One of the enjoyable debates I have with students, and those who are philanthropically minded, is about addressing root causes vs. applying band-aids. It often flows from a mention of Andrew Carnegie and his philosophy on giving and the responsibilities of the wealthy, much of which is laid out in his “The Gospel of Wealth.” His thinking makes it easy to jump to the question of whether to fund organizations that work at eradicating the root causes of society’s problems or those that provide band-aids to treat the consequences of those problems.
I would argue that there is no right answer. Until problems like poverty, poor educational systems, addiction and every other disease, climate change, etc. are eradicated/addressed, we will need both. We must continue to work at solving these problems, but, even more so, we must continue to fund those organizations that serve those who suffer the consequences of our unsolved problems. I’m worried, however, that too many funders are jumping on the root causes bandwagon at the cost of those will be unable to benefit when the problems no longer exist.
When her work was first explained to me, I was told that she supports people who have experienced bad luck rather than made bad choices. I completely understand that—on the surface. Such an approach to funding individuals and organizations discounts that our choices are largely predicated luck. Where on the continuum of wealth were you born? Were you born healthy and able, or with illnesses and disabilities? Did you have positive role models?
In other words, power and privilege—having or not having—is our luck, which influences our choices. And, when I think about the many things that influence our choices, I cannot help but think of Bruno Bettelheim. The controversy surrounding Bettelheim aside, one of his key urgings stands the test of the obvious: every child needs to know that there is one person in her/his life who unconditionally loves and believes in her/him. Given that there are no screenings or tests to take to determine who will or won’t make a great parent, we have left it up to chance that children will be lucky enough to live in Bettelheim’s desired world. Our choices are determined by our initial luck—or lack thereof. Doris Buffet offers those who experienced bad luck a band aid.
All of this sprang to mind as I read about the Minneapolis Foundation’s newest approach to addressing the problem of homelessness. It has given $100,000 each to five organizations working in the housing field. Each of these grants is supporting different approaches to prevent renters’ eviction, thereby preventing homelessness.
According to the Eviction Lab, 25% of all poor renters spend at least 70% of their income on housing; most of the remaining renting poor spend at least 50% of their income on their housing. These families are one emergency – even a small one – away from homelessness. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty finds eviction is the leading cause of homelessness. By funding efforts to prevent eviction, the Minneapolis Foundation is working on addressing a root cause (even though there are other root causing what many call an eviction epidemic, such as too little affordable housing, jobs that pay less than a living wage, etc.) while also offering a band aid.
Given the capacity of the vast majority of nonprofits, it is unrealistic to expect that there are many that can be both root cause eradicator and provider of band-aids. A bit of coordination and collaboration, however, could provide both. And then, maybe, we could get past the question of root cause or band aids and really make some progress.
Before we get there, however, I suspect that we need to apply this same approach to the nonprofit organizations themselves working on the root causes and/or band-aids. Grants that don’t cover the true costs of programs designed for either purpose are providing a poor fitting band-aid to the nonprofit, while ignoring the root cause of organizational vulnerability. Grants that pay for a development staff position while not paying to ensure there are programs with evaluation systems to demonstrate positive impact are applying a band-aid that will never stick. If we want nonprofits to achieve the ultimate goal of improving society for all, funders and donors need to make sure they are providing more than band-aids that may or may not do their job.