When striving to be the hero hurts the cause

Passion isn’t enough to solve complex social problems. If it were, based on the large number of charities currently operating in the United States, we’d be further along on addressing some social issues.

From early on, I knew in my heart that I was going to give my life to helping people. But, I didn’t know how I would do it. I still remember that light bulb moment in college when I realized that I had a gift for making sense out of things. This led me to explore management and leadership topics that energized me. I also started connecting with people who had that same gift and who also had experience far beyond my years and a willingness to share their knowledge freely. Throughout these experiences, I maintained a desire to help kids who had been counted out because they were poor and often traumatized – kids like my five-year-old self, who endured abuse that is difficult to talk about. (Sadly, this abuse is more common than we care to believe – so eventually I did talk about it.)

Around 2005, I decided to turn my pain and passion into a program. I worked with a stellar graduate from Washington University’s Brown School as well as with colleagues from my former organization and developed HANDUPFORCHILDREN USA. I was convinced that the world needed another nonprofit that pipelined kids in foster care or poverty into college. We’d give them a hand up, not a hand out. I was also convinced that because of my personal narrative, I would have instant credibility and that my work ethic would bring the organization success. After doing more research, I learned that there were many programs either starting or already in the marketplace that sought to do the exact same thing. So instead of pushing HANDUPFORCHILDREN USA forward, I connected with one of those leaders, Lisa Zarin, early in the development of her program – College Bound. I decided that I didn’t have to be the hero – I could be a helpmate.

College Bound is now one of several agencies that have changed the narrative for hundreds of local youth. But the need still far outstrips the supply of resources, both people and money. We need better alignment of resources in this region. We need a regional scorecard that maps the number of kids who need help getting into, staying in and persisting in college or technical schools. We must approach human services with a better business discipline. The solution may not be creating more organizations, but rather partnering with existing groups and scaling as needed. This point could be made for any number of services that are designed to help people live better lives.

To achieve scale in the midst of declining and splintering resources, we need to temper our private beliefs that our way is the only way. We need to convert our passion into a practical process that allows us to see our regional collective impact. I am pleased each time I hear the phrase, “How can I help? Plug me in where I am most needed.” Lately, I’ve heard it a lot and I know this truly is how heroes are made.

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