Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The predictions fit a statement I’ve made frequently to audiences during the past five years: As we witness one of the most dramatic demographic changes ever – throughout the world – with the aging of our population, we can expect “more of everything”. On the positive side, more people will live longer, with more resources, staying healthy, wanting to retire later, and seeking volunteer opportunities and other ways to contribute to their communities. On the negative side, more people will live with chronic conditions and disabilities, with few resources, and requiring care for an extended final stage of their lives.
The MacArthur study suggests that “current government projections may significantly underestimate the future life expectancy of Americans.” It predicts that Medicare and Social Security outlays will increase trillions of dollars beyond what many analysts expect.
It notes other impacts resulting from the increase in the aging population, including (on the negative side) the increased dependency ratio and threats to the nation’s fiscal health, and (on the positive side) a more experienced work force, and more productive years for individuals.
We will see an increase in the number of people who want to contribute to their communities by volunteering. However, as Greg Owen noted in a recent letter to the StarTribune, most agencies are not ready to accept an influx of volunteers. If we want to make the best use of the talents of our aging population, we need to construct the infrastructure which can do so.
For a longer description, and references, see the MacArthur Foundation’s Press Releases.
Thursday, December 03, 2009
According to the Times, the 640,000 jobs “saved or created”, as reported by the White House, could not be verified. “The 640,000 figure, announced by the White House with some fanfare last month, came from reports filed by recipients of the stimulus money, many of which have been shown to be inaccurate or overstated.” The Times further stated: “A series of embarrassing reports – of raises being counted as new jobs, of jobs claimed in Congressional districts that do not exist, of school districts claiming to have saved the jobs of more teachers than they employ – may have ended up undermining confidence in the stimulus program.”
Representative David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, opined: “Credibility counts in government, and stupid mistakes like this undermine it.”
Representative Obey understands an old Latin expression which many public officials do not recognize, to their detriment: Falsus in unum, falsus in omnia – which in today’s world could essentially translate as “if you make one mistake or spin one thing incorrectly, everything you say is considered inaccurate”.
Credibility counts in all sectors of society. We need transparency as well. The erroneous White House assertions about the effects of the stimulus bill illustrate the need for effective evaluation and understanding of our public and private programs. In these economic times, with government budgets stressed to the maximum, all of us who devote ourselves to efforts for the betterment of our communities deserve to know what works, what does not work, and how we can spend our tax dollars and charitable contributions as cost-effectively as possible.
Friday, November 27, 2009
The older person who receives better care – thanks you.
The young child who starts school better able to learn – thanks you.
The formerly homeless family – thanks you.
The newly established immigrant business owner – thanks you.
The former substance abuser – thanks you.
The middle-aged person caring for an elderly parent – thanks you.
All of these people, and more, constitute the “results” of the work of Wilder Research over the past many years. As long as our communities have people in need, we will work to meet those needs; beyond that, we will seek to prevent people from falling into need. As long as the residents of our communities strive to improve their quality of life, we will collaborate with them to do so.
All of these people, and more, constitute the “results” of the work of Wilder Research over the past many years. As long as our communities have people in need, we will work to meet those needs; beyond that, we will seek to prevent people from falling into need. As long as the residents of our communities strive to improve their quality of life, we will collaborate with them to do so.
We cannot accomplish our work alone. Today’s complex issues require collaborative efforts among many organizations and individuals.
So, thank you to you – our partners, donors, supporters. Whether you worked with us side by side on an initiative, or you offered advice as an advisory committee member, or you supplied funding, or you contributed in any of a myriad of ways to our work, you participated in transforming lives and transforming communities.
During this Thanksgiving season, you have undoubtedly given thanks for the many blessings in your life. In addition, if you have worked with us, or if you have taken action with others to do benevolent work, then please give thanks for the blessings you have brought to those whose lives we have transformed through our efforts.
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Compass in Unsettling Times, Stubborn Facts, Seismic Shift and … Hannity vs. Obama? Assault on Public Discourse?
Kate congratulated Compass for our nonpartisan, objective approach – in which we convene reasonable people with multiple, and frequently opposing, perspectives to identify what we need to know about our communities, shape a vision for improving our quality of life, and determine how to work collaboratively to make a difference.
An editorial in Thursday’s Pioneer Press praised Compass for focusing attention on “what is” and then motivating people to do something about it:
Facts are stubborn, and they'll exert their effects with our approval or without. It's better, then, in our free and open democratic republic, to acknowledge what is, from various angles — and then decide what to do to about it.
That's the function of Twin Cities Compass, a not-quite 2-year-old project to assemble facts, identify trends, inspire work on things that make life good and measure the effect of that work. With its home at Wilder Research in St. Paul and with funding from a passel of great philanthropic foundations, Twin Cities Compass is a rich source of facts and analysis and ideas for policy-makers, non-profits, business-people and anybody interested in improving our quality of life.
Dan Bartholomay, Commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, emphasized the importance of housing as a social and economic asset and noted how it relates to other critical aspects of our lives: health; education; economic development; etc.
Dawn Simonson, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging, expanded the audience’s understanding of the profound changes which our communities will experience as a result of dramatic growth in the aging population. She noted that Compass will provide “rich data for action”, and she explained three key measures, among many others, which Compass highlights for the aging population: volunteerism; income; and disability.
We can take pride in the fact that our region always includes a large proportion of people who volunteer. Rates of volunteerism in the Twin Cities area for people in their sixties and seventies exceed rates for those age groups elsewhere in the U.S. Given the health benefits of volunteering, this is a positive trend.
On the other hand, among residents 65-74, about one in five has a disability, with physical challenges such as climbing stairs and lifting the most common. Among those over age 85, about three-fourths have one or more disabilities. So, we need to prepare for increasing numbers of people living longer, and requiring assistance.
Did Sean Hannity debate Barak Obama at the meeting? No. (Although I seem to recall that President Obama once challenged Sean to a debate. If it has not yet occurred, I would be happy to host a faceoff between the two of them at Wilder Center.) I noted the “H vs O” rivalry simply to heighten blog readers’ curiosity, as an entrée into a very important topic which I raised as we closed the meeting: namely, the assault on public discourse which is all too prevalent as partisans and special interest groups on both the right and the left dig in and refuse to consider compromise.
Our design of Compass built on the premise that we need to move from an “old math” to a “new math”. The old equation was:
Good intentions +
No common base of information =
Sound, reliable information +
Productive decisions for a strong region
Unfortunately, we today live in a world in which interest groups try to derail democratic debate, confuse us, and sway us with false or incomplete information. Their efforts push the equation toward:
Good intentions +
Unsound, Misleading Messages +
Diversions from a common sense of purpose =
Those of us who care about our communities and who seek to work in multi-partisan collaboration must find ways to deflate the diversions. The quality of life of all of us here, as well as all people around the world, depends on it.
(If you're interesed, see the slides from the meeting at www.tccompass.org.)
Tuesday, November 03, 2009
What did we learn this year? Charlotte’s ability to work as a region struck all of us, and it engendered the liveliest conversation during our debriefing at the conclusion of the visit. Charlotte’s leaders realize that world trends have impacts on the region as a whole, not on individual municipalities and counties; they realize that, in the world marketplace, the region – “Charlotte USA” – has an identity, while small components of the region do not.
The Twin Cities region is a socially and economically interdependent entity within the global marketplace of regions. Do we have the will to work as a unified, coherent whole to address issues of economic development, the education of our children, the care of our aging population, and other significant challenges that we face? Or, do Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and perhaps other sections of the region have egos so large that they cannot yet relinquish more of their autonomy than they now give up for regional development and governance?
Air quality and water quality do not recognize political boundaries. Most people easily recognize that. Similarly, trends affecting health, education, housing, public safety, transportation – indeed all of the key elements of our community – do not pay heed to artificially created city and county borders. We need to understand when it makes sense to think small, enabling and empowering local units of government and small communities and neighborhoods to do their own thing – and when it makes sense to join as one, sharing the rewards and the costs of regional cooperation.
I’m working to promote regional thinking and regional action at whatever level makes sense. I hope that you share a regional mindset; and I encourage you to work in similar fashion.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Last week, much news appeared regarding changes in the Wilder Foundation’s structure and services. In order to have the maximum community impact, within a challenging economic environment, the Foundation decided to focus on three strategic priorities: Children and Families; the Elderly; and Community Research and Leadership. The Foundation will transition out of some programming.
What about Wilder Research? All of our major initiatives will continue.
In fact, in these demanding times, we expect to expand our projects, especially those we do in collaboration with other organizations, and especially those in which we can influence action which will address and resolve the tough community issues we face.
Ironically, the news stories about Wilder’s changes, in the Pioneer Press and Star Tribune, appeared directly beside other stories describing challenges which confront us – in one paper, a story about the diminishing “safety net” for the unemployed, and in the other paper, a story about the critical need for developing the science and math skills of our student population, not just to increase their ability to take jobs, but to create a workforce necessary for the economic vitality of our entire community.
Yes, research has probably never been more important. Whether we like it or not, our government, our community, our organizations must do more with less. Whether we like it or not, the world has changed. Globalization, the current recession, the Internet, global warming – take your pick – all have had significant impacts on local communities. The complexity of today’s issues means that we need to combine good information, committed individuals, and a common sense of purpose – with the result that we improve the quality of life of all our residents.
We look forward to working with you to lead the community through the stormy waters of the present.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
The Bureau of Economic Analysis released figures two days ago, which provide cause for both concern and optimism – but hopefully more of the latter than of the former.
On the national level, new data for 2008 show that “the slowdown in U.S. economic growth was widespread: 60 percent of metropolitan areas saw economic growth slow down or reverse.” However, some metropolitan areas did increase their economic output. The Twin Cities region, Saint Cloud, and Rochester all showed positives – which perhaps offers Minnesota some reason for optimism.
Nobody can say what this means in the long term; economic growth in Minnesota’s metro regions (unfortunately not including Duluth) may or may not portend better years in 2010 and 2011. However, the national turnaround has to start somewhere; maybe that’s here.
We don’t know exactly when increases in the metropolitan GDPs will translate into significantly more jobs. Hence, we don’t know when economic growth will affect the rising level of requests that we have observed for assistance with basic needs; nor do we know when resources will return to nonprofits. I advise my nonprofit colleagues that we will not see major relief for at least five years; we will feel the negative effects of today’s recession for at least ten years. Let’s hope I’m wrong about that, but we should formulate our long-range plans with those assumptions and make sure that we can sustain as much service to the community as possible during the coming decade.
If we work together, we can and will get through it.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Real news would be: “Pawlenty compromises with Obama, for the good of Minnesotans.” Or: “Democrats use Obama’s speech as tool to collaborate with their Republican counterparts.”
Daily instances in which some politicians and other leaders state their mulish opinions, frequently embellished with misquoted, exaggerated, or twisted truths, unwilling to compromise, intent only to destroy those with opposing views – these events constitute news only to the extent that they illustrate the pervasive cancer that threatens constructive discourse in which all of us have the opportunity to contribute our points of view, then work together for the betterment of our communities.
At Wilder Research, we cherish differing opinions. No one point of view has an exclusive hold on the truth – whether that truth involves the best way to deliver therapy for children or the best policy for delivering services to older adults, or any other significant issue.
We often refer to the “reasonable middle” to identify our audience: that is, people who might be at center, right of center, or left of center - even very far in one direction - but not so far to an extreme that they can’t reach any consensus with anyone other than their own narrowly-defined group of compatriots.
Our Compass initiative, for example, www.tccompass.org, lays out facts about the trends in our region, identifies approaches to improving those trends, which other communities have tried, and invites people to work with us to address those trends. We invite those who want to work in multi-partisan situations to address social issues, improve the quality of life, deal with tough decisions related to the conditions of the vulnerable in our society, identify opportunities for increasing regional economic vitality, and any of a myriad of worthwhile endeavors.
Exciting initiatives have developed from Compass, ranging from community economic improvement efforts, to improving the system of services for the chronically mentally ill, to reducing disparities in health outcomes, to better understanding water quality. (See these on our website or Facebook page.) People from different points of view can come together to engage in collaborative action, with significant results.
Let’s all join the “reasonable middle”; let’s encourage others to do so. We can remain true to our own values, but still compromise to reach consensus, for the good of everyone.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
How good is a hospital? Are you likely to get sick again? Will you have to return? How likely are you not to leave the hospital alive?
As the Pioneer Press reported, Medicare took a significant step to make data on hospital outcomes more accessible. This will benefit all of us who consume and pay for health care. It is an ethical, economically-responsible step to take.
At the Hamm Clinic, where I serve as Chair of the Board, we have tracked patient outcomes for more than a decade. So, for example, we now have a better understanding of how long it takes patients to get better, which patients seem to respond most quickly to treatment, and which types of patients don’t succeed with treatment or dropout prematurely. This evidence has many uses.
Clinicians can use the information to make better treatment decisions and to improve their work. Researchers can use the information to develop new and better treatment approaches. Eventually, consumers of health care can use the information in ways that will assist them and their families to better care for themselves.
All nonprofit organizations can learn from this. In the difficult economic times that we face, improving our effectiveness and increasing our productivity have become more important than ever. We need to work smart to produce results in the most cost-effective way and to have “multiplier effects”, whether our interest is health, the arts, education, economic development, or any other focus. Good data, including information on the outcomes of our activities, can help us to work much smarter.
Some nonprofit managers contend that we cannot, or should not, measure our outcomes. They sometimes claim that “We know what works; let’s just do it” or “We can’t measure everything we do” or “It costs too much”. But think about it: Would you really want to have a medical procedure that had not been tested? As a donor or taxpayer, wouldn’t you prefer to know that evidence exists that your hard-earned dollars will go to efforts that can succeed?
We do not need to measure everything that we do all of the time. Nonetheless, the hospitals can demonstrate how ongoing measurement of some of our work, combined with a sampling of autopsies (or, in the case of most nonprofits, occasional follow-up studies of clients or users of our services) can assist all of us to improve the effectiveness and productivity of our efforts on behalf of the people we serve.
Monday, June 29, 2009
The U.S. Census has great importance. Census results influence electoral boundaries. The population totals from the census determine the number of representatives each state can have.
The census numbers also help establish the amount of Federal funding that states receive for many different programs.
Understanding major community trends cannot occur without the census (conducted every 10 years) and its counterpart, the American Community Survey (conducted annually). Marketing our businesses in Minnesota, maintaining a competitive edge, ensuring that we have a healthy population – the census facilitates all of these.
In my meetings with residents throughout the state during the past 6 months, in every region including Representative Bachmann’s district, people have expressed a hunger for accurate census data and other information, to empower them to build their communities. They want good information on what’s happening in education, health, economics; they want to know how their population has changed and how it’s likely to change. The census enables people to understand their communities – how many older people live there, how many residents have college degrees, how many residents own their homes, and so on. Businesses rely on the census to understand their customers.
We should not take lightly our obligation to respond to the census. Nor should we ignore the problems that an undercount produces for states and cities. Pricewaterhouse Coopers, at the request of Congress, analyzed the consequences of the fact that the 2000 census missed counting a large number of people. Their analysis shows that funding losses due to undercounting amounted to slightly more than $4 billion.
Minnesota was lucky in 2000; its undercount came to an estimated 14,000 people. Many other states had more serious undercounts. However, Minnesota’s luck may not continue, especially if public officials send out negative messages about the census. In fact, we could lose a Congressional seat if the undercount becomes too large.
Why is Bachmann negative? Because, according to what she told The Washington Times on June 18, ACORN “will be in charge of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public... This is very concerning." On this point – that ACORN will go door-to-door – please note that Bachmann has it totally wrong. Only Census Bureau employees will collect census information. ACORN and other national organizations have signed on as “partners” with the Census Bureau to spread the word that the census needs good participation and wants to recruit staff who know local communities.
The one and only point of agreement which I share with Representative Bachmann on this issue relates to her concern that the Census Bureau’s inclusion of ACORN as one of its hundreds of partners taints an objective process in which we would like to place our trust. ACORN has definitely led some questionable initiatives which have alienated very good people who care about all members of our communities, rich and poor. Their reputation is a stumbling block regardless of their current intentions. Maybe ACORN should have been banned from partnering with the census. However, the Census Bureau has not been selective in approving partners; it’s pretty much “come one, come all” if you have connections valuable to reaching under-represented populations. ACORN does have those connections.
However, we should rise above the ACORN discussion to raise a larger issue. Important information, used for policy purposes, should be scientifically valid and politically credible to people of many different persuasions. At Wilder Research, we emphasize the use of advisory groups comprised of people from as many perspectives and political points of view as we can find. (Our Compass project enlisted 300+ members of the community, not all of whom agreed with one another, to establish credible measures of our communities’ well-being.)
