Tulips in bloom

Defining the problem is the key to long-lasting change

In America, we tend to believe that enough money can fix any problem. Who hasn’t sat around thinking, “If I had unlimited resources, I could absolutely solve this problem!”? But we all know in reality, it just isn’t that simple. 

While philanthropists don’t have unlimited resources, they’re certainly in the business of using money to solve problems. But in my experience as a teacher, an elected official, and a social entrepreneur, I’ve noticed a tendency across many philanthropic institutions to skip a crucial step in seeking to make change. These institutions focus primarily on funding solutions without spending enough time or money to truly understand the problems they seek to solve. 

Ironically, many philanthropists made their fortunes by taking enormous financial risks at some point during their career. Talk to nearly any successful entrepreneur or venture capitalist, and their list of failures will outnumber their successes by more than 10 to 1. Yet when those same entrepreneurs and investors show up as philanthropists, many are risk averse in ways that limit their ability to have impact. They prefer to invest in what they view as “proven” solutions rather than in the research and development it takes to deeply understand the problem they’re trying to solve.

As my colleagues have written before, this one-size-fits-all approach sacrifices sustainability for speed. Maybe even more importantly, it perpetuates inequities in the exact spaces where philanthropists should be trying to dismantle, not reinforce, the status quo.

When philanthropists assume they understand a problem, without engaging the stakeholders on the ground who are actually experiencing that problem, they will inevitably fund solutions that lack an in-depth understanding of the nuances of that particular problem in that particular community. There’s no context. And without context, there is no long-term, sustainable change that is owned by the community in which it’s taking place.

Exploring a problem from multiple angles and with multiple stakeholders not only deepens understanding; it also builds buy-in and shared ownership for the solution—a solution that likely looks different in my community than it does in the community a hundred miles away from mine. 

This is why forward-thinking philanthropists need to be willing to invest a significant amount of time and money to fully explore the problems they want to tackle before jumping in with solutions. The same things they value in the private sector—investment in research and development; deep understanding of user experience; beta testing and pilots—are critical components of reinventing philanthropy in a way that is rooted in listening and learning rather than top-down (often white) saviorism. 

Prior to my time at Building Impact, I launched and led Enroll Indy, the unified enrollment system in Indianapolis. Unified enrollment systems provide a one-stop shop for parents to enroll their students in the school of their choice, whether that’s a neighborhood school, a magnet, charter, or any other public school option. Typically they have a common website, a common application, and a common deadline for all public school options within the system.

Beginning in 2013, I started having conversations with teachers, schools, parents, and community organizations to understand how they viewed the challenges around school enrollment in Indianapolis. We worked with an organization to publish a study that only offered potential solutions after a robust exploration of how different stakeholders were experiencing the problem. 

After we published the study, we spent another two years deeply engaging schools, parents, and community partners in the design and implementation of a suite of services that would meet the needs they’d all expressed. No stakeholder got everything they wanted, but every stakeholder got something. And more importantly, every stakeholder had a voice in the process. 

It was a lot harder for hesitant school leaders to refuse to participate when they had a seat at the table designing the initiative. And parents might call me upset that they didn’t get the school they wanted most, but they certainly couldn’t argue that the system had not fairly and accurately awarded them that seat based on the rules of the lottery. Sure, there was frustration, but there was also tremendous buy-in to the need for a change.

I couldn’t have done this if funders hadn’t backed me for long enough to do this kind of in-depth research and engagement.

Over the last decade, dozens of cities have expressed interest in pursuing a similar solution to the enrollment problems they see on the ground. And funders have been seemingly eager to help. 

The problem is that often funders, and even local leaders, see unified enrollment as a proven technological quick-fix. They have seen it work in some places, so they assume it can be applied at scale. But for unified enrollment (or any other education policy change) to bring about positive, long-term outcomes, it needs to be customized to the unique needs of each city and school district, and most importantly, it needs to have buy-in from the stakeholders who are directly impacted by the change. 

Even if some progress is made without engaging these stakeholders, it’s often halted before real change is reached. One political shift or leadership change threatens an entire system. This is what happens when you skip defining the problem and go straight to the solution.

These lessons apply to philanthropy across all social sectors.

To create long-lasting change, forward-thinking philanthropists must be willing to fully define the problem. And that means being willing to take the risk that they’ll spend time and money to explore a problem that may not end up producing a clean-cut solution. They have to be willing to put in the money and wait—sometimes a year or two—just to develop a clear statement of the problem, before launching into solutions. Most importantly, they need to spend time and resources just listening and learning in communities before they decide to go all-in on a specific solution.

You’d never launch a business without deeply understanding your users and the problem the business is meant to solve. That means taking time to deepen your understanding. So why would you launch a philanthropic endeavor without the same process? Forward-thinking philanthropists need to get comfortable listening to the communities they want to impact. If they don’t, they risk squandering their opportunity to create change that will outlast their direct investment.