Lessