our family of agencies—like Easter Seals, ReServe,  Wildcat, Community Work Services and most recently, Single Stop USA—we are really leveraging the value of each.

On February 1, we combined with Single Stop USA. This combination is a perfect example of combining strength, talent, and ensuring our commitment to relevant, sustainable impact. Single Stop enjoys a strong reputation as a one-stop shop for individuals seeking to access resources to help break the cycle of poverty through access to education, training, counseling, and employment. Single Stop USA is a perfect addition to our “family,” –and as a result, each of us will be able to offer a new portfolio of services to those we serve.

Together, we will use our strength to leverage equity for those with barriers to economic well-being. And together, we will continue to strive for relevant, sustainable impact.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Leaders as Storytellers: A Catalyst for Growth and Change

The success of our organization lies in changing the narrative of the thousands of lives we serve each year. For every individual whom we serve directly or indirectly through our influence, there is a story behind them—a story that changes as a result of the work we do. These stories are what inspire people to join our staff, become part of our family of brands, donate money,  and to enter our programs seeking help.

The stories of those we serve are just part of the power of stories. Research proves that storytelling is also an essential skill for leaders to inspire and motivate. And, ultimately, they are a catalyst for growth and for success because, among other things, storytelling is a tool of persuasion—a key driver in a leader’s toolkit to win hearts and minds and to inspire action.

There are many ways to approach storytelling as a leader, but for me, the first and most important approach is to use storytelling as a means to show others who you are as a leader. Most often, this means telling the story of a time when we learned something—when we were vulnerable, perhaps believing we had the right answer and being humbled by an authentic truth that may have jolted our perceptions and inspired a new way of thinking. This type of story—told absolutely authentically and humbly—breeds trust. It helps those we lead identify with us and understand that as leaders we don’t have all the answers. The story scenario might unfold as, “I believed something, I made a mistake, I learned, and now I see things differently and what a difference it makes.”

Storytelling also motivates others to take action. Telling a specific story of something that has already happened and its success shows an audience what is possible.   In my role as CEO of Fedcap, I have no shortage of true stories about how the work we do has impacted others. Telling my story of what it was like to work with someone and the rewards of witnessing their progress inspires others.

In every good story, something must happen and someone must change. Storytelling for its own sake is of course, entertaining. However, as a leader, the stories we tell must also be accompanied by some analysis of what happened and what its impact was as well as to reflect what changed as a result.  If I tell a story about my own leadership, I must lay out the narrative and then reflect on how I changed. If I am telling a story about an individual we serve, then I must tell precisely what happened, what changed, and how that person is different as a result of the story. Stories can be not just about individuals, but also about the journey of a program or about an entire organization.

And not all stories are happy all of the time.  Rarely do people ‘s lives stay on a single trajectory…they have ebbs and flows, it is what makes us human.

For us at Fedcap, all of our stories—the stories of those we serve, of our agency, of our growth and change over time and my own story as a leader—all follow a narrative that reflects the power of possible. People have entered our agency without hope and because of what happens between individuals, or a system that works, or an inspired story of someone else who has succeeded, things that seemed impossible morph into the possible. Stories are what touch us and inspire us and cause us to remember why we do the work we do. I am inspired daily by the stories I hear from staff and from those we serve about what can happen when we share our vulnerabilities, look to each other for support, and keep telling the stories of what is possible.

I am always eager to hear your stories. As always, feel free to share your thoughts.



Are We Serving or Solving a Problem?

We’re always on the lookout for candidates who have a “learner” mindset rather than an “expert” one. Learners are interested in new ways to solve problems. Experts can’t wait to tell you the answers.”

                                                                                           Tim Jones, Director of Strategy, 72andSunny

Each year, between $3.6 and $3.9 billion dollars are spent in the child welfare system specifically for foster care. These monies are distributed in three ways—as maintenance payments that cover the cost of shelter, food and clothing for eligible foster children; as foster care placement services and administrative costs; and for staff training and some training for parents. These billions of dollars serve those in the foster care system. The money is used to maintain and implement the system. It is essential to the running of the programs.

