A Truly Innovative Approach to Poverty

unique sphereFor many  months I have been trying to find information on an approach to poverty that I heard about on the radio long ago.  Last night I did a full web search blitz.  After an hour and a half, I was about to give up when, I found these two paragraphs inside a broader article by The Bridgespan Group.  They gave this as an example of next-generation collaborative social change (my emphasis added):

“Community members as producers of impact

The Family Independence Institute’s (FII) work on empowering low-income families is another example of next generation engagement. The effort builds on the insight that low-income families have always worked together to address challenges, using their own assets and resourcefulness. In its latest pilot in Boston, FII invited immigrant Latino women (many from Colombia) to form groups of six to eight to meet together monthly. Each was given a computer and small stipend for reporting monthly data on a wide range of metrics related to the health, education, income, and wealth of their families. The women also use these meetings to discuss the challenges they face, ranging from learning English to paying down debt to helping their children do better in school.

Paradoxically, the FII “program” is really an anti-program: It provides no direction or guidance to the women, and in fact, it has a strict policy not to do so. Families are asked to enroll with a cohort of friends and turn to one another and not to FII staff for guidance. Results have been very positive. Participating Boston families have seen a 13-percent increase in income (excluding FII funds) in less than a year. In the West Oakland pilot, average income rose 27 percent, savings increased over 250 percent, debt was reduced, and children’s grades and attendance jumped over 30 percent. FII’s founder is quick to point out that African American cohorts did far better than the Asian and Hispanic cohorts, showing that the concept applies beyond immigrant communities.”

Eureka!  This was the organization and approach that I had been looking for.

The whole idea behind this site, recognizing and fueling the wisdom of poor mothers, is based on a belief that that power and wisdom is in low-income women to begin with.  In managing businesses, I found that creating environments in which people recognize, build and test their highest capabilities, individually and together  was the key to great business outcomes.   Why shouldn’t the same thing apply to the social and economic objectives of poor communities?  This is fundamentally a positive approach rather than a “they are broken and need to be fixed” approach, and I have been pleased to find that many of the programs reviewed on this site share that spirit and consider it one of their key success factors.



The Family Independence Initiative‘s major innovation is to take similar principles to an unexpected extreme.  They started with a hypothesis that it would be more efficient and effective to enable poor families to help themselves achieve social and economic successes than to do so through pre-defined programs.

They have tested that hypothesis through a series of “demonstrations”.  As described above, each demonstration involves:

  • groups of self-selected low-income families who commit to working together over the course of the Demonstration
  • monthly reporting by each family on activity and changes in six areas: health/wellness, income/savings, education/skills, housing/environment, networking/helping others, and resourcefulness/leadership.
  • small payments to the families for their reporting and certain other actions.

The impressive outcomes seem to be the result of a complex mix of:

  • The power of collaboration
  • The focusing impact of measuring things regularly (That which is measured, improves.)
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • The motivation power of even small rewards


Scaling up this model certainly seems promising.  But significant innovations should never be cast in concrete and preserved;  their full impact comes from additional uses and modifications.  Happily, the Family Independence Initiative (FII) seems quite aware that their demonstrations are not the only way to implement their innovative approach to poverty.  Their broader agenda is described like this:

Our current “safety net” system is based on people’s needs rather than their strengths. While this approach is critical for those in crisis, it fails to provide a springboard toward economic security. Developing a new system of benefits based on self-determination and initiative for those wishing to leave or avoid welfare will not only reduce the cost of current approaches, but will add to the economic strength of the country.Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 12.00.54 PM

While this casts many current non-profit programs in a somewhat negative light, that should be seen as an insider’s assessment and source of inspiration, not an external attack.  The founder of FII, Mauricio Lim Miller, has a long history in social service.  Accordingly FII is offering training for other organizations that wish to incorporate aspects of the FII approach in their own communities and programs.


I realize now why it was so hard to find information about this organization even with the powerful web tools we have.  Innovation creates the need for new words and concepts.  The status quo is self-reinforcing even in this.    Let’s help others find, understand, use, modify and expand on this inspiring work!




Note: Sorry if you read this before.  I am not running out of material. It is just that I found that most of my posts had not published to other social media due to a technology failure, so I am republishing them over time.

Categories: All Posts, For Social Service Organizations

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