Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America by Lisbeth B. Schorr. Doubleday: New York 1997. 482 pp.
Since Ronald Reagan was elected President, the infuriating cliche? “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won” has been invoked by politicians across the political spectrum. Lisbeth Schorr’s refreshing book, Common Purpose, disagrees and suggests that while the government may be ready to capitulate to the scourge of poverty, many community-based efforts to fight back have made great inroads. Schorr shows that despite the impression left by the popular media that nothing can be done to alleviate poverty, there continue to be great successes fighting seemingly intractable social problems in communities all over America.
Schorr suggests that American government has never committed the time or energy to learn the lessons of these successes and dedicate the necessary resources to bring programs that work to the scale needed to make a significant dent in poverty. If we put our minds to solving our greatest problems, she says, we would realize that in order to have healthy children, we need strong families, and in order to have strong families we need strong communities. This interconnectivity calls for comprehensive solutions to problems, and not approaches designed to be TV news sound-bites.
Schorr, a lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard, criss-crossed the country speaking to community residents and leaders, government officials, foundations, and social service providers, and distilled the lessons she learned into useful rules to follow in thinking about social program design. Her Seven Attributes of Highly Effective Programs [see sidebar] are valuable points to consider in our efforts to improve programs and to understand why many of our efforts have been unsuccessful.
The book is filled with inspiring examples of successful organizations, many from the field of community development, which illustrate her points. Reading the descriptions of the strategies of successful organizations, Shelterforce readers will immediately recognize many of her insights in their own work. Those working in successful programs care a great deal about the people they are working with, work long hours to get the job done, persevere to get around bureaucratic roadblocks, and adjust strategies rapidly to improve the chances of success, Schorr says.
For community-development organizations and projects, accountability to the community shouldn’t simply mean “following rules,” Schorr says, but rather “getting results.” Providers waste time filling out useless paperwork when they should be spending time meeting needs, she says, and government employees spend inordinate time creating, checking, and filing what often amounts to meaningless bureaucratic red tape. Most of all, the public is tired of paying for programs that look like they are not accomplishing anything. One way out of this dilemma is to hold agencies accountable not for following rules and filling out paperwork, but for getting results. If foundations and government could focus their dollars on funding broad-based community-generated approaches to problem solving, rather than funding narrow approaches and “pet projects,” innovation and creativity would be encouraged. In addition, it would force community-based organizations to set much more precise goals, and provide a welcome challenge to meet them. The distinction between setting precise goals and focusing too narrowly on a single issue is an important one in Schorr’s argument-groups need to work toward results, but on a broad scale that demonstrates the connections between a variety of issues affecting the community.
Schorr cites Oregon’s Benchmarks program as a successful example of a program that focuses on goal setting. A statewide “Progress Board” set 259 benchmarks-in issues ranging from school readiness to the reduction of crime-that are now used as a framework for policy discussions and for setting budget priorities. Not only did the process of setting and considering these benchmarks help guide programs and agendas, Schorr says, but it helped build new alliances between local and state governments.
Some in the nonprofit world would likely not want to be held accountable for the results of their work. Making neighborhood organizations responsible for their results may demonstrate that many programs are not accomplishing their stated goals. Publicizing results, on the other hand, may have the positive effect of increasing funding to programs that work and creating pressure on funders to increase financial commitments to problems they claim they want to solve.
Schorr believes that comprehensive planning is the best way to address interconnected community needs, and she places CDCs squarely in the center of the nation’s best hope to implement these strategies. She describes initiatives in six communities including Sandtown-Winchester in Baltimore; South Bronx in New York City; Savannah, Georgia; Atlanta, Georgia; Newark, New Jersey; and Dudley Street in Boston; as well as the potential for comprehensive community planning presented by Empowerment Zones. These projects are at their best when they encourage maximum community participation in planning, involve multiple community-based organizations in leading the revitalization, and have financial and moral support from foundations, banks, city government, and the private sector.
Schorr identifies compartmentalization of the work performed by community organizations and social service providers as an obstacle to success in comprehensive community planning. Solving any one piece of this puzzle is important, but long-term success will come only with a more holistic approach to community development, she maintains. Unfortunately, the way many of our organizations and funding sources are structured leads to compartmentalizing of each aspect of the problem. Our organizations become specialists in one remedy, when comprehensive approaches are necessary. Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester initiative, which worked in a single neighborhood to simultaneously improve the school, health, justice and human services systems, and to provide economic opportunity, is one example Schorr uses to demonstrate the power of comprehensive thinking and planning in community development.
The challenge for highly specialized housing development groups, job training organizations, Head Start facilities, child welfare providers, school reform bodies, and those concerned with other important single-issues, is in creating representative bodies that bring the voices of all these important fields together to create a common vision and set of priorities. It will not easy to get beyond turf issues, personality conflicts, and fights over limited resources. As Schorr suggests, finding ways to bring all parties to the table so everyone buys into the comprehensive vision for neighborhoods will be a critical factor in success for any one particular initiative in the future.
Though practitioners will undoubtedly enjoy reading about successes of programs similar to their own, Common Purpose may be old news to those who work in the trenches, and know intuitively what is working and what the obstacles are to achieving greater success. It should, however, be required reading for policy makers. Success stories are rarely covered in the mainstream media, so this book gives a much-needed panoramic view of both the reality of the important work happening today and the possibility for replicating these successes in the future.