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Schubart: Pulling Together

How does a tiny state with a $5.5 billion budget – half of which is allocated to help struggling people and communities, a philanthropic community that contributes another nearly $300 million to the non-profit-sector for community reinvestment, and a business community that spends significant time and money addressing shared socio-economic problems fail to substantially solve the problems of our 70,000 poor, many of whom are homeless, hungry, and jobless?

If we assume that 25,000 Vermonters are in dire need and divide that number into roughly half of the state budget alone, we get $120,000 per needy Vermonter. So where’s all this taxpayer money going and why is our progress on these social metrics so incremental?

I’d have to guess that, with the best of intentions, we simply don’t know what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, or how we’re measuring our successes and failures. Results-based accountability may be all the buzz these days, but we’ve yet to agree on common standards of measurement, much less an implementation strategy or a shared commitment to apply them across State, non-profit and business initiatives to determine and compare how each is doing.

The problem may simply be cultural. The State and the non-profit and business sectors see initiatives and solutions differently. The State is responsive to politics and public opinion, tends to evade budget detail, measures results its own way, reacts rather than plans, cuts budgets across-the-board instead of strategically, and is hemmed in by a two-year election cycle and a one-year budget process.  

On the positive side, while the non-profit or mission-driven sector has its own challenges, our best non-profits are extraordinarily effective at delivering on mission and increasingly on collaborating to achieve a collective result. Vermont’s philanthropic community is generous and holds recipients to high standards of transparency and accountability.

In turn, our business community understands clearly the correlation between healthy communities, education and a vigorous economy and funds initiatives to enhance both. 
If these three sectors were to align intelligence and resources, agree on setting priorities for solving socio-economic problems, and apply their best resources towards finding solutions, we might make real progress. We could eliminate redundancy and competition and invest in those solutions that deliver results. 
Within the three sectors, we have thoughtful leaders and adequate resources, they’re simply not pulling in the same direction.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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