Kirsten Lodal is the CEO and Co-Founder of LIFT, a prominent national anti-poverty organization headquartered in Washington DC. LIFT began as an idea during her sophomore year of college in 1998, and currently advocates for over 100,000 families to promote job security, child care, and data informed social services. Lodal currently serves on the board of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a program centered on childhood development and recreation for children living in homeless shelters, and DC Greens, a DC non-profit working to provide underserved communities with the tools they need to access healthy foods. As a 2018 winter quarter IOP Pritzker Fellow, Lodal held seminars centered on the role of non-profits as laboratories for change in our society. She sat down with The Gate to discuss her leadership values, LIFT’s advocacy model, and the ever present need for non-profit leaders to involve the people they fight to serve.
The Gate: What is your management philosophy?
Kirsten Lodal: I really like equipping the leaders around me with the tools that they need to soar, so I have a strong focus on distributed leadership and empowering those others immediately around me. I’m fortunate because I’ve been able to grow LIFT to the point to which I have a really strong senior management team filled with people of extraordinary professions. Going back to when I started LIFT as a college sophomore, it was essential to me to bring in partners early on. I had a co-founder, who happened to be my boyfriend at the time, and we’re still good friends. We had strength in partnership and very quickly brought in fifty other students to help us get started. They helped us realize that there is strength in numbers, and there is strength in the different skill sets that were brought to the table: that’s something that has flowed with me through the years.
A couple of students have come into my office hours here at the Institute of Politics and talked to me about entrepreneurial ideas that they have, for social efforts that they’d like to get started. I have a whole slew of advice that I offer to people in that situation, including things like, “First, what are you doing to earnestly and deeply know the community?” and, “Don’t go it alone. Pull in partners.” So I value bringing people together, respecting their strengths, and really, really valuing diversity of background, experience, input, and personality styles. Undoubtedly our work has gotten stronger as I’ve brought others to the table who bring a lot that I don’t, and created a space for them to soar in that context.
Gate: What has been your most successful outreach strategy and why?
Lodal: Over the last few years, we’ve transitioned to recruiting those we serve. Our core model is that we partner with parents with young children who happen to be living in poverty, who are striving to create a different future for themselves and their kids. We partner with them to provide support to help them achieve their goals. Typically, the areas where we work most closely with these families are in stable employment relief, family sustaining income oriented career pathways, which means we do quite a bit of work on educational attainment and credentialing to grow earning potential for very young parents whose educations have been interrupted.
We also do a lot of work on financial capabilities: restructuring debt and growing savings. Our premise is that we can support highly driven families lifting themselves out of poverty in the earliest years of their kids’ lives. We have the opportunity to uplift two generations at once—the research is extraordinarily clear about the lifetime implications of achieving economic security and a stronger, more stable family system for young children in the early years. This ranges from health outcomes, to future educational outcomes, to earnings outcomes, so that’s our big proposition.
What we’re trying to do is really tackle intergenerational poverty, so one of the outreach strategies that we codified and have been practicing consistently for the last several years has been directly recruiting our parents through early childhood organizations, so that kids and babies are anchored in the context of some kind of early childhood support, whether it’s Head Start or home visitation, and we’re partnering with their parents to help them transform their situation, so that they can create a different economic future for their kids, but also very immediately a different kind of home environment. That’s been really successful for a lot of reasons. It’s created a ton of efficiency for families to not necessarily have to go to multiple places at once; it’s created a wonderful collaboration with the organizations that are focusing on child wellbeing. The most important people in a child’s life are their family, their parents, throughout life, but particularly in the early years. We’ve been able to bring parents into the conversation who are oddly often left out of conversations around child poverty alleviation—it’s like “You gotta get families into the mix!”
There have also been really exciting research implications. We’ve got a couple of data sharing agreements, with third party academic research institutions, to be able to pull together child facing outcome data, and parent outcome data, and tie them together. I think we strangely haven’t been able to fully prove the theory (that I think a lot of us have lived in our own lives) that if parents and families do well, kids do well. We’re trying to contribute to the field’s knowledge with early childhood partners, by putting our data out there to get matched up, to say “Are we seeing direct correlations between the stability of parents, in particular moms, and immediate changes on kids’ educational and health outcomes?”
Gate: What is the best example of the way LIFT’s work has contributed to the public good of America’s communities?
Lodal: We do an enormous amount of “member feedback.” Our clients are called members, and we have a whole evaluation system that we call our “constituent voice evaluation system,” which keeps us really honest to our intended beneficiaries. It’s about our members, not our funders and not anyone else. About every interaction that we have with our families tends to be very intensive, the evaluation is conducted at least every two years or so, so these are very deep relationships we’re forming. Families complete micro-surveys, and upon every interaction with us we have focus groups.
What I will tell you is that the number one consistent point of feedback that we get from families around what differentiates LIFT is that it treats people with kindness, dignity, and respect. It’s simple—perhaps a sad commentary on the state of affairs—but meaningful. The baseline foundation is relationship development and trust, and we provide an opportunity to help people open themselves up to identify the goals that they are fundamentally capable of achieving. The families are the superheroes; we just put the wind in the capes. If you want to talk about resilience and grit, you talk to folks around the world living in poverty. Beyond outreach, one thing that we’ve seen at LIFT that we’re really proud of is family stickiness—a lot of families really sticking with us. The average uptake of parent engagement programs like Head Start is about 12 percent; at LIFT it’s been upwards of 70 percent. That’s a huge advance, and we think for sure it’s because we have a strong value proposition, and can show families the kinds of gains that our members have made, but I think that a lot of it also has to do with, in essence, a bedside manner.
We work hard to earn that, we never take it for granted, and that’s very encouraging to us. In terms of contributions to the public good, our work in Los Angeles is really interesting because upwards of 85 percent of our members there are Latino. Many are recent immigrants with variable documentation status, for which we don’t have any eligibility requirements. People can choose to self-report into our confidential system if they want to, but they don’t have to. But of course, we have a strong sense about it. Since a lot of traditional pathways for support say “workforce development” or other social services don’t work as well in that community, people are so scared; there’s so much misinformation, so much identity-based threat all around, that people are scared oftentimes to access services, and so we’ve had to work hard to make LIFT a trusting place, but also creatively help families to keep moving along.
One example of this is Catherine and José Ivan, who found us through the community center that we work out of in South Los Angeles. Catherine was pregnant with their first child at the time; they found us while they were living in their car, transitionally homeless. José Ivan was working, but not making enough to get into housing. We helped them find stable housing that they could move into, but they couldn’t quite afford the security deposit. They had a $4,000 dollar gap in their finances, and there was no readily available program to cover that cost, so we accessed our member to member network, and within moments that $400 security deposit had been paid. The family was housed; José was working in a stable environment, able to focus on growing his career pathways, and Catherine was able to plug into higher quality prenatal care. Along the way another bump in the road was hit, where their family car, which is essential for mobility in a city with limited public transportation like Los Angeles, was totaled on the street by a drive-by crash while they were in their apartment. There were a couple hundred dollars worth of repairs needed that were going to break the bank, yet once again we were able to access the small pool of funding.
By the time their baby was born, she was born into stable housing, with one employed parent. Since some of the families involved in sponsoring these needs had gotten to know Catherine and José Ivan, one of our supporters threw a baby shower for her, and helped her get a social network and peer group. The lifetime ROI on that child’s wellbeing, it’s massive. Most remediation programs that happen far downstream to remediate the effects of being born into homelessness, lacking basic needs or having a depressed or socially isolated mom who has no network are massively more expensive than $1,200 dollars. It’s just one example of so many contributions that LIFT has to offer, but what you see here is this aggregation of capital that gets put in the hands of families. It’s financial, but also really meaningful social capital, and human capital investment in that family to get ahead. A beautiful capstone on that story is that they actually named their daughter after their LIFT coach, and now they’re doing great.
This story of growth and innovation changes how we’re thinking about social service delivery, because we’re now highly involved in trying to perpetuate these practices more broadly beyond LIFT. The opportunity for profound change in perception of opportunity and who is in poverty can come from actually connecting people with each other is enormous. We still have this cartoonish image, that’s really insidious in our national consciousness, often exemplified by the welfare queen narrative of who is in poverty. There’s myth and then there’s reality, and the reality in this country is that there is basically no welfare anymore. The story of poverty is the story of working multiple jobs, paying taxes, and doing what you’re supposed to do, and still not being able to make ends meet, which, in my view, is atrocious.
The story of poverty is the story of a lot of people working really hard to make a different future for their families and just needing some help, but we are just so stuck. If anything, we are doubling down on this narrative. I think that as we see in our political climate right now, narrative, the stories we tell ourselves, are powerful, way more so than data or even effective practice. Now we see the risks of huge decimation of very important programs for families. We’re telling this terrible story about moochers and others, instead of telling the story of the people that are in fact making this country great.
Gate: The modern system of nonprofits in America has been argued to be an industrial complex—a system in which financial constraints push nonprofits to professionalize and prioritize funding allocation at the expense of community empowerment. Have you encountered this challenge, and if so how have you sought to contend with it?
Lodal: I think that this is a great point. Far too often, the voices that matter the most in our work are not the voices that are listened to, because nonprofits are, in their own way, serving many masters. It is one of the challenges of the business model, and the user doesn’t tend to be the payer. This creates a real quandary in terms of responsiveness, and yet we need to fuel this work where often there isn’t an immediate natural market solution for it, there are some, but it’s not entirely the panacea. We’ve thought deeply about this, how you go from having good intentions and clear values, which are important and which we have, to systematically creating a structure that is responsive to the intended beneficiaries.
That’s why we went about a few years ago, building, in essence, this systematic listening and feedback system, which is quite elaborate, but really central to how we do what we do. It affects our organizational culture, how we do program prioritization, and evaluations. We don’t want to take for granted our commitment to treating our members as the bosses, or assume that this commitment will just naturally persist. We want to build in internal accountability systems, to ensure, rather than assume, that it does.
Our constituent voice suite of tools has become this triple threat: the innovation, evaluation, and voice tools. From an innovation standpoint, we get feedback from our families on what needs to change. From an evaluation standpoint, we took the conceptual feedback of families and triangulated that with the objective economic data we’re collecting, and we get a much more complete sense of impact. In many cases, what is helping someone actually achieve, for example an employment goal that they wanted, may not be an on the nose job search process, but helping them to feel more hopeful, supported, and confident so they nail the interview in a different way. We have to understand that kind of interplay. From a voice standpoint, going back to what I said earlier about respectful treatment, dignity matters a lot for people’s voices to be heard.
It matters for them to be told that we listen and made changes based on what they do. We listen, we aggregate the feedback, we share it back with families to get deeper exploration, and we change stuff. One instance of this is that a couple years ago we changed our lexicon from client to member, because I think in the social services world, in the U.S. at least, client has come to be associated with a neediness, a taking class, a perpetual client dynamic, while member connotes someone who is a part of something, has agency, and a voice. That’s the truth for us, and words matter—we got that feedback from our members and changed our language. That matters a lot in life, and it’s a piece of how we choose to build those systems in scale.
Image licensed under Creative Commons; the original may be found here.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.