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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3 Things the Social Justice Sector Can Do to Make History

By Mary Mazzoni

The 2016 Net Impact conference convened in Philadelphia last week with a bold call-to-action: Make history. And at a time when global challenges like climate change, resource scarcity and social inequity make our future uncertain, the demand for leaders with the courage to make history has never been greater.

When it comes to social justice, consider a few statistics raised by Michael Smith of My Brother’s Keeper:

  • Black, American Indian and Hispanic children are between six and nine times more likely than white children to live in areas of concentrated poverty.

  • 80 percent of children of color are not reading at grade level.

  • Black boys make up 6 percent of the American population, but are nearly half of the nation's murder victims.

  • A black baby boy born 25 years ago has only a 1 in 2 chance of being employed today, due not only to socioeconomic factors, but also to early death and over-incarceration.

  • Nearly half of black men are arrested at least once for non-traffic-related crimes by age 23.

Those stats are pretty grim, but this one isn't: If we closed the gap in labor force participation between 16-to-54 year-old men of color compared to white men, total U.S. GDP would increase by 2 percent.

That finding came from research at Smith's own My Brother's Keeper, President Barack Obama's initiative to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. President Obama formed the initiative in the wake of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, when he famously said: "Thirty years ago, Trayvon Martin could have been me."

Smith elaborated on Obama's motivations behind the program: "When you hear the president talk about this, he will say we have a moral obligation to make sure that America remains a place where you can make it if you try. But he would also say we have an economic imperative because America cannot remain globally competitive when we are satisfied with writing off so many young men who are sitting on the sidelines."

Smith, who lost his younger brother to gun violence, serves as special assistant to the president and senior director of cabinet affairs for My Brother's Keeper. He said his and his brother's story proves America has a long way to go before we can close the opportunity gap for children of color. But he insisted today's somewhat contentious landscape provides an open avenue for social change-makers.

As he wrapped up the Net Impact conference on Saturday, he shared three things the social justice sector can do to make history.

1. Be fearless

While Smith was a senior vice president for the Case Foundation, his team put out a campaign called Be Fearless. Smith said the family foundation intended to spark a conversation about how to take more risk and be be bold in the social sector. "Because if we can’t, then who will?," he asked rhetorically. "Why is it okay for an athlete, an entertainer, an entrepreneur to be fearless, and we’re incremental and slow?"

The Case Foundation commissioned research on the common attributes in fearless change-makers. Two in particular stood out to Smith:

  1. They make big bets: "People don’t want to follow the incremental," Smith said. "They don’t want 500 different things. They want a big call to action like: ‘We’re going to end malaria. We’re going to have a play place in walking distance to every kid. We’re going to make sure every young man of color in these 10 communities has a job.' Make a big bet for your work."

  2. They constantly experiment: "They figure out how to do R&D even when they don’t have R&D money. They make failure matter. They don’t get lost and sad about failures. They learn from them, and they build on top of them," Smith said. "Don't get stuck."

2. Be collaborative

"If you want to make changes, it’s no longer just the private sector, the social sector, philanthropy or corporations," Smith said. "It’s all happening together"

In 2007, the State Department launched the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership to create educational and economic opportunities for Palestinian youth. The Case Foundation was one of many partners on board. And Smith said the initiative proves what's possible with collaboration.

"We worked with the Bush administration; we worked with the Palestinian government," he said. "Because if you want to partner in peace, you have to make sure people have open opportunity."

The partnership included a venture capital fund, youth development centers powered by Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and developer days with Google staff. "You’ve got to figure out how to play to the strengths of each of the sectors coming together if you want breakthrough innovations," Smith advised. "If you want to go far, go together."

3. Bet on the winners

"We spend $300 billion a year in America on nonprofits, where 80 percent of them don’t do any sort of research. More than 50 percent don’t have a theory of change or logic model," Smith explained. "So, the pie is not getting bigger. Since the recession, the revenue that’s going to nonprofits is flat or a little above at best."

So, what's the solution? "One, we have to bet on the winners. And two, we have to come up with some creative strategies for social financing."

Bet on the winners sounds a bit like a line from "The Wolf of Wall Street," so how does it apply to the social sector? How can donors and partners pick winners and losers when it comes to nonprofits? Smith said the first step is a major overhaul in the way nonprofits measure success.

"Make sure we’re judging outcomes, not outputs," he advised. "Don’t ask me how many kids went through the program. Tell me how many kids went to college, stayed in college, went on and got a job."

Smith pointed to Pay for Success, which launched under his direction at the the Social Innovation Fund. The initiative provided a new contracting and financing model that leverages philanthropic and private dollars to fund services up front, the result of multiple feasibility studies and research projects. In the model, the government, or another entity, pays after the services generate results.

It sounds simple, but it's something of a breakthrough. And the strategy gained strong bipartisan support for increasing return on taxpayer dollars while improving the quality of services.

"We get really okay in the nonprofit sector patting ourselves on the back with one good story," Smith said. "But if we’re going to have breakthroughs, we’re going to have to focus on outcomes and we’re going to have to bring new dollars in the space."

The bottom line

In closing, Smith pointed to a famous Greek proverb: "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit."

It seemed fitting for a crowd of mostly post-graduate students. And it resonates all the more as we reach a turning point in the fight for social justice and equity in America. Smith shared a particularly evocative story of what the quote means to him:

"I was sitting at the opening of the African American History Museum a few weeks ago. I looked at John Lewis, and I looked at the great civil rights leaders. It made me think that so many of us are sitting under the shade and benefiting from the fruit of the trees they planted a generation ago. We’re sitting there, and we’ve got no shovel. We are not planning to plant the trees for the next generation."

He challenged the crowd of self-proclaimed change-makers to think about how they could pick up the shovel. It's not unlike John F. Kennedy's remarks in his 1961 inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

So, how will you raise your shovel? What will you do for our country, for society and for the planet? As students, business professionals and nonprofit leaders, it's up to each of us to decide. But the fact that we're raising the question should give us hope for the future.

"That’s what this is all about," Smith said. "We’re going to act with urgency. And we’ve got to realize that we need to get some shovels ready."

Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza, courtesy of My Brother's Keeper

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni