Social Entrepreneurs Transforming the Fight Against Poverty

A group of women sitting in a meeting engaged in a discussion

When Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty in 1964, he rightly aimed high: “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

Today, the same moral imperative remains.

The war on poverty has, in practice, focused primarily on symptoms, providing access to material necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. Despite hundreds of billions in charitable giving annually and as much as $1 trillion spent every year in government anti-poverty programs, the poverty rate in the U.S. has not declined significantly since the 1960s. Instead, social mobility—the ability of a person born in poverty to rise out of it—is on the decline by some measures

After more than 50 years, poverty is easier to endure but not any easier to escape.

Fortunately, in communities across America, social entrepreneurs are discovering unique and innovative ways to help others break the cycle of poverty. These changemakers are using their personal experience with social ills to develop approaches that go beyond just meeting material needs. They are helping people tap into their potential and truly transform their lives.

To win the fight against poverty, it’s essential to first understand what’s not working with the current approach. And then we need to identify the organizations out there that are making a difference and figure out how to scale those solutions to meet the monumental challenge of poverty in America today.

The current approach leaves so much potential untapped.

Food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare are vital lifelines. But persistent poverty—remaining socially and economically disenfranchised long-term—has much deeper roots than just a lack of material needs. Persistent poverty is what happens when people are unable to tap into their potential and find ways to contribute.

The branch of psychology know as positive psychology investigates what drives success and fulfilment in life. One of the most important insights to emerge from this field is that people have a deep need to feel they are realizing their unique potential, what Abraham Maslow called self-actualization. Other scholars, like Harvard psychologist Robert White, have found that virtually all individuals have a drive for personal mastery. People long to develop their abilities, master skills, and accomplish something meaningful to them and useful for others. People are most likely to become empowered in their lives—personally and professionally—when they can pursue that process of self-discovery and development.

All people, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have unique gifts and something special to offer the world.

But someone’s ability to reach that level of mastery, or even be exposed to options and opportunities, is often blocked due to barriers—both in society and within ourselves—that stand in the way.

All people, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, have unique gifts and something special to offer the world. But despite current efforts to fight poverty, the data show that many Americans are stuck: the poorer you are growing up today, the more likely you are to stay poor through adulthood.

 A generation ago, people had a 90 percent likelihood of doing better than their parents. Now, for someone born in the 1980’s, it’s a coin flip at 50 percent.

So much potential is being held back by a host of problems that are complex and interrelated. Problems in the education system are a factor. People who don’t graduate high school are seven times more likely to end up in persistent poverty than those who do. America’s criminal justice system is also a factor. Poverty is often a precursor to incarceration: the average income of an individual before they enter prison is 41 percent less than somebody who never goes to prison. Addiction is another factor. Heroin use, for instance, is three times more common among those making less than $20,000 per year than those with middle incomes. And there are no easy, single solutions to these problems or the many others that are standing in the way and holding people back.

Breaking out of poverty permanently requires addressing the root causes that drive it. Approaches to fighting poverty that are centered on meeting material needs are inadequate – they will never break the cycle. Resources alone are not enough to help people develop the personal insight, knowledge, and social connections needed to succeed long-term. Even lottery winners often struggle to really improve their lives.

Secondly, models that are heavily standardized and organized from the top-down—whether public or private—will leave people falling through the cracks. The reasons people drop out of school, or commit crime, or use drugs are very personal and so are the approaches needed to help them get back on track. What works will vary from person to person, and from community to community.

Social entrepreneurs are getting to the root causes

The people best suited to lead the fight against poverty are those who have lived the problems that cause poverty.

The models of social entrepreneurship that work tend to be quite different than traditional charity or public benefits. Effective social entrepreneurs are using their first-hand experience of social problems, intimate knowledge of communities, and genuine relationships to help people break the cycle of poverty for good. Often, they draw on their personal struggles as a source of insight and empathy for the benefit of others.

Antong Lucky exemplifies that approach. Antong grew up surrounded by violence and gang life. In his teens, he founded the Dallas Bloods and eventually ended up in prison. While incarcerated, mentors helped Antong realize he had natural leadership abilities that could be channeled to help others. So, when he was released, he co-founded Urban Specialists: an organization that works with former gang leaders, the formerly incarcerated, and professionals to mentor at-risk youth and help intervene and reduce community violence. Urban Specialists has now served more than 26,000 people—especially helping adolescents stay on a constructive path of education and personal growth rather than crime and self-destruction. It works because often the best person to lead somebody out of a gang is somebody who used to lead a gang.

And Urban Specialists is not alone. Community non-profits and social enterprises come in many shapes and sizes and work on many different problems. While their power lies in their unique approaches, there are several proven strategies that are consistently working to help people transform their lives.

Here are some of the approaches that are empowering people to overcome the root problems in their lives and achieve lasting change:

1. Start by believing in each person

The most effective social entrepreneurs start with a belief in the people they serve, often before those people even believe in themselves. Everyone has the potential to learn and succeed. But everyone needs the support and opportunity to discover and develop their unique gifts. Social entrepreneurs help by providing the tools to people to uncover and utilize their gifts.

For example, Twin Cities R!SE focuses on helping vulnerable populations in Minneapolis and St. Paul overcome barriers to education and employment. People with a criminal record, lack of work experience, unstable housing, and mental illness struggle to develop employable skills and connections.

Tom Streitz, CEO of Twin Cities R!SE, says, “It’s really heartbreaking when you meet individuals who say to us, ‘I never had someone say, you’re going to do great things.” But through personal career coaching, paid internships, and re-entry programs, Twin Cities R!SE help individuals gain confidence and turn their experience and talents into marketable skills. Then, they work with a network of employers to developed tailored opportunities suited to each person’s situation.

Twin Cities R!SE has now served more than 15,000 people. 79 percent of people who go through their job placement program are still at their job after two years, and the recidivism rate of alumni with a criminal record is three times lower than for the state as a whole. Their clients are, indeed, doing great things.

2. Drawing upon firsthand experience

Social entrepreneurs lead with empathy and personally understand the challenges of the communities they serve.

One of these leaders is Becca Stevens, the founder of Thistle Farms, a Nashville nonprofit and social enterprise that empowers women who have survived trafficking, prostitution, and addiction.

Thistle Farms helps people meet the basics by providing a two-year residency—including housing, food, healthcare and education—and work opportunities. But the program also goes deeper: it provides women with a supportive community of allies going through similar struggles. Becca Stevens experienced abuse and trauma in her own life. These hardships gave her the empathy and personal knowledge to help create a loving and supportive community of survivors. Now more than 40 organizations are adopting Thistle Farms’ model of recovery.

3. Building meaningful relationships and taking an individualized approach

Meaningful relationships can help give people the motivation and support to overcome whatever challenges are holding them back.

For years, Scott Strode struggled with substance abuse. Realizing that physical fitness was key to his own recovery, he founded The Phoenix, a sober active community that uses the achievement of physical exercise to help people maintain sobriety. “When you tie into a climbing rope for the first time, and make it to the top of the wall, it starts to make you feel like you can beat your addiction,” says Strode, who has now been sober for more than 20 years.

The program has a peer-to-peer model where instructors and allies in recovery support each other, inside and outside of the workouts. This helps re-establish self-respect and rebuild social lives, overcoming the isolation that often drives addiction, prevents recovery, keeps people locked in poverty. The Phoenix is now growing across the country and this innovative approach has worked for over 26,000 individuals and counting.

Scott Strode with Phoenix Team Member

Scaling social entrepreneurship

So how do we get more of this? How do we help social entrepreneurs increase their scale and effectiveness to bring these tailored, dynamic, and life-changing solutions to more people?

The answer may lay in the power of network effects. Social entrepreneurs need to know what’s working and build partnerships with other like-minded individuals and groups to exchange knowledge and gain access to support that is hard to attain on their own.

That’s why the Stand Together Foundation helps social entrepreneurs do just that. Founded in 2016, Stand Together Foundation is working to break the cycle of poverty by supporting the creative solutions of individuals and communities around the country. Today we partner with 140+ organizations—including the small sample of those mentioned above—helping them grow and scale their effectiveness by connecting them with people tackling similar problems. And we go even further, coming along side each partner to encourage their growth as leaders through management training, a supportive community, and helping them see that they, too, can accomplish more than they thought possible.

The benefits of this approach have been significant. For instance, Chrysalis is an organization in Anaheim, California helping people experiencing homelessness gain employment. Chrysalis went 17 years without expanding. But after less than two years partnering with Stand Together’s network, Chrysalis has grown their impact 250 percent by finding new allies, donors, and sources of knowledge. CEO Mark Loranger notes, “there’s absolutely no way we would be growing and expanding at the pace we are without this network.”

Chrysalis’ Grand Opening, Orange County

People from all walks of life can help

There are people all over America who are passionate about helping others break the cycle of poverty. Stand Together Foundation exists to help enable people to get engaged as social entrepreneurs themselves.

With the help of people from all walks of life, these efforts can bring renewed energy and new ideas to the fight against poverty. True and lasting transformation is possible through personal ingenuity and the power of community.