Philanthropy holds more than $1.5 trillion in assets globally, more than the U.S. federal government’s entire budget in 2018. Despite the fact that much of this funding goes toward social change work, gaps in outcomes across areas like health, education, income, and wealth are getting worse, not better. As a collaborative of the largest U.S. foundations and financial institutions dedicated to closing these gaps, we’ve asked ourselves: “How can we fix the disconnect between our investment and the impact we hope to achieve?”

Living Cities and others in the social change space have grappled with this critical question for years. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve made significant progress in aligning our activities toward a clear set of results and building a system for measuring progress. Throughout the process, two themes emerged that can inform leaders working in any institution or sector who hope to build accountability to results.

At Living Cities, we believe that achieving economic justice for all requires a focus on both race and results. This belief is based on what we’ve learned over our 28 year history of investment in economic opportunity for low-income people. In the past several years, we came to realize that despite millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and powerful networks, our impact has been incremental compared to our aspirations.

We had to get clear on two things. First, our overarching goal was unclear and didn’t reflect a desired end condition. The concept of economic opportunity is useful at times, but it represents a starting point, a piece of the puzzle rather than a vision of economic well being. Relying on opportunity as our endpoint placed a heavy burden on the individual, ignoring all the systemic factors that have to be in place for a person to actually take advantage of an opportunity. It excuses public, private and philanthropic actors from their responsibility to create and maintain the conditions necessary for everyone to participate and thrive.

Second, we learned that you can’t achieve results ‘for all’ without a anti-racist approach that addresses the history and legacy of structural racism. Race neutral solutions fail to improve conditions for communities of color because they assume race is irrelevant. The reality is that race continues to be one of the strongest predictors of outcomes in any given area of life. We began to realize that without strategies that address the historical and current realities of structural racism, our work to get results for all people would continue to be undermined.

Get Specific and Accountable

Looking back, a major spark for our internal focus on performance and results came out of our collective action work with cities (known as the Integration Initiative). The cross-sector partnerships we support through this work involve naming a shared result, essentially a measurable, population-level outcome that the collaborative is accountable to and aligns resources around.

Status quo approaches to social change work don’t incentivize asking the tough but important question: “Are we doing the right things and are we doing those things right?” Figuring out how to build muscles around results and measurement to begin to answer this question was a daunting process. We started to make progress internally and in our work with cities when we began to adopt a framework known as Results Based Accountability (RBA).

Prior to this point, our overarching mission was to get results for low-income people. As the practice of RBA spread throughout Living Cities, we realized that we needed to get more specific. In the past, our approach mirrored that of many funders: try a lot of things that seem to make sense or feel innovative and see what sticks. This was in large part because we were focused on addressing symptoms and not root causes.

After much deliberation to find the best point of leverage, leadership aligned on a new guidestar for our work: ensuring that all people in U.S. cities are economically secure and building wealth. We now call this our North Star Result.

Target Root Causes

What came next was essentially a long process of mapping backward from this new result to ensure our portfolio of programs was aligned and poised for impact. We started one step down from the top: what factors enable people to become economically secure and build wealth? The list was understandably long and diverse: homeownership, wages, generational wealth, and education were just a few.

The next step was to identify root causes as we dove deeper into why disparities exist in each of these areas. The “aha” moment came when leadership collectively named racism–interpersonal, institutional, and systemic–as a common thread uniting these persistent gaps. It wasn’t until we took our results framework of RBA and applied an anti-racist lens that we really started to have influence over our result. We started to think deeply about what it takes to get results for all people. Our solutions had to target these racial disparities in order to disrupt the status quo, change oppressive systems, close the gaps, and achieve results for all people.

Learn more about our journey to operationalize racial equity.

Equipped with a clear result and commitment to racial equity, we still faced a number of challenges. With so many possible intervention points, how would Living Cities decide which factors to address? What would these realizations mean for our portfolio of programs? How would we support our staff and partners in making this important but challenging shift?

We’ll explore these questions and share insights on the critical role of relationships in Part 2 of this series.