Sam WattsThink Philanthropically

What happens when we try to do the right thing the wrong way? Often we do not achieve the result we are aiming for.  This is a very common philanthropic problem. Community-based non-profits often struggle because they try to good work the wrong way. 

When philanthropic organizations respond to people who are experiencing food insecurity, homelessness and poverty using a model rooted in the principles of “disaster relief” the results are always suboptimal. When a community experiences a flood, storm or a wildfire, it is important to marshal resources and supply things like food, clothing and temporary shelter. The principles of “disaster relief” are effective at helping temporarily displaced people recover and re-establish themselves. For years, services to the disadvantaged and vulnerable have mirrored the same model. However, this model of service cannot resolve the complex social challenges of the 21st century. We can’t solve hunger with a weekly food basket nor can we help someone obtain permanent housing by offering a cot for the night. Installing portable toilets next to urban encampments doesn’t address a housing crisis rooted in systemic discrimination.  

“When life goes to ground zero, or if a person has lost

 their support network of friends and family,

 it is extremely difficult to navigate back to wholeness.”

Many of the readers of this column have read Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity. In it he describes the steps that create an unhealthy loop in socially motivated charitable activity as appreciation, anticipation, expectation, entitlement and dependency. He goes on to suggest that people who donate or deliver emergency relief services typically develop a profound belief that they are necessary and essential. As an example, many community groups that distribute meals or food baskets feel validated by virtue of the length of the line up at their door. A line up week after week for emergency help may actually be a signal that something in the social ecosystem needs to change and that the well-intentioned help being offered isn’t getting the job done. Vulnerable people will seek out emergency relief no matter how undignified the experience is, and the people who deliver it will cling to the belief that the people they serve would never survive without the relief they provide. This eventually becomes a cycle of dependency.

“There are more than 300 food security services on the island,

yet at least 50,000 people struggle to afford to obtain food.”

It is disconcerting to observe thousands of very dedicated people who are hard at work providing life-saving emergency services to those in difficulty in our cities and towns only to see the number of people in need increasing year after year. We have dozens of organizations in Montreal that serve people experiencing homelessness, yet visible homelessness is growing. There are more than 300 food security services on the island, yet at least 50,000 people struggle to afford to obtain food. Opening up more emergency service providers is not the answer. Those that exist already are massively under-resourced. While it is important to recognize the value of life-saving emergency services, we will not make serious progress unless we change our collective response to today’s major social challenges.   

We must begin by recognizing that “disaster relief” as an approach doesn’t work. Emergency help has to lead towards permanent solutions. It is time to develop a new way to live together and a model of service for those in need that responds to the realities of the 21st century. The encouraging thing is that we know exactly what needs to be done. We know how to do it. We just need the collective willingness to move forward. Collective willingness means that all levels of government, philanthropists and community groups need to act in a coordinated fashion. Here are four key elements that are essential:

Establish clear responsibility – Most complex social challenges are not “owned” by anyone. Elected officials and civil servants at every level of government will bemoan problems like the lack of accessible, affordable housing or the fact that to many children aren’t adequately nourished. Ultimately, no single department, minister or individual is accountable to fix it. When I worked in the private sector we always identified an “owner”, someone who was responsible to ensure that a specific outcome was achieved. Similarly, if we want to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, hunger or poverty in Montreal we need to identify and empower a person (or an entity) that has the power to compel action and the funding to support targeted efforts. If nobody is accountable for outcomes there is a tendency to race from crisis to crisis and never achieve anything meaningful.

Identify preventative actions – There is an often repeated story that goes something like this. Two men were walking by a fast moving river when they saw a child being swept downstream in the current. One of the men dove in to rescue the child. No sooner had he pulled the child to safety than he spotted another child, then another, and another in the same predicament. Alarmed he called out to his friend who was on the shore. “Why don’t you jump in the river and help me?” The man on shore said; “are you kidding, I am going to run along this shoreline up river to stop whomever is throwing children in the river”. The message is that ongoing downstream rescue efforts can be avoided if proactive upstream prevention is in place. We may not be able to stop everyone from needing emergency help but we can reduce the size of the challenge via upstream prevention. There are plenty of proven preventative measures that can be put in place that will help people and ensure that their situation doesn’t become critical.

Establish a coordinated entry system – This should operate much like the entry point to hospital care. Every medical facility that offers emergency assistance has a system that identifies by name and situation those who enter. They know who is in the emergency room. The challenge with the ecosystem of those who provide emergency services to the disadvantaged is that, in community organizations in Montreal, it is currently impossible to accurately know who is in what location and why they are there. Systems that manage coordinated entry exist and they are essential to the effective delivery of solutions to those in need.

Identify and facilitate multiple exit pathways – One size does not fit all and therefore access to a multitude of possible solutions is critical. For example, new arrivals to Montreal are often in search of meaningful employment. Frequently there are things that they don’t know or understand and it is essential to accompany people on their journey through a labyrinth of government processes. The same sort of thing is true for people who have experienced violence, trauma, homelessness, poverty or a catastrophic and life altering medical challenge. When life goes to ground zero, or if a person has lost their support network of friends and family, it is extremely difficult to navigate back to wholeness. Complex social challenges are…complex. Each person has a different story and different needs.  Yet there are three common denominators. Stable housing, access to healthy food and a coherent community of support. Every exit pathway has to include them and if we fix the gaps in our social support systems related to these three elements we will help people in tangible and measurable ways.            

In Montreal, the scope and complexity of the challenge is relatively small compared to most other North American urban areas. In other words, this is an easier fix than it will be in many other cities and towns.  True community transformation can be accomplished when we face challenges together. It is important to recognize that resolving these issues will take some time. There will be a financial investment required but it will pay dividends.   We see reductions in the number of people in need because we will be providing traditionally marginalized people with opportunities contribute meaningfully to society. Simultaneously, the enormous cost of providing never ending emergency services will decline sharply.     

Sam Watts serves as the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He serves on several non-profit boards and the National Housing Council of Canada.  He is the author of Good Work…Done Better