In the meantime, 74% of youth leaving foster care end up homeless, in prison or pregnant as opposed to 36% of their peers who are not in foster care. By all measures, these 74% are not succeeding.

Every day I think about ways to solve the problems that challenge the populations that we serve as they strive to achieve equity. Sixty-three percent of individuals leaving the prison system are re-arrested within three years. Ninety-five percent of individuals of working age with disabilities are unemployed. Like the foster care systems, billions of dollars are spent each year serving these populations.

What if we were to rethink the way we serve populations, and instead focus on finding the interventions that can significantly shift the track for many of these individual, ultimately, making a huge inroad in solving the problem?

For example, we took at close look at the issues facing youth aging out of foster care. We asked: what if we could find a way to help foster children aspiring to go to college? Attending college could significantly impact that 74% cited above. Then we asked: Why don’t more youth in care attend college? The research shows that youth are most apt to attend college if there is someone at home encouraging them to help with applications and the often complex system of financial aid and testing and admissions guidelines. And so we worked on a solution which ultimately became our PrepNow! program, designed specifically for foster parents to help them navigate the college admission process so that they can help their college-age youth apply and attend college. And we are finding that those who participate are indeed attending college and while we are tracking the precise statistics on long-term success, we know that youth who attend and graduate from college have more choices about the type of work they do, get jobs that have a career ladder, earn more money over their lifetime, and ultimately achieve equity and are more apt to contribute significantly to their communities.

Sometimes, all it takes to solve a problem is not a huge overhaul of a well-established system, but a precise and powerful intervention. It means asking the questions that get to the heart of the matter—what is in the way? Often the answer lies not with the individuals, but with the environment or the system or the process or the structure that is intended to support them. And once we solve one problem, we can move on the next and the next and the next. Each small step can ultimately lead to huge changes that are relevant, that are sustainable, and that ultimately have a huge impact on removing the barriers that caused the problem in the first place.

Are you serving the problems that you are working on, or are you solving them?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Asking the Right Questions—A Catalyst for Great Leadership

The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

–Albert Einstein

Asking the right questions at the right time is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. Questions don’t necessarily have to come from a titled leader, but can—and should—come from people all over an organization, at every level. The more we ask questions, the more we understand the problem we are trying to solve—and the more likely our solutions are the right solutions.

What are the right questions? There are all sorts of sites throughout the internet and books written about what the right questions are. I don’t believe that there is any set of specific questions that will propel a company, team or individual to solve the right problems, but simply that we need to be in the mindset of continuously asking questions.

I recall reading a story of a large foundation that invested millions of dollars into purifying water within a region of Africa as a means to combat disease.  They built a huge purification system that flowed into hundreds of taps.  No one came.   No movement in the prevalence of disease resulting from drinking dirty water.  Why?  Because they failed to ask enough questions. They failed to understand that the actual issue to be solved was as much about access to water as it was purity.  They failed to understand what communities had to go through to actually gain access to the purified water, how far they had to travel, and how challenging it was for families.

If you’ve tried to solve a problem with every solution you can think of, your challenge isn’t finding a better solution. It’s finding a better more precise problem.  And the only way to find a more precise problem is to ask questions.   If you are caught in a problem that seems unsolvable, ask this simple question: If the problem you’re trying to solve weren’t the problem, what else might be?  Critical thinking is rarely about having the right answer and most often about asking the right questions—questions that tip the issue upside down and look at it from many different lenses. There’s an additional advantage to redefining your problem: it frees you to experiment with “beginner’s mind”—a term that  refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.  When you apply the idea of a beginners mind, you get to start over, think differently about areas where you believe you have  knowledge.  I have learned that often what we know can get in the way of being curious.

Questions allow us to move past the lens of “I know” to the lens of what don’t I know.   What there is to discover is most always more important than what we already know.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. What are some questions you might ask to get to the next problem?