The Yankee Stadium of Philanthropy

(This is a guest post from Carla Javits, President of REDF, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Carla Javits

The Yankee stadium sized conference center here full of 3,500 people makes you long for a bicycle to ride from place to place and binoculars to watch the action on stage (despite the huge video screens). But the giant plate glass windows looking out at the beautiful waterfront make it a little less overwhelming. It’s old home week for a lot of people here with much milling and warm greetings outside the sessions.

A few impressions from today. Morning session led by AmericaSpeaks raised questions for us to discuss at our tables as we drank our coffee slightly bleary eyed. What should philanthropy do to have greater impact? My table, a little jaded. After the big set up about how we might think about what philanthropy can do to transform the world as we know it… one of our main messages was “have more humility”. My table mates from several of the largest national and California-based foundations also had a few other thoughts. First, the urgency of a greater focus on poverty given the economy, income disparities, and food shortages around the world. But a caution that the way we frame it, the words we use, even “poverty”, may not compel interest from those we most need to pay attention. An intriguing thought from Dee Davis of the Central for Rural Strategies in Kentucky who was at my table (and graciously allowed me to quote him) – “We can’t consume ourselves into prosperity”.

Another table mate suggested reading a new book by Michael Edwards published by Demos called “Just Another Emperor: the Myth and Realities of Philanthropcapitalism.” Quickly skimming it, the book appears to challenge the value of social enterprise, social enterpreneurship, and venture philanthropy — all of which are at the heart of the organization I lead.

I’ll have more to say about his argument once I’ve had time away from Yankee stadium to read it. Superficially scanning the book did make me think about the fact that decades of traditional philanthropy have achieved some astonishing and great things, but have not yet led us to the world we want (also the title of a fine book by Peter Karoff. Knowing there is no silver bullet, full exploration of new approaches seems highly warranted, and I hope more of us will continue to pursue them as we aim for even more powerful results.

I attended two sessions on the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. Sponsored by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, Weinberg, and Hitachi Foundations, and the Department of Labor, with more foundations joining, the intent is to help start up foundation-based workforce collaboratives in 30-50 communities around the country. The basic idea is to help people who have barriers to employment get good jobs, keep them, and advance.

A central focus is a pretty basic notion which is suprisingly unusual in the wonderful world of workforce development. That is to address the ‘dual customer’ — not only the needs of the individual, but also the needs of business. And the point is also to better coordinate. Marguerite Womack of The United Way of Los Angeles which is leading a collaborative effort there talked about bringing the seven workforce investment boards together, since each one had been working alone on parallel initiatives to get workers into jobs in health care and other industires.

Latoya Patterson, a career coach at the University of Maryland Medical Center, spoke about the kind of support she provides to help workers succeed. Also on the panel was Ms. C, a mother of seven who had been able to leave private duty nursing for a more stable job as a hospital worker with the support of Ms. Patterson’s career coaching. She described how critical it had been in helping her to successfully retain her job despite a significant illness of one of her children and her own mother. Her daughter aspired to a professional career in health care, inspired by her mother’s example.

At a panel later that afternoon, the central importance of employer-based career coaching was reaffirmed. It reminded me of some great work that Springboard Forward is doing back home in the Bay Area. A top administrator of the University of Maryland Medical Center affirmed that the business community viewed the workforce collaborative’s effort as a civic priority and that the Medical Center views it as a way to develop a pipeline of workers and be a good corporate citizen.

Jason Perkins-Cohen of the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore talked about his successful program that trains workers for jobs as plumbers, carpenters and electricians. With 70% of the participants starting with criminal backgrounds, 80% became employed with many earning as much as $20/hour.

The Baltimore programs were incredibly impressive, but in total served several hundred people. A discussion of scale and sustainability suggested that on the one hand individual programs should not be forced to scale too quickly, and that on the other hand the workforce collaboratives could achieve greater scale by sustained efforts to create an array of different programs for people at different points in the employment ‘pipeline’.

An instructive afternoon panel led by Rick McGahey of the Ford Foundation noted that there is huge demographic opportunity and challenge as baby boomers leave the workforce. Georgetown Professor Harry Holzer asserted that there are a host of ‘middle skill’ jobs available to people with a post-secondary credential or training, but not necessarily a four year college degree. These jobs offer opportunities, but many workers will need to access training, and will require support for transportation, childcare and other needs to take advantage of them. This panel also emphasized again the amazing point that a sustained connection to private sector business is the key challenge for workforce development and has happened far too little and never in a sustained way.

There were some challenging questions about whether the National Fund for Workforce Solutions might take on the issue of job discrimination against people with a criminal record, raised by Debbie Alvarez, a trustee of the East Bay Community Foundation and Director of S.F. Goodwill. The response was that if this issue bubbles up from communities, the Fund would consider addressing it – most likely at the regional level, as the Fund is not primarily an advocacy organization at the national level.

Discussion also ensued about the right population to target. While panelists stated that it was important not to ‘cream’ by serving those who would have made it without assistance, on the other hand the collaboratives are not focused on those with the most significant barriers. Although the target population, it was noted, might vary from region to region.

This got me thinking about the whole question of “social return on investment”, or in a simpler form – the costs and benefits of private and public investments. When does it make sense to help those with more significant barriers – where the investments might be greater, but ultimately make a bigger impact; and when is it more beneficial to help others perhaps at lower cost – but not necessarily lower net cost. Responding to this questions has been part of REDF’s effort to measure the social return on investment for the social enterprises we support which have brought thousands of people with major barriers – homelessness, criminal histories, mental illness — into the workforce.

The comments and questions about scale and targeting continue to roll around in my sleepy head.

Pheww….an action packed day. Tomorrow – mini-summits and a gathering on homelessness. Wednesday, back to Yankee stadium