To its credit, the Census Bureau recognizes the importance of enlisting a vast range of partners. The Bureau’s list grows every day. I took a look. The first page lists 100 Black Men of America, along with 7-Eleven – both excellent groups, with their own distinctive competencies to reach into communities. I went to Letter A partners. Alongside ACORN, I found: Association for University Business and Economic Research; Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs; ASPIRA Association; Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association; Association of Professors and Scholars of Iranian Heritage; Association of Public Data Users; and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. That seems like a good range, and these represent just a few of hundreds.
The lesson: Always challenge information you receive. Question its source. Understand its limitations. If you find yourself gathering or putting together information, request advice from people with vastly different points of view. Some with extreme points of view will never be satisfied, except with their own contrived data. However, most people are reasonable, and they will agree on what constitutes good information, even if they then disagree about what the information means.
Representative Bachmann does not seem to understand this, but neither do many other public officials, both liberal and conservative. On behalf of all members of our communities, from the most powerful to the most vulnerable, we need to educate public officials to use scientifically sound and politically credible information. So much depends on it.
(If you want to see the list of Census Bureau partners, visit their web site. For Compass, visit the Compass web site.)
Friday, May 29, 2009
The “you”, of course, is “we”. We are the only ones who care enough, and have the capacity and the will, to make sure that all children in Minnesota acquire the skills they need to be productive adults in the 21st century. (Canada leads the Harlem Children’s Zone – nationally recognized for increasing the educational achievement of children whom the system has not served well.)
In his remarks Canada stated that The United States has fallen backwards in educational achievement relative to other developed and developing countries of the world. This is something we at Wilder Research have noted before. Through our Twin Cities Compass initiative, we have documented the poor mathematics proficiency of our region’s high school students and the gap in skills that begins early in elementary school for our fastest growing group of students – students of color. If we want to preserve jobs and preserve our quality of life, we need to make some changes.
Harlem Children’s Zone demonstrates that low achievement, even for children from the poorest economic and community circumstances, does not have to occur; also, it can be reversed with sustained effort.
He recommended several principles to guide the development of our approach to education. Among them:
Begin early. Promote vocabulary development and pre-reading skills starting at birth; don’t let children fall behind. If they do fall behind, involve them in intensive programs to bring them back up to where they should be.
Maintain continuity of best practices through college. To enable at-risk children to succeed, it is critical to have a pathway of supports through college. Children who benefit from a short-term program lose those benefits if they return to schools that don’t teach them well.
Involve parents by all possible means. Do whatever it takes to involve parents. He “bribes” them with gift certificates to encourage them to come to meetings. Give parents the information they need to assist their children. Many parents, even with high school or college degrees, don’t have the depth of knowledge to assist their children in all the academic subjects taught in school. However, parents can learn where to direct their children to get questions answered. They can also learn how to create an environment of “warmth plus high expectations” which, from Canada’s view of the research will enable children to achieve at their highest potential
Design schools for success. “Schools that fail are designed for failure.” Canada asserted that schools have a certain “physics” – including, for example, a set number of days and hours which produces one year of achievement for children who are prepared. However, for children who start a school year unprepared or under-performing, the standard package does not work. It never enables them to catch up. He recommends lengthening the school year. He also admonishes school districts to stop hiring and firing superintendents who just travel from one district to another; instead, adjust the “physics” of education so that schools can accomplish their function with all students.
Evaluate in a timely, meaningful way. Use data to understand outcomes. Test in a way that provides immediate feedback that teachers can use to work with students during the same year the students take the tests.
Sandra Vargas, President of the Minneapolis Foundation, asked the audience of 1000+ individuals to “hold ourselves accountable” for higher educational achievement. We must “believe” we can do it; we must “take a stand to save every one of our children.”
Monday, May 11, 2009
The Labor Department reported that, although the U.S. lost another 539,000 jobs in April, the increase in unemployment was less than expected. The Treasury surprised us, positively, with better-than-expected “stress test” results for the nation’s banks. Indicators of construction spending and home sales in March seemed to do better than expected also. All of this might boost consumer and investor confidence, even if only slightly at first.
The positive effects of an upturn, if one has truly begun to occur, will take a while to filter through to government and nonprofit organizations. In addition, unemployment, foreclosures, and other events have placed many people in situations of need from which they will not quickly extricate themselves.
Nonetheless, we can continue to watch the trends, hope that these early signs bode well for our communities, and do all within our control to make choices as individuals and organizations which will speed the recovery.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Indicators from the Council of the Great City Schools suggest that most urban school superintendents typically hold their positions for just a few years; rarely do urban superintendents stay more than 5 years. A 2000 report from the National School Boards Association uses different data and suggests more optimistically that about a third of urban school superintendents might stay in their position more than 5 years. However, this represents a decline from a previous period when more than half would stay for that length of time.
Meria perfectly exemplifies the itinerant group. She now leaves Saint Paul before we can see if anything she did actually makes a difference. Before coming to Saint Paul, she served briefly as the Chief Accountability Officer of the Washington, D.C. schools. There, she implemented a new accountability system, but she quit her job before enough time passed to determine her system’s effectiveness. How can we know if Carstarphan, or any superintendent, has done an effective job, if they leave after such a short time?
No evidence suggests that the Saint Paul Schools have become markedly better during the past three years. Take a look on Twin Cities Compass at reading and math proficiency scores, as well as graduation rates. Even if you believe that three years is enough time (and I do not feel that it is) to tell whether change has occurred, you can’t find any significant positive trends. Test scores overall and the graduation rate both need improvement. The achievement gap persists for White students and students Of Color.
