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What is the empowerment paradigm? The YOU Effect breaks it down 

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What is the empowerment paradigm? The YOU Effect breaks it down 

Empowering individuals is the future of philanthropy, says Evan Feinberg on the YOU Effect podcast.

Unpacking the empowerment paradigm

Empowering every individual to realize their potential may seem like an ambitious message, but it's the future of philanthropy, says Evan Feinberg, the executive director of Stand Together Foundation, on a recent episode of the YOU Effect podcast.  

"A single relationship is the most powerful thing in the world," Feinberg tells hosts Nick and Roxane Cokas. "The first step in helping someone dealing with a big problem is teaching them to believe in themselves. When you empower individuals and strengthen their relationships with supportive loved ones, you enable them to help themselves."

Feinberg says traditional philanthropy has taken a top-down approach, in which people far removed from an issue try to solve problems for, rather than with, the people who are experiencing them. This assumes people can't help themselves. 

Efforts like that are "doomed to fail," he says, but there's a "wildly more effective" approach. A more useful goal would be to look at someone who is struggling and say, "How do we help that person become the best version of themselves so that they can overcome the barriers in their lives?" 

This question sits at the heart of the "empowerment paradigm," a new way of thinking about social change that unleashes the potential of every person. Its fundamental belief is that every person, regardless of their present circumstances, has the potential to contribute and succeed. Progress comes when we invest in individuals so that they can offer their unique contributions to better themselves and the people around them.

Here are three takeaways from this thought-provoking discussion.

Empowering individuals means believing in people

Nick Cokas says he has been frustrated. 

"We live right outside San Francisco," he says. "Unfortunately, it's become an area that many people avoid because poverty is through the roof, homelessness is through the roof, addiction is through the roof. It's sad. We tend to lump everyone into 'Oh the homeless, oh the addicted, oh those living in poverty,' and yet, I avoid it because I feel overwhelmed. Is my ideology off? Every once in a while, I can write a check, but I can't deal with it." 

Feinberg explains that the first and most important principle for solving such problems is a deep belief in the human dignity of every individual. In his experience, not every charitable organization has this belief. 

"I think everyone would say they believe [in human dignity]," Feinberg says, "but the biggest thing that I've learned at Stand Together Foundation, working with hundreds of nonprofits and vetting thousands of nonprofit social sector organizations trying to transform the lives of people experiencing poverty — the thing that I've been most distressed about is how many nonprofits treat the people they serve as if they are incapable of transforming their lives and accomplishing things."

"They treat them as if they are broken and deficient," he adds. "And the best we can do is manage the symptoms of their poverty, the symptoms of their circumstances." 

He says that this is the root cause for why community and nonprofit initiatives fail to help people who are struggling. They are only managing the problems, not empowering the individuals experiencing them. 

"The simplest definition of empowerment that I can give is 'enabling self-actualization,'" Feinberg says. "We're enabling each person to be the best version of themselves, which then creates value for others." 

The Phoenix, a peer-to-peer addiction recovery program that fosters openness and trust through challenging physical activities, is a great example of this principle in action, Feinberg says.

"The magic of the Phoenix is that each and every person is seen as a resilient human being capable of overcoming their circumstances, and their contribution to their community is their own recovery," he says.

This is what sets the Stand Together community apart from other nonprofits — the belief that every individual "by nature of being human has unique gifts and talents, and they have the opportunity to contribute those gifts and talents to make, not only their own life better, but to make everybody's lives better," Feinberg says.

Effective nonprofits innovate using bottom up solutions

In a review of more than 3,000 nonprofits fighting poverty, Stand Together Foundation found that only 2% had any significant impact. Feinberg explains that most organizations are failing to understand the lives of people experiencing barriers. They are creating top-down solutions that try to "fix" people instead of getting to know their underlying needs, wants, and desires.  

The most effective nonprofits are the ones that "tap into personal dignity and potential," says Feinberg. They get to know the individuals experiencing difficult challenges and build communities of support for them. These organizations are tackling problems with bottom-up solutions that help individuals access their own gifts and talents and meaningfully contribute to society.

"Some of the nonprofits we support in the homelessness space, they don't look like some evidence-based best practice that you would have read about in a textbook," he says. Instead, they look like "social entrepreneurs that have found innovative ways to reconnect individuals experiencing homelessness with loved ones that are currently searching for them. Others have meaningfully captured the stories of those who are experiencing homelessness and connected them to individuals who have similar stories themselves and can help them overcome it." 

Mobile Loaves and Fishes in Austin, Texas, is one of those innovative nonprofits. It has created a neighborhood and community — a 51-acre, masterplan village — that provides shelter, food, and jobs for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. But even more, it helps individuals by providing a permanent, long term community of support. 

Relationships out-compete programs and services

"We have a saying here at Stand Together Foundation, 'Relationships out-compete programs and services every day of the week and twice on Sunday,'" Feinberg says. "The best programs are the ones that deliver relationships, not just services."

In other words, Americans have more power to change the world than any government or philanthropic organization. 

"There are so many people out there that think only government or really powerful philanthropic and business leaders are big enough to solve really big problems," says Feinberg. "The power of the American people when we come together to solve problems is way bigger." 

Our collective effort has the potential to be far more powerful than a single government or philanthropic organization, Feinberg says. For example, there are 50,000-60,000 chronically homeless individuals in our country, and there are 300,000 faith communities that could help them. 

If all Americans could look past a person's present circumstances and see their value and inherent dignity, our power for good would be incredible, says Feinberg. 

"There is nothing more powerful than the ingenuity and care and commitment that individual human beings can have for one another. Nothing could be bigger than that."

Stand Together Foundation partners with the nation's most transformative nonprofits to break the cycle of poverty. Download the Empowerment 101 ebook to scale your impact.

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