A way forward for human services

This post was originally published in the St. Louis Business Journal.

As a kid who grew up in St. Louis impoverished, both financially and emotionally, I was one of the countless individuals who relied on the good deeds of others to change my trajectory. Many years later, faced with increasing needs and finite resources, we are challenged to think differently about the business of helping. I, like you, want more for those who lack opportunities but have no shortage of ambition.

Our region is known for its charitable spirit, and that’s something we should be proud of. In fact, we were recently named the most charitable city in an annual study by Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator. We’ve consistently ranked high on the list for the last decade, and it is nice to claim the top spot. The same year our region achieved this milestone, our community erupted, unmasking globally what many locally have been working to mitigate for decades: racial division and economic and educational disparities.

While we are incredibly generous, our efforts to help people, to restore communities and transform lives, need work. This is what I mean by the business of helping. St. Louis doesn’t lack people with passion or organizations where people can direct that passion. In fact, according to Guidestar, we have more than 20,000 nonprofits in our region ready to help unleash your passion and plug you into the community. But we are not yet aligned for impact on the issue with the greatest potential return on investment: education. This includes not only classroom time but all programs helping children come to school ready to learn. To borrow language from the business world, our model is not yet optimized. At the same time that business leaders are grappling with how we craft a regional policy, program and funding agenda for children, youth and families, nonprofit leaders are aligning to work more strategically toward the same aim. Together we can develop a regional human services master plan and score card that we collectively own and use to drive change in our community.

When I think about how to strengthen our region’s approach to helping, I challenge us to act on data first and passion second. In human services, like business, we must start by looking at data to drive our efforts in order to solve complex problems. For our charitable spirit to translate to transformed lives, we have to work smarter and in alignment around data and evidence. I invite you to come to the table and lend your voice to planning for our region’s future with our greatest asset, our children, at the center.

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