All people need the chance to work

REDF is gearing up fast to meet the terms of the Social Innovation Fund award we received last month, with plans to issue a first-time ever (for REDF) Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to identify outstanding nonprofits in California to consider for our portfolio. Watch our website for imminent announcements about the timeline and requirements.

Meanwhile, front and center on our minds is how we can help to end joblessness among people with major barriers, while being bombarded by articles like those about the self-named “99’ers”. These are the 1 million or so Americans who will have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment benefits by the end of 2010, and have few ‘barriers to work’ other than not having a job!

Why does REDF believe it’s so critical to create jobs for people with major barriers, when so many other people don’t have work?

An answer we’ve consistently offered over the years is that long-term unemployment clearly costs society, communities, families, and taxpayers as people depend on public benefits or experience cycles of homelessness or even incarceration when they have no way to earn a living.

But in the context of today’s sky high unemployment rates, our commitment to this effort has, perhaps paradoxically, gotten even stronger as we understand in our bones the impact of long-term unemployment. This was brought to life for me at the office last week. A candidate for a REDF job came to interview, and said, “This interview will be short, because I was offered two jobs today.”

She went on to tell us that she had still wanted to come in and meet us because she felt so strongly about our mission, especially after having experienced a significant period of unemployment herself. The painful effects of losing the social network, the feeling of pride and accomplishment and sense of purpose were fresh in her mind. And she told us that what was hardest to hold on to was a sense of hope. She had recently heard someone say that more than any other characteristic, what distinguished those who eventually got a job was maintaining hope.

When I first arrived at REDF three and a half years ago, I liked our tag line, “Investing in employment and hope”, but it’s taken on a whole new meaning through this recession. All people need the chance to work. REDF is about making sure some of those with the least opportunity have that chance.

One thing we know for sure is that government is not bailing us out of this mess anytime soon. Private citizens and the private sector have to step up. And with a hole blown in our economic resources, we have to make sure that public and private dollars are invested in initiatives that are not just cost effective, but really impact peoples’ lives.

And while the science of measuring social sector results is imperfect, REDF will do all we can to advance the SIF focus on improving what we do based on what we learn, and scaling the practices that have demonstrated real evidence of impact. Two articles that illuminate the ‘social measurement’ topic in all its thorny glory – worth reading: the New Yorker profile of Esther Duflo of MIT’s Poverty Lab describing the benefits of and controversies surrounding her random assignment studies of social programs ; and the piece by Geoff Mulgan director of the Young Foundation in Stanford Social Innovation Review arguing for sharper common frameworks among funders. There’s an insightful comment on that piece by Sara Olsen posted on that article.

Even if it’s not always what practitioners, policymakers and philanthropists are interested in, we are only going to be able to deliver results on the ground and get the political process and donors to invest in change ‘at scale’ when we are ready to offer hard facts and hard truths about what does and doesn’t work.