Imagine that you came home from work to find your house on fire. Your neighbor walks over and tells you he saw the whole thing happen. But he didn’t pick up a fire extinguisher, contact you, or call the fire department. How would you feel? Angry? Frustrated? Disappointed?
In communities all across the country, the phenomenon of people seeing problems and doing nothing about them plays out day after day. There are fires going on throughout our community—in our neighborhoods plagued by violence, in our schools struggling to train our children, in the generations of families living on the outskirts of opportunity.
But if the community is not aware of the crisis, it can’t be expected to solve it. That’s why it’s important for leaders to talk about these challenges openly and consistently. You may often have to alert the community to the problem. But even if the problem is widely recognized, folks may know the effect of the problem, but have no reliable information about the cause of the problem.
Consider the example of Strive, a Cincinnati-based coalition of non-profits, businesses, educators, and child advocates working to improve the lives of children. Their common belief was that education is the most important factor in giving children and families a way to escape the bondage of poverty. But there was also a common understanding that schools were struggling to seize that opportunity.
Everyone knew something was wrong. Parents saw it in falling test scores. Teachers saw it in the lowest ever graduation rates. Employers saw it in the growing number of students unprepared for college and the workforce. But what they couldn’t see was a solution. Although there was plenty of data showing the effect of poor schools, there was almost no data showing the cause of poor schools.
The Strive Coalition understood that they didn’t necessarily need more data; they needed better data. And they needed the story behind the data. So they began engaging different stakeholders, sharing experiences, asking the tough questions, and generating one of the most extensive research efforts across Cincinnati’s educational continuum. And after they collected all this information, they made it publicly available for all the child advocates, superintendents, civic associations, and business
leaders to see.
That information prompted an informed, community-wide discussion about what was and wasn’t working in the school system. Once they started asking the right questions, they got the right answers and made the right decisions. As a result, from around 2009-2013, Cincinnati made the greatest gains of any urban district on Ohio’s school performance index. It had the most success in shrinking the number of underperforming students and demonstrated measurable progress on 40 children’s education indicators! This initiative spurred Strive Together, a national initiative to improve educational outcomes in communities across America.
The Strive example highlights the importance of providing the community with reliable, trustworthy data about its challenges, and using indicator data that helps people wrap their heads around a problem and understand the collective story behind the curve. It’s based on the premise that the more people you engage, the wider range of unique and unexpected gifts you’ll be able to use to solve problems.
It’s our good fortune that we’re in the midst of a growing movement to make more information public and transparent. Organizations like the Community Indicators Consortium and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership aim to promote the use of indicator data to foster discussion and inform policymaking. Across the country, cities and communities are sharing data on everything from dental health to environmental sustainability.
But as anyone who’s reading this probably knows, just telling people there’s a problem usually isn’t enough. You have to ask them to be part of the solution. There’s no shortage of passion to make a measurable difference in our country. We are a charitable and hardworking society. But if we don’t ask our community to get involved, they won’t.
The main reason we have to explicitly call for support is to overcome what economists and social scientists describe as the “free rider problem.” The phrase refers to the phenomenon where an individual benefits from a common, public good but avoids paying his or her fair share. That individual’s decision not to contribute doesn’t threaten the public good, but if everyone adopted a similar stance, the public good would disappear. Common examples are the tax cheat who benefits from public roads, free schools, and national defense; the public radio listener who never contributes to the cost of keeping his favorite program on the air; or the apartment dweller whose home is protected by a neighborhood watch but never offers to take a shift.
There’s a pretty good argument that free riding is entirely rational and logical. By deriving a benefit without paying the cost, you’re maximizing your self-interest and achieving the most desirable outcome. But that’s not sustainable in the long term. Over time, your actions not only reduce others’ incentives to trust (and share the benefit), but they increase the likelihood that others will also decide to act in their self-interest, undermine collective action, and weaken the public good in the process.
But by asking people to contribute to collective action, we (hopefully) reduce the number of free-riders in the community. As a leader, you need to help others understand that if they each give a little of their time, talent, and treasure to community effort, they have a better chance of sustaining the public good far into the future. Your request must reflect both the opportunity and the responsibility community members share in the public welfare.
How do you do that, you ask? There’s one lesson that every star marketer, fundraiser, and community organizer will tell you: convince each person that their participation will make a difference. No matter how pressing or urgent a crisis seems, most people will only take action if they believe their efforts will cause some positive change.
Nicholas Kristof explains the phenomenon best in his 2009 article, Advice for Saving the World. In it he describes a social psychology experiment in which participants are presented with an opportunity to support a compelling humanitarian cause. One group was asked to donate to fight widespread hunger ravaging the people of Mali. They received detailed descriptions about the scale of the problem complete with statistics and background information about the many hungry children in the country.
The second group was only asked to donate to help a single child from Mali, named Rokia, escape poverty. The results showed that people were far more willing to donate when they believed they had the ability to save a single person than when they were presented with a seemingly insurmountable crisis. As Krist of summarizes, “Donors didn’t want to help ease a crisis personified by a child; they just wanted to help one person – and to hell with the crisis.” Similarly, Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the
mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
The lesson for community leaders here is to communicate the impact on the individual, not just the group. The best way to draw more allies on your quest for Measurable Impact is to highlight the role that each person can play in changing someone‘s life for the better. Because it’s only in the context of the discrete and tangible work that individuals do each day that we can appreciate how the aggregation of all those hours served has an impact we could never reach on our own. By creating a community plan that focuses on Measurable Impact, funders are also more likely to see and understand their role.
About the author:
Adam Luecking, CEO of Clear Impact, is an author, speaker, and trainer on topics related to Results-Based Accountability (RBA) and achieving measurable improvement. As CEO, he manages executive leadership programs, consulting services and technology deployment to agencies that serve children, families, and communities with the growing Clear Impact team. In 2013, he authored the book “The Holy Grail of Public Leadership” and was named on of Maryland’s 2015 most admired CEOs by the Daily Record.