Combating Poverty – A New Way to Think


X-Ray Brain

Poverty ranks among the greatest social issues of the 21st century.

As America’s income-gap grows, a nation of haves and have-nots is emerging. While more Americans are pushed into poverty, there also are many who have always lived in poverty. The latter group are the long-term poor. It’s important to note the distinction because the long-term poor face more significant challenges to overcome their situation.

New research from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child shows living in poverty creates physiologic brain changes in children. The stresses of poverty reduce the mental flexibility needed to switch between analyzing problems, predict accurate conclusions between choice and action, and develop willpower to not make impulsive decisions. The longer you live in poverty, the more stress you accumulate. The more stress you accumulate, the more brain changes affects your decision-making ability.

Elizabeth D. Babcock, CEO of a Boston-based nonprofit that helps low-income women break the cycle of poverty, writes in greater depth about this issue in “Rethinking Poverty.” Elizabeth’s work shows a change in how social-good services are approaching the difficult task to lift the long-term poor from destitute. The new strategy is working.

The correct approach?

Elizabeth’s approach to combat poverty for the long-term poor hasn’t won approval from everyone.

A reader of Elizabeth’s article wrote a comment that takes an opposing viewpoint about the correct approach to help transition people out of poverty:

“The root causes of poverty are ‘the erosion of the public safety net, the increasing prevalence of low-wage employment, and decreases in low-wage earnings’ coupled with lack of access to higher education. These root causes (among many others) of poverty also create ‘crippling stresses that significantly hamper people’s ability to develop and sustain’ healthy lives. And your antidote to this structural cause is an individual-level intervention to help women better cope with an unjust society? This is not ‘better living through science’, this is treating the victims while leaving the source unchallenged. Its more of the same: the original source of the problem in society is left unchanged while expensive new services are proposed to cater for the individuals most affected.”

This post won’t advocate for either viewpoint.

Instead, it’s interesting to consider the idea that the nonprofit sector is powerful because it can approach social problems from multiple angles.

What do you think? Do you agree with Elizabeth’s take or the commenter? How should nonprofits approach defeating social problems?


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William Penn Foundation’s Grant Reflects Evolving Role of Libraries

Free Library of Philadelphia

An architectural rendering of what the library is calling “the common” at the Central Branch. Its a flexible, 8,000-square-foot lobby-like space. Photo: The Philadelphia Inquirer

The William Penn Foundation’s (the Foundation) recent announcement of a three-year, $25 million grant to the Free Library of Philadelphia (Free Library) reflects a new view among civic and social-good leaders that libraries should expand their role to serve communities.

Once only seen as a place to research and rent books, libraries are evolving to meet additional needs.Through the Foundation’s funding,The Free Library will provide programming for entrepreneurs and job seekers, teach culinary skills, and support early childhood literacy initiatives. The Free Library aims to fill parts of the roles of closed Philadelphia schools and service organizations.

The Foundation’s gift is their largest ever, representing an estimated eight percent of its total giving budget through the next three years.The donation is a strong endorsement of the Free Library’s ability to serve Philadelphia as an anchor institution. More influential nonprofit and philanthropic organization are embracing the shift for libraries to confront society’s challenges.

The Knight Foundation, one of the nation’s most influential foundations with an endowment of more than $2 billion, seeks to fund projects that build on the transformational ability of libraries.Through September 30, organizations, businesses, and individuals can submit proposals through the Knight News Challenge.

What can we learn?

It’s early to determine the final role of libraries. But as the Free Library’s evolution indicates, more libraries will have a large role as community anchors.

Many foundations are looking to fund organizations who can successfully prove how they can serve multiple needs within a community. This strategy makes sense from foundation’s viewpoint. It allows them to get the strongest return on investment for their donation. Organizations with the capacity and expertise to hold multiple roles are especially critical in today’s nonprofit landscape. The evolution of libraries is a reminder that the function of your organization doesn’t have to be static. Responding to the changing external environment is critical to remain a valuable asset to your service population.


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Insights From a New Approach to Transform ECE In West Philadelphia

Early Childhood EducationThe Emergence of a New West Philadelphia

We are thrilled to see the excitement about West Philadelphia’s federally-designed Promise Zone and, more importantly, the investments that designation is helping to attract.

Drexel University and the William Penn Foundation (WPF) recently announced a $4 million initiative that will help more young children in Mantua, West Powelton, and Belmont receive high quality child care so that they are better prepared for kindergarten (and ready to learn). The initiative, like the Promise Zone itself, is truly a collective effort: 23 child care centers and many of the city’s finest organizations will be involved.

Fairmount Ventures is proud to have been involved at several critical points along the way – which also means we’re in a good position to know why the approach worked.

Why the Approach Worked

1. There is a clear understanding of the nature of the problem: we helped with a Drexel needs assessment in 2011 that identified early childhood education as priority and helped secure funds for a more recent child care needs assessment that was also funded by the William Penn Foundation.

2. Key actors came together around common, community-driven goals to develop the Promise Zone partnership. Fairmount saw firsthand that the partner are committed to a clear structure, strong accountability, and a research-based link between strategies and outcomes. In fact, the federal government recognized the application for these features.

3. There are authentic partnerships with philanthropic investors. We also worked with Drexel to secure major funding from the Lenfest Foundation, which is supporting literacy work in Pre-K and K-3 classrooms. This means we know that Drexel has invested time to really understand the changes its philanthropic partners want to make, bounce ideas off of them, and genuinely work together to transform the neighborhoods.

Looking Forward

We should all keep an eye on this initiative because it’s nationally important. Everyone involved is contributing to a true early childhood education system. Organizational and philanthropic partners are heavily invested in the neighborhoods’ elementary schools, which means that there will be supports in place to sustain those early gains once children reach kindergarten. That’s exactly why HUD Secretary Julian Castro visited child care classrooms in the Promise Zone last week.


This content appears in the September issue of reSources, Fairmount’s monthly collection of ideas for people who want more impact, better fundraising and to stay connected to the region’s impact creators. Subscribe here – it’s free.


Pre-K Getting Spotlight Among Nation’s Educators

KindergartenThe New York Times published an article titled “51,000 Answer de Blasio’s Bell for New Pre-Kthis earlier week. 

The piece highlights New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s aggressive efforts to provide pre-kindergarten care in the largest school system in the United States. De Blasio aims to enroll 53,000 children in pre-kindergarten programs this year at 600 public schools and 1,100 community-based organizations and religious schools throughout the city.

Whether de Blasio’s plan is successful remains to be seen. But its impact will be felt across the country, especially as more education and policy experts recognize the effect that quality early education care has for children’s long-term success.

In Philadelphia we see this. This week, Drexel University and the William Penn Foundation  announced a new initiative to transform early education in West Philadelphia. Increasing the number of neighborhood children who receive high-quality childcare from 300 students to 600 students while raising pre-literacy scores by at least 15 percentage points is the primary goal.

Evaluating the short-term effectiveness of New York City’s pre-kindergarten program will come from a $2 million independent study followed by state test scores from enrolled students four years from now. Regardless, the outcomes from de Blasio’s program will impact early-childhood providers across the United States.

What do you think about the increased attention pre-kindergarten initiatives are receiving? Share with us @FairmountV.


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