Investing directly in families is a large part of our work at Letters Foundation. We collaborate with many individuals and families across the U.S. by supporting the incidentals necessary to get to work, retain work, or aspire for work. Access to transportation, clothing, equipment, and certification training programs, are examples of grants that have helped our constituents with their workforce development goals.
In a recent conversation with Family Independence Initiative (FII), one of our Community Partners, we were compelled by their reframing of the notion of workforce development in the nonprofit and public sectors. Traditionally, workforce development programs operate under a case management model, placing constituents in positions often in low-wage industries. While we partner with impactful workforce development programs in our community, FII takes a different approach of investing directly in families as they seek opportunities to define their futures in the way they see fit.
Danielle Coates-Connor, National Director of Communications, shares FII’s perspective on advancing workforce goals for families and their communities:
FII has been advancing a movement towards economic and social mobility for low-income families by investing in their initiatives. Through our technology platform, UpTogether, we facilitate the exchange of financial and social capital, and gather data that trusting low-income communities and directing dollars straight into their hands has a better return on investment. UpTogether also focuses on the role of social networks, strengthening new and existing relationships, so that all can thrive.
Workforce development strategies are often focused solely on job placements. While the majority of FII families are engaged in formal employee-employer work situations, they don’t necessarily do so enthusiastically: a recent analysis of our Boston families indicates only 11% prefer to work for someone else.
As this striking data point illustrates, it is common among FII families to have entrepreneurial drive. Nationally, 19% of FII families own businesses which are producing primary and supplemental income. Of these families, 60% report choosing to do so because of the flexibility it provides. Together, these findings demonstrate that workforce strategies ought to prioritize job quality and flexibility in addition to wages and placements. Entrepreneurship offers the autonomy and flexibility that employee-employer work lacks, workforce goals that many FII families seek.
We have an opportunity to respond to the workforce goals of FII families: direct investment, allowing them to develop their own pathways to financial sustainability. Given the increasing number of families engaged in business activity–and the majority that would prefer to be–we believe that we can best leverage our capital by growing their entrepreneurial pursuits and making low-income laborers into owners.
Low-income families are effective at placing others in jobs: about half of FII families responding to an employment survey reported finding their jobs through personal networks. Very few accessed formal workforce development programs. Meanwhile, family members that sought job or business assistance from peers saw their incomes rise $630 per month on average versus gains of $150 per month for those that did not.
This model works. Thousands of families across the country have used direct investments to create their own economic mobility. For example, FII-Greater Boston family partner, Jessica Withers, has always been athletic, and the UpTogether Fund helped her get her fitness business off the ground. With $1200 unrestricted cash investment, she was able to buy the weights, mats, and other gear needed to begin offering exercise classes in her community and working towards financial sustainability.
We invite funders, policy makers, and government agencies to join us in this alternative approach that fortifies social connection, directly invests in initiatives, and honors family agency. Invest in community as workforce development. Low-income families are actively placing each other in jobs, and their small businesses meet their community needs. Direct investment in families allows them to achieve financial sustainability for themselves and their communities, accelerates their social and economic mobility, and makes poverty escapable.
Learn more about FII here.