Saint Paul has an excellent opportunity to act wisely in securing an effective, committed Superintendent of Schools. We have a large population and school system, but not so large that the bureaucracy can’t change course under good leadership. We have many committed, competent teachers, parents, community organizations, businesses and others who can lend a hand in educating our children.
Let’s search for a superintendent who will commit to the long term with our children; and let’s develop an incentive/compensation package that rewards long term performance on the indicators of educational success that really matter. The superintendent is not the be-all and end-all of school district effectiveness, but he or she does play a major role. Saint Paul can stand out as a district that does not just pull someone off the merry-go-round and have them hop back on three years later. We can creatively build a different type of arrangement for an urban school superintendent.
Let’s acknowledge that families and communities, as much as school systems, contribute to the education of our children, and let’s nurture a productive relationship between the new superintendent and our community’s residents and institutions. This will support the new superintendent and increase the likelihood that he or she will stay as long as it takes to have an impact.
More thoughts on this topic, including some specific suggestions for the School Board, based on what we know from research, in a future blog. If you have ideas to share, please let me know.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
An article in the New York Times Science Times reported that “plenty of nonhuman animals practice the tither’s art.” For example, if a rhesus monkey discovers a source of high-quality food, it is expected to call out to its comrades, to share. Vampire bats sometimes regurgitate a portion of their meal, to feed other hungry bats. Several varieties of birds and fish give up part of their “wealth” to help the larger community.
Contributing to the larger community, voluntarily or through payment of taxes, became a universal practice among humans as well: “There’s not a human society in the world that doesn’t redistribute food to nonrelatives” – the article quotes Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute. “Whether it’s through the state, or the chief, or a rural collective, or some other mechanism, food sharing of large nutritional packages is quite extensive and has been going on for at least 100,000 years of human history.”
These observations fulfill the predictions of a thinker far ahead of her times, Arabella Buckley, who wrote more than 100 years ago, that science would someday recognize: “that the "Struggle for Existence," which has taught [insects] the lesson of self-sacrifice to the community, [also teaches that the] devotion of mother to child, and friend to friend ... recognizes that mutual help and sympathy are among the most powerful weapons [of survival].”
As we strive to meet the challenges we face, let’s remember that mutual support, sharing, and collaboration lie deep within our genes. As well, they contribute to our collective ability to survive with all the other human inhabitants of this planet. Competition serves a function at one level of human existence; but cooperation provides a higher level function that we must not ignore.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Why “smart”? He mentions several reasons. Among them: a) The design of the initiative derives from knowledge of what works; its designers paid attention to research. b) It stresses collaboration. No one sector can solve the problem – business, government, nonprofits, and community residents, including homeless individuals themselves, must participate in the solution. c) The initiative stresses a three-pronged approach: prevention, supportive housing, and outreach.
Wilder Research has worked in partnership with other organizations and groups to address homelessness since the early 1980s. Currently, our Homeless Management Information System provides information and insight on the system of services which the state’s homeless access. Our once-every-three-years homelessness survey (to occur in fall of 2009) provides in-depth knowledge about the conditions of the state’s homeless residents. Through both of these tools, Wilder Research has influenced policies and funding in ways that will benefit homeless individuals and families, Minnesota’s taxpayers, business owners, and pretty much everyone in the state. We will continue to provide this information – to ensure up-to-date understanding of homelessness issues, to promote accountability, and to monitor our communities’ progress – until someday, hopefully, we and others will work ourselves out of a job.
I suspect that Heading Home Minnesota will make progress; it might, or might not, completely achieve its goal. Regardless, we will learn more about what can work. We will learn how to spend money more wisely. We will learn how to collaborate more effectively – as institutions and as individuals. As Jim stated, “Our public and private investments must be productive. We should be investing in a system that promotes education, employment, health and responsibility among homeless children, youths, and adults. This is what homeless people want for themselves. This is what we want for our communities. This is what we need for our future.”
See Jim Frey’s full essay: Heading Home Minnesota – not just right, but smart
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
To be successful, we’ve learned that at least four ingredients are essential, and I would like to share them with you:.
1. Solid research. The quality of information depends on the methods used to obtain it. We do not have a “one size fits all” mentality. Rather, we identify the best method(s) for obtaining information, depending on the questions which we or others need to answer. We include social scientists from all disciplines on our staff, because we don’t feel that any one discipline has a corner on the market for searching for the right answers. We build on theories and previous research from all disciplines. When we use a method we make sure that competent staff gather, analyze, and interpret information in accordance with the highest scientific standards. Much of this occurs transparently, providing an unseen foundation. Nonetheless, this foundation enables us to construct studies which will withstand criticism and provide the opportunity to obtain sound, up-to-date knowledge.
2. Credible research. We do not strive to produce what people want to hear; we strive to produce what people need to hear. We do not seek to please; we seek to provoke thought and creativity and to enhance insight. We feel that our audiences deserve research results which any reasonable person would accept as legitimate, unbiased, reasonable, and relevant (even if that person disagrees with those results). Some research “think tanks” become associated with a “point of view”; they can please adherents of that point of view, but they struggle to gain acceptance of their findings and interpretations, no matter how valid they may be, among other audiences. We take steps to appeal to people with all sorts of predispositions. We do this, for example, by forming study advisory committees with diverse representatives who do not necessarily agree with each other and who challenge us to find a way to gather information that all sides of an issue will accept as credible. We take great pride in the many occasions where liberals and conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents have all cited Wilder Research data to support their conclusions and recommendations.
