3 Strategies Nonprofits Can Use to Address Socioeconomic Mobility
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King delivered these words, was a turning point in the fight for civil rights. However, progress in social and economic mobility has stalled, with stagnated wages for most Americans. The wage gap between white and Black Americans today is as large as it was in 1950.
Fifty‑seven years after The March, Dr. King’s “urgency of now” still ripples throughout the country. Although we may traditionally think of changing systems as a slow, long‑term process, the circumstances of 2020, from the pandemic to racial protests, have made way for small changes to make an outsized impact. The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and Council on Accreditation have identified social and economic mobility (SEM) as an area where we can advance racial equity across generations, communities, and systems through:
- Engaging participant voice
- Fostering the talent pipeline
- Addressing the racial wealth gap
These approaches can be taken as first steps, grounded in asset‑based community development, to implement changes that will contribute to a foundation of racial equity in the organization and open opportunities for SEM advancement for the community.
Engage Participant Voice
Organizations can work to elevate participant voice at multiple levels:
- Gathering meaningful feedback on programs continuously
- Ensuring the board includes community representation and regular opportunities to hear community voice
- Empowering community members to be civically engaged
Participant feedback is a foundational component of programs for most community‑based organizations, but not all methods of gathering input have racial equity embedded into their design. Common input methods such as surveys, needs assessments, and feedback forms can become part of an organization’s racial equity commitment through the use of equitable evaluation principles, and by drawing on methodologies like appreciative inquiry and human‑centered design.
Additionally, civic engagement is essential to elevate community voice in support of policies that advance SEM in communities of color. Community‑based organizations can facilitate the engagement of program participants and neighbors in the political process by ensuring that people are registered to vote and by providing opportunities to be educated on issues that impact everyday lives. In turn, community members can be very good at educating elected officials on the impact of policy decisions as well as their goals and the barriers they face.
In these ways, community‑based organizations have the unique opportunity to activate a more representative electorate and empower communities that are often overlooked or excluded from civic engagement. Voter engagement and mobilization work raises the profile of the communities we work with, boosts our advocacy impact, and advances policies that promote SEM.
Foster the Talent Pipeline
It is the families, communities, and practitioners who have the lived experience and insight to inform solutions. When this expertise is combined with the skills required for leadership in the social sector, it can lead to major impact.
Cultivating the talent pipeline is key to building equitable representation and diversity among leaders and decision makers in an organization.
We guide organizations to find ways to:
- Prioritize professional development
- Cultivate internal talent channels
- Advance the socioeconomic mobility not only of clients but also of staff
Mentorship programs can be helpful tools in building the talent pipeline. Mentors can offer opportunities for aspiring leaders to learn from those with experience, build a professional network, and gain access to decision makers who can help support their career advancement. When this process of developing talent results in former clients returning to agencies as staff, it is a measure of success for both parties.
Addressing the Wealth Gap
Research points to the racial wealth gap as a major barrier to economic growth for the country and to mobility for persons of color. Community‑based organizations work to address the complex challenges and barriers that contribute to this gap as they support families in building their social and economic capital. Again, engaging the community is critical for gathering the information needed to tailor programs to their specific goals and barriers.
Hiring from the community, combined with investments in creating an inclusive culture, providing professional development opportunities, and offering equitable compensation, generates a pipeline of informed staff who can co‑create and implement solutions based on their own lived experiences as well as the insights gained from current participant voices. From there, organizations can participate in collective action to address disparities, working together to systematically eliminate barriers and create sustainable opportunities for multigenerational mobility and wealth accumulation.
To address the racial wealth gap, SEM pathways must be designed in ways that address the complex causes of the gap. For example, quality K‑12 education and college are only meaningful if people of color are not disproportionately burdened with expensive loans. All neighborhoods should be places with access to health care and the building blocks of well‑being.
When coupled with a commitment to racial equity, community‑based organizations can use these principles to begin aligning their programs and strategies with their commitment. We will continue to explore and highlight strategies that address root causes and work with the network to identify opportunities for building our collective strength in shifting systems to reduce these gaps.