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Changing Charity: Big Ideas to Improve Social Services

Our work is about bringing decision makers and the people who live the issues together to chart better paths forward. Over the past year, we’ve had the opportunity to host conversations related to transportation, housing, utilities, and more. One theme consistently bubbles to the top: the need for social service to be more efficient and innovative.

We know Cincinnati has an incredibly dedicated group of social service organizations - the challenge is not for a lack of conviction. But with one in four city residents still living below the poverty line, there’s an opportunity to consider how spending money more effectively and providing more empathic care could lead to better outcomes for those who are often struggling to make ends meet.

With this in mind, we launched a pro bono project called: “Changing Charity.” The goal has been to unearth innovative and empowering ways that philanthropic organizations and foundations should consider in order to “move the needle.” In short, identifying what high risk-high reward efforts could really make a difference.

Who We Talked To:

For this project, we looked to the experts for ideas: people who had recent experiences with utilizing social services to navigate experiences with poverty, either through government agencies or nonprofit organizations. In our two focus groups, the majority of participants were individuals with young

families, and they came from neighborhoods across the county, from Mt. Healthy and Lincoln Heights to East Price Hill and Avondale.

Big Ideas:

Develop Expert Navigator System: Social service agencies should strengthen expertise and assistance in helping individuals navigate government benefits and other accessible systems.

“The most helpful resources might also be the least helpful because they are so difficult to navigate.”

Many systems that are intended to help are often extremely difficult to navigate. Barriers at each step, inconsistent policies, burdensome documentation requirements and siloed services all make accessing services nearly impossible. There is an opportunity for agencies and organizations to provide well-paid, “navigators” with real world experience that can walk alongside those in need of support.

Create a "Humanity Score" for social service agencies: Fund and support organizations that are committed to providing people-centered care, because better interactions with frontline service providers will lead to better outcomes. Develop clear metrics and create a “humanity score” based on client-reported interactions and experiences.

“In areas where I was respected as a human I got so much further. When places are volunteer run, and they are there out of the kindness of their hearts and only for a few hours at a time. They are able to treat us better than someone with a stack of reports to get to who has already had to say ‘no’ 50 times that day.”

Positive interactions at service providers sites, especially the initial visits, are critical for effective service delivery and improved outcomes. Individuals expressed their desire for organizations to treat them sincerely and with respect, offering a person-centered approach. Having staff who are culturally competent and understand the situations that people may find themselves in is extremely important. A history of negative interactions makes it less likely people follow through with service providers and get the help they need.

Shift from Emergency Funding to Stability Funding: Provide substantial enough funding opportunities that can help stabilize and improve people’s lives instead of just meeting an immediate/emergency need.

Larger, less frequent distributions of resources can help equip individuals in poverty with enough money to restore dignity and enable them to not just survive, but to build a self-determined life for themselves around their own choices and needs.

“It’s just enough help to tread water. You’re just two inches below all the time...What if you did that service, maybe helping out with electric, but instead of just for one month, it was for three months? Or six months? That way you’d be helping that person get ahead, not just survive.”

Empathy and Empowerment Must Be Front and Center:

While we spent a lot of time discussing details around programming and services, the underlying theme of empathy and empowerment often found its way into the conversation. One woman, Tamara, shared her story of how she navigated the many struggles that come with poverty and how critical it was to create a vision for herself and have people who believed in her.

"I think there is power in empowering women to do more. Getting that job at St. Vincent DePaul saved my life. If I didn’t have that job, I would be getting just enough. I was living in subsidized housing, had two kids, knew all the resources from family and friends who told me what to do, but it wasn’t until people started to tell me I could do something different that I believed it.”

Tamara still works for St. Vincent DePaul and is now a homeowner in East Price HIll thanks to the Price Hill Will Homesteading Program. Her story is a reminder of what it can look like when individuals are given both the monetary and emotional resources they need to not just “get ahead” but succeed.

We’re hopeful that these learnings can spark a conversation, inspire more research into innovative ideas, and give leaders some of the personal insights they need to consider taking a different approach. Get in touch if you want to learn more about our “Changing Charity” or other projects!


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