3. Practical research. Our work must answer questions that will guide long-term strategic decisions and short-term operational decisions regarding policies, funding, programming, and other activities. We involve decision-makers, in general and specific ways, to advise on the design of our work, and in critiquing our work after completion, for continued improvement. The greater the use of our findings, the more we feel we have achieved our goals for Wilder Research.
4. Mission-driven research. Above all, we carry out our efforts in humble dedication to the improvement of the well-being of all members of the community. This dedication motivates individuals to join the Wilder Research staff, and it sustains them to carry out the highest quality applied research.
As always, I welcome your comments – and even your challenges – to keep us on track, continuing to accomplish the best possible work.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
1. Focus on what is “mission critical.” Identify the activities absolutely essential to your mission. Get rid of the rest. Focus on core values. If others can do something as well as you, maybe you should let them. Don’t be drawn off mission by “seductive RFPs.”
2. Form strategic alliances. Collaborate with others in whatever way makes sense. Be willing to give up your independence. Speakers questioned why multiple agencies should provide the same services, why they should all spend money on fundraising intended to support delivery of the same service to the same population, why they should have independent “back room” operations duplicating one another’s efforts.
3. Board members, step up and take charge. Boards must take ownership of the tough, high-level decisions. Staff can then move ahead, based upon those decisions, to operate the organization as effectively as possible. Most organizations have “800 pound gorillas” and “sacred cows”. Board action should eliminate these and support executive directors to move ahead. As Ellen Luger of General Mills said, “Be open to new ideas; don’t just think the old way.”
Organizations who incorporate these themes into their planning and action will: (a) increase their impacts; (b) improve the economics of service delivery; and (c) appear more attractive to corporate and private funders (all of whom are experiencing decreases in their endowment income and other sources of revenues).
The worldwide economic downturn will continue for a while. The current recession will include the deepest slide in economic indicators since World War II. State Economist Tom Stinson stated that economic recovery similar to the rebound from the recession of the early 1980s will not occur for two reasons: first, no “pent-up demand” exists to get money flowing to end the recession; second, demographics are not in our favor – older people tend to save, while younger people spend. In the 1980s, the ‘baby boomers” were young; now, they are older and more concerned about saving for retirement.
Significant recovery for nonprofit organizations will lag the overall improvement in the economic environment. Recovery for nonprofits will likely take at least two years, if not more. Full recovery will perhaps take 10 years.
Jon Campbell, CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota mentioned something he learned from his father: “When things seem as bad as they will get, they are likely to get a little bit worse.”
Let’s heed Campbell’s words, not to foster pessimism, but to keep us vigilant. We can, and will, overcome the pressing challenges we face – if we keep ourselves informed, communicate and support one another, and open our organizations to opportunities to carry out our work in creative and effective ways. Wilder Research looks forward to addressing the challenges of our times, alongside our for-profit, nonprofit, and government colleagues with similar interests in improving our communities.
*Seminar: “UNITED FRONT: Engaging Nonprofit Board and Executive Leadership Facing Unprecedented Challenges”. Friday, March 13, 2009. Minneapolis. Sponsored by Greater Twin Cities United Way, General Mills, and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Thanks to those three organizations for offering a forum which provided objective data on current economic conditions, along with wise counsel on strategic approaches for dealing with these conditions! (Opening panel included: Jon Campbell, CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota; Mayor Chris Coleman, Saint Paul; Suzanne Koepplinger, Minnesota Women’s Indian Resource Center; Ellen Goldberg Luger, General Mills Foundation; Mike Opat, Hennepin County Commissioner; Jon Pratt, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits; Tom Stinson, Minnesota State Economist; Christina Wessel, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.)
Sunday, March 08, 2009
Master performers have an ability to take current models and conventions and work them into new forms. They challenge themselves and others – and they motivate others to challenge them. (Marsalis and his colleagues try to “arrange music too hard for one another to perform”.) Top performers have an ability to work with others. They seek ideas from others. They search constantly, both by themselves and in collaboration with others, for new ways of doing things.
We can learn a lot from observing brilliant people. I’m always struck by the combination of intellectual assertiveness and intellectual humility – groundbreaking efforts to achieve new ways to understand and to act, yet with great awe and all-encompassing appreciation for how little any of us, even geniuses, can really know and do.
As we face the issues our communities and our nations currently face, I hope we can develop our collective genius in a way that incorporates the traits of great performers like Marsalis. For example, we desperately need to change our system of health care. Will we just produce more of the same, bogged down by old ways of thinking and stymied by the baggage of the past? Or can we rearrange some old parts and create some new ones, to redesign an accessible, effective, equitable system? Can we arrange something “too hard to perform” and then accomplish the work and preparation that enables us to perform?
If and when “stimulus money” flows into our communities, will we seek to plug holes and maintain the past? Or will we creatively identify opportunities that will leverage the effect of the money, building on the energy and genius of our residents?
Top performers make difficult, complex efforts look simple. We can’t deceive ourselves. As Marsalis pointed out, sometimes practicing “18 or 19 hours in a day” is necessary. Similarly, to get our communities and economies back on track, we will need to work diligently. Quick, simple, and “politically correct” approaches will fall far short of what we need. We must challenge one another, give up turf, compromise and orchestrate some new music.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Research has never had more importance. Determining the best way to stimulate the economy; correcting our housing problems; providing the most effective health care and human services – all of these demand good research.
Paraphrasing Thomas Paine, we may now find ourselves in “times that try people’s souls.” In these uncertain times, research not only provides information; it also significantly contributes to democracy and strengthens democratic institutions. How so?
First of all, the obvious. Sound research provides facts which can support better decision-making. Sound research also provides understanding of cause and effect, enabling us to broaden our scope and take action not only when we have a problem but also to prevent the occurrence of problems.
Less obviously, but much to the delight of Mr. Paine if he lived now, the research process, when implemented well, has features which promote truly democratic flowing of ideas, sharing of opinions, and participation in decision-making. For example:
- Transparency: In a good study, all facts and data sit out on the table, for everyone to see, to critique, and to challenge.
- Involvement of multiple parties: A good study will involve all relevant stakeholders, taking special care to involve people with different points of view. (For example, in politics, those from different political parties; or in health care, the providers, the insurers, the drug manufacturers, etc., including those with different philosophies of care.)
- Clear vision: Good research demands clear thinking and valid measurement; these promote the establishment of a vision which everyone can at least understand, whether they avow or disavow it.
- Empowerment: The facts, the data, the findings, the conclusions – they sit on the table not only during a study, but beyond. Anyone can take them, re-examine them, and draw new conclusions.
In short, good research leads to the democratization of understanding the world and creates the opportunity for truly democratic decision-making. In our globalized society, where anyone and everyone can become a disseminator of information over the Internet, sound, credible research is critical for making wise decisions on the most effective and most cost-effectiveways to improve ourselves and our communities; to treat our problems and prevent problems from occurring.
The front page of The New York Times on February 16 featured a story on the $1.1 billion in the economic stimulus bill which will focus on comparing the effectiveness of different treatments for illnesses. More on that in a later blog, but it reflects the growing understanding that, with all the options available, we need research, if we want to have a larger impact within the resources available to us.
We at Wilder Research look forward to working on these issues and making progress with you and others in our communities. Any thoughts? Get in touch!
Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Throughout my career, I have met thousands of leaders in government, nonprofit organizations, and business who pay their taxes and honestly fulfill other community obligations. Tom Daschle (who withdrew his nomination this morning) and Tom Geithner might be fine fellows and in some ways deserving of appointments as Cabinet Secretaries. However, it’s difficult for me to believe that nobody among 300 million Americans comes a close second to them – with most of their competencies, plus the “competence” of honesty.
Our President proposes an infusion of cash into the economy to combat the economic recession we experience. But the roots of the recession, which now causes such pain in our local communities, do not lie in a shortage of cash. More cash will not prevent the recurrence of the problems we now have. Ethical leadership, on the other hand, does offer the prospect both to get us out of this mess and prevent it from occurring again.
Our President has the opportunity to stimulate and reinvigorate the moral fiber among decision-makers and leaders in government, nonprofits, and business. If he seizes that opportunity, the resulting effects in our local communities, and among all people from the most powerful to the most vulnerable, will at least equal the impact of an $800 billion dollar “economic stimulus” package.
Treating honesty and integrity as core qualifications for high-level leaders, rather than just a nice addition, might seem unusual. However, what if “well-qualified” Wall Street CEOs had honestly communicated with their shareholders, the government, and the general public? What if “well-qualified” bankers had conducted honest appraisals of risk? What if “well-qualified” individuals had been honest with themselves and others?
If a lot of honesty had flowed through our power networks, the crisis in our economic networks – which battered the retirement savings plans and college savings accounts and home ownership of millions of honest and hardworking people – might not have occurred.
We need economic stimulus in some way, shape, and form. But without moral/ethical stimulus of our leaders, we will fail to achieve the long-term quality of life that our communities deserve.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Improvement of communities, providing leadership and insight on tough issues, nourishing greater effectiveness and efficiency in nonprofit and government organizations – those goals motivate us to accomplish as much as we can through research and nonpartisan action, in collaboration with many of you, our partners – during 2009.
Twin Cities Compass, successfully launched last year, will work in partnership with initiatives striving to improve the quality of life in the region. We expect to focus at least on the topics of housing and education, and we’ve been invited to partner with a consortium of organizations throughout Dakota County, for a unified approach to address the issues that area faces.
Minnesota Compass will extend to all regions of Minnesota greater capability to understand their trends, strengths, and weaknesses, and to promote positive change.
Sadly, the region continues to need homelessness studies. The Wilder Research Homeless Management Information System compiles an up-to-date account of homelessness needs and services; it will offer baseline information in 2009, perhaps tentatively for a while, until we fine tune the system to present the data in the most effective way and with the highest possible credibility. In addition, our every-third-year homelessness survey comes due this year; it captures in-depth information about the characteristics of homeless individuals and families, reasons for homelessness, etc. Everyone wonders what the housing crisis and the foreclosure trends of 2008 might have caused. Our research will find out in detail. If there is any silver lining to doing these studies, it’s that Minnesota stands out among the fifty states for our understanding of homelessness issues, coupled with our compassion and our resolve to do something about those issues.
Long-term care, health disparities, and medical home are three health-related topics on which we definitely have plans to work. As well, we may conduct a major study of universal health care.
Work completed on an Early Childhood Asset Review and Business Plan will likely receive public attention.
Studies on the following topics will commence, or expand into full operation: children’s mental health; supportive housing; early education; adoption programs for older teens; faith-based mentoring programs in 16 cities; child care use; parenting education; and more.
Seminars, conferences, and other convening that we will sponsor to raise awareness and to foster productive action include: older adult service needs; health disparities; child care use; teen adoption; housing and homelessness; implementation of the medical home concept; and more. We will continue our series of free seminars (begun in September of 2008) to educate nonprofit managers about program evaluation.
Events confirmed so far:
- Increasing post-secondary education access and success (February)
- Early childhood neglect and trauma (March)
- Youth tobacco marketing issues (March)
- Early childhood, child care use, conference (April)
- Evaluation series for nonprofit managers (February, May)
Understanding “return on investment” of nonprofit and government efforts – we will continue to increase work on this topic, on our own and with partners. In the present context of recession and government spending reductions, this topic has more importance than ever. The conference we sponsored in 2008 will probably return in 2010.
Some of our efforts involve collecting data directly from residents, consumers, or service users. Our Survey Center will remain very busy with surveys ranging from urban areas to statewide and larger regions.
If you have an interest in any of these studies, please let us know. I can refer you to the project directors, if you don’t know who they are.
If you have an interest in any of our conferences or seminars, or if you want to join our newsletter mailing list, send an email to Marilyn, at email@example.com .
And, of course, explore our websites: www.wilderresearch.org and www.twincitiescompass.org
All the best for 2009!
Thursday, January 01, 2009
“Our donors in past years have begun requesting our services,” – a situation reported over the past couple of months by nonprofit organizations – revealing that some middle and high income people, who had previously contributed their dollars to benefit others, now find themselves without a house, without a job, and in need of a handout. For at least a year, we can expect more foreclosures, more people losing jobs, poorer economic circumstances, on average, across the nation (and the world). State government will curtail activities. Some nonprofit organizations promoting the public good will go out of operation. Poverty and nutrition issues will not improve. This will affect many who have not previously experienced poverty and the effects of economic downturns.
However, I fear that the many middle and upper income people with secure employment and housing (and who can wait out the decline in the value of their retirement accounts) might not feel much pain at all. In fact, the opposite may happen. It’s a great time to have a little bit of money, because a little bit can go a long way. Housing prices have declined; mortgage providers have lowered their rates. Quality consumer goods have become available at a fraction of their original sticker price. (Walking through Macy’s a few days before Christmas, I felt as if store employees wanted to pay me to take merchandise rather than the other way around; also, the number of people taking advantage of the steeply discounted items to make purchases for themselves seemed almost as large as the number of gift shoppers.)
If a large proportion of us do not understand the realities of what our communities face this year, the likelihood of amassing the political will to overcome challenges is low. We need to make sure this does not occur.
State spending is extremely important, as many economists, including Nobel prize winner Paul Krugman, have noted. We need to find a way to use state government as one of the economic levers to get funds flowing through local economies.
Carleen Rhodes recently commented on the situation of community-based organizations that contribute so much to the fabric and infrastructure of our communities. They have experienced snowballing needs recently, while their investment assets have decreased and their charitable contributions have declined. She hopes that the strong Minnesota tradition of giving will help pull these organizations through hard times. Her essay made me wonder: Why do we talk about bailing out an industry that has ignored market forces, developed products that consumers world-wide largely prefer not to purchase, lavishly paid its executives even when they performed ineptly – but we don’t propose to help the small businesses and community nonprofits that have competently, wisely and prudently operated in our communities?
Health and Health Care
Universal health coverage. Why we have people who cannot obtain health care in the United States, I don’t know. Actually, one of my health care providers said that he knows – "It’s 80% greed and 20% institutional inertia." was his assessment. That's probably too cynical a view of the many interests affected by health care reform. Many different groups sincerely want to improve our system of care, and they don't all agree. However, it's clear that there will have to be a lot of give and take in order to promote the health of our communities' residents in an optimal way.
I lived in the United Kingdom for a year and carried a national health card while there. This can work. Beyond personal experience, I’ve seen the data. If you think your chances of living longer and healthier, even if you have great health insurance and access to care, are better in the U.S., than in countries with universal health care coverage, think again. You’re kidding yourself.
With inadequate health care, people cannot perform as well at jobs, they can’t do as well academically. The negative consequences affect all of us in a variety of ways: higher insurance rates; higher demands on local government which we must fund; more illnesses transmitted and more costs of care for ourselves and our families.
Neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush accomplished necessary health care reform. Let’s hope that President-elect Obama resolves to make progress that means so much to the physical and mental health of our communities’ residents.
Disparities in health care. As I’ve mentioned before, differences in health outcomes based on race and class will increasingly become an Achilles heel for our nation, as populations of color increase as a proportion of our population. Universal health coverage is one major step toward eliminating disparities, but we’ll need to take other steps as well.
Obesity and diabetes rates. As I’ve also mentioned before, these rates are rising. They cost all of us, directly or indirectly, through greater incidence of chronic diseases, higher medical costs, pain and suffering among families, lowered life expectancy for some individuals, and other consequences.
Education constitutes one of the most important tools we have to remedy our current economic situation and to make our communities as healthy and productive as possible. This means education in all its forms: primary; secondary; post-secondary; re-education of workers with outmoded skills; and so on.
Yet our high school math scores show that we do not produce the graduates we need for strong, competitive businesses of the future.
The achievement gap between White students and students Of Color persists – a threat to our vitality because of the increasing diversity of our young population and the need to educate all young people.
School districts have announced cutbacks. Many urban schools, where some of the most serious achievement issues exist, lack innovation and creativity. Some initiatives do seem to have promise. I was very impressed with what I saw on my visit with Twin Cities leaders to Atlanta – a superintendent with a vision and commanding presence, collaboration with the business community, a serious focus on data for management and improvement (not just for compliance and teaching to the test), a system that attempts to take a “whole school approach”, rewarding teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, and janitors, when test scores markedly improve. Let’s hope we can learn from these models. Increased funding is definitely not the panacea; we must implement new approaches.
We plan to address these and other issues in our work during the coming year. I’ll fill you in on more specifics.
In the meanwhile, I encourage you to think seriously about whatever you consider the top issues for our communities in 2009 and about how you plan to work on them.
I welcome your thoughts – about the issues, about what Wilder Research might do, and about how our communities can move ahead.