An interview with Blue Meridian Partners’ Nancy Roob and Jim Shelton on what it takes to combat poverty in the United States.
As Chief Executive Officer and Chief Investment and Impact Officer, respectively, of the philanthropic fund Blue Meridian Partners, Nancy Roob and Jim Shelton invest in strategies that can transform the lives of young people and families living in poverty. To date, the fund has aggregated more than US$ 2 billion from partner investors to scale solutions that increase economic mobility and build pathways out of poverty for young people and families. Here, they discuss income and opportunity inequality, and how investors can partner more effectively to boost social mobility in the United States.
Nancy Roob: Leaders in philanthropy and the broader social sector have been working to narrow gaps in equity and economic security for decades. Yet, those gaps are getting wider and we know we have so far to go in making the progress we need to thrive as a society. The idea that our children will have a better life than we have had is, in most corners of America, more myth than reality. It’s an unacceptable fact that, if you’re born in a low-income community and on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, more often than not you’ll stay there. In fact, research shows that a child growing up poor in a southern city like Atlanta only has a 4% chance of climbing to the top fifth of wage earners.
That said, while this may sound hopeless, it isn’t. We believe and see that pioneering social sector leaders have many of the solutions to help catalyze rapid change across the country. Blue Meridian Partners identifies, invests in, and scales up the strategies of these visionaries who are making an impact on the social problems that undermine the American dream.
These are leaders such as Rahil Briggs, the National Director of HealthySteps. Rahil and her team strengthen the health and social, emotional, and cognitive development of low-income children under the age of four — who are notoriously hard to reach because most do not attend pre-K or other formal programs. HealthySteps reaches these children by adding a child development specialist to local pediatric care teams, which have contact with 90% of the nation’s children. When families visit their doctor, the specialist provides them with guidance on parenting skills, building healthy relationships, and strengthening their children’s early development. We see great promise in HealthySteps and solutions like it to help young people and families overcome barriers to opportunity on a nationwide scale.
Jim Shelton: Solutions to economic mobility are fundamentally rooted in the context of place. First, the opportunity landscape for individuals and families is shaped by the built, economic, and social environments in their neighborhoods and communities. Second, programs and services are most often based — and best delivered — in beneficiaries’ home neighborhoods and communities.
We believe philanthropy can play a catalytic role in helping more communities build comprehensive place-based partnerships, led and owned by the people who live there, that change life trajectories. With investment and support, communities can change their own physical, economic, and social environments to open pathways of opportunity; in fact, they must be the leading engines if that change is to be effective and sustainable.
We see this acutely now, as the COVID-19 crisis is shaking communities to their cores. Strong place-based initiatives can help ensure the no one, especially our most vulnerable, falls further behind as regions turn to recovery. Social-sector leaders and philanthropists must lead the charge to help communities rebuild in ways that are fundamentally more equitable and conducive to economic mobility.
Nancy Roob: I agree. We can accomplish so much more if we marry promising nationwide work with place-based efforts — there’s no need for philanthropists to reinvent the wheel. I learned this from Geoff Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. He taught me that philanthropists don’t need to break new ground: the best thing we can do is listen, learn, and help leaders bring their successful strategies to scale — whether they are working within a community or striving to address problems nationwide.
That’s what we’re doing around the country with leaders like Patrick Lawler, who started his career working in a local group home. Pat went on to become a probation officer in Tennessee’s Shelby County, where he grew up, and later helped found Youth Villages in Memphis. Under his leadership, the organization has become a champion in the national movement to downsize group foster care and build community responses that help young people transition into a healthy, productive adulthood.
As our General Partner and board chair Stan Druckenmiller put it: “As a private-sector investor and with my philanthropy, I try to stay focused on the long view. Blue Meridian’s patient model for taking proven strategies to scale is exciting for someone like me — who wants to see my resources used as effectively as possible so more children and youth have access to the same opportunities that I did.”
Nancy Roob: Today, even if you’re a leader with an approach and drive to help millions of people chart pathways out of poverty, you must navigate a fragmented philanthropic marketplace that is not structured to provide the level of capital to match your potential and is more oriented to achieving short-term results. We need to “right-size” our investments and structure them for organizations’ long-term growth. A problem as big and hairy as economic immobility isn’t going to budge with investments of a few million dollars.
Impactful and innovative local leaders know best which strategies work on the ground and how to build sustainable community ownership. To truly move the needle on inequality, we have to give them a fighting chance with pooled resources that match the ambition of their vision. Unfortunately, the current philanthropic sector isn’t giving these leaders the robust funding or the market incentive to think big, bold, and long term.
Jim Shelton: I would add that it’s not just important to focus on how much capital flows to these leaders — how we deploy that capital really matters. If we want leaders to change deeply entrenched systems that limit economic mobility, that requires sustained, strategic effort, and partnerships. We need to provide sufficient, flexible support that lets them invest in their people and organizations, build strong coalitions and advocacy efforts, and work to shift prevailing narratives and public attitudes about poverty — all while innovating and refining their core model. What Nancy describes as “right sizing” means that our investments enable leaders to do what is necessary to achieve their mission and our shared aspirations.
Inequities that advantage one community over another deny too many kids and families access to economic mobility. This truth has been validated by the Covid-19 crisis. The challenges are deep and complex, and cannot be solved by philanthropy or a single funder. Instead, philanthropy must work along-side government and can weave together community partners to help tackle systemic racism and advocate for change.
Nancy Roob: We know that our resources, as abundant as they are, still amount to a drop in the bucket when tackling the challenges that trap tens of millions of youth and families in poverty. Moving the needle on mobility can’t be accomplished by philanthropy alone. But helping social sector leaders realize impact at scale is going to require more robust, effective philanthropic collaboration as a necessary ingredient. Specifically, we need models of collaboration that enable investors to pool capital and distribute it more efficiently, creating simpler ways for social sector leaders to access it in large infusions — so they can focus on execution, performance, and results. This is of even greater urgency for leaders of color — we must expand access to effectively capitalize their efforts to achieve racial equity and social mobility.
But I’m encouraged, because there is growing recognition of this challenge and a shift underway. I can foresee hundreds, maybe thousands, of funders joining together to channel capital more rationally and robustly to leaders with the vision and drive to solve our toughest problems.
Blue Meridian exemplifies this sort of collaborative. But imagine a future where there are 20 more platforms for collaboration built on the same principles — each pooling hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to social sector leaders on the forefront of addressing pressing social issues like health or the environment.
I truly believe that by collaborating and investing together, we have a real chance for philanthropists to help solve our most intractable social problems.