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Stuck in the Bucket: Stopping the Overflow of Poverty

February 7, 2024 Category: Explainer

Imagine a bucket full of holes. One hole is a steady flow of people who are food insecure – these people are supported by the non-profit organizations that provide meals and pantries. Another hole is a steady flow of people falling into homelessness. Each hole represents a different human service need: housing, employment, education, clothing, furniture, healthcare, and more. And the bucket is constantly filling up with more and more people who then fall out of the holes. That’s how it works with human services at the moment.

Philadelphia knows how to plug the holes. The city has a strong network of nonprofit organizations that help in every area of need. When people fall through a hole in the bucket, there’s a service to help them get back on their feet.

What Philadelphia doesn’t do well is prevent more people from falling into the bucket at all. Per a recent Pew Report, the poverty rate “remained stubbornly high, at 22.8%, little changed from 2019 to 2021 despite the major influx of stimulus spending and the expanded federal child tax credit, which was discontinued after 2021.” Philadelphia continues to be the poorest big city in the United States.

Most nonprofit organizations are fighting the symptoms. They do not address the causes. Housing organizations provide homes, but they don’t prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Poverty, especially intergenerational poverty, is a huge problem. A large portion of our nonprofit landscape addresses the symptoms of poverty. But how many organizations can you think of that prevent a family from falling into poverty in the first place?

We asked several people working in philanthropy and nonprofit organizations for their thoughts on how to tackle this issue. All of these opinions are from the individuals themselves, not the organizations they represent.

Elizabeth Hefner, a consultant at Schultz & Williams and board member/VP of Education and Professional Development at the local Association of Fundraising Professionals shared a strategy for philanthropists, especially those with greater resources:

“We have to take an approach that does more than acknowledge the past harm caused to marginalized communities and then demand that they conform to a norm or standard to gain access to support. This means acknowledging and working with an asset-based mindset, where communities can both tell the philanthropic community what they need and drive solutions funded by philanthropy.”

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This view is similar to the Community-Centric Fundraising (CCF) model, which aspires to transform fundraising and philanthropy through racial and economic justice. While CCF has become a popular topic of conversation in recent years, there are few guides that guide fundraisers and philanthropists through applying the principles to their own organizations.

Hefner went on to say

“I will acknowledge that we are moving forward in this space. In many cases, organizations are eliminating barriers to resources when those barriers are called “outcome drivers” but are thinly veiled societal judgments.” That’s a great step towards racial and economic justice. However, she made a great point in saying “Let’s celebrate culture through food – even when you are addressing food insecurity.” Not all food pantries and meal services take into account the culturally relevant foods of the people they serve, and that’s certainly not a community-centered way to operate.

For philanthropists, it’s about more than just listening to communities impacted by poverty. They must also listen to the nonprofits they’re funding and adjust their practices accordingly. Jessica Main, Chief Development Officer at Families Forward Philadelphia, gave this example of how philanthropy can get in the way:

“We constantly hear from funders that they don’t want to fund overhead, and generally what they mean by that is salaries. I’m fine with my salary being considered overhead, because it is. But the program staff’s salary is a program expense.”

At a recent Q&A Main attended, the funder required no more than 20% of the project budget be spent on overhead. But, as she stated above, program staff salaries should be considered a program expense; without the staff, the program doesn’t exist.

Salaries are just one example of how funders can be short-sighted. They too often fail to see the big picture. Hefner pointed out that “this work cannot be measured in annual outcomes, but in multi-year multi-generational community outcomes. This work takes time, and we must give it time – decades of investment rather than a year or two, and when we don’t see change, philanthropy walks away.”

It’s not just private funders who need to make some changes. Nonprofit professional, Sophia Peake, addressed the role of government,

“On a systemic level, legislators and government officials need to continue working to strengthen social safety nets to address ongoing poverty issues and its root causes. The racial wealth gap is exacerbated by stagnant wages that have not grown or increased with inflation and the current cost of living. For example, this looks like extending unemployment benefits, increasing the minimum wage state-wide, and removing many of the barriers to access to many of the social services we do have.”

There isn’t just one source of bucket fillers. Everyone from our government to our philanthropists and funders to our nonprofit organizations and our community members are working together to support those in need. But are we all working together to stop filling the bucket?

There is some hope. Peake talked about place-based philanthropy and integrating it into both programming and funding strategies.

“How can we look to local organizations and communities who know best to tell us the most pressing needs of that area and also address root issues? What does it mean for those in that specific area to thrive? What does that look like? [We need to] shift our lenses to more of a long-term transformation that’s actually sustainable.”

She also suggested a coalition of wraparound care that would address all of the holes in the bucket in one place, rather than pitting nonprofits against one another to compete for funding.

Hefner agreed with that sentiment, suggesting that we lean into holistic, multi-sector plans that address all of the needs of communities, not just a portion. Some organizations, she believes, do this well include Habitat Philly’s neighborhood revitalization program, North10’s position as a community convener and resource hub, and the Community Design Collaborative.

One thing is certain: there is no “one solution” to help those slipping through the holes in the bucket, nor is there one solution to filling the bucket in the first place. It’s going to require everyone, from government to philanthropy to nonprofit organizations and communities, to working together to strategically address the root cause of the issue. It’s no longer enough to plug the holes; we have to stop filling the bucket.

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Health and Human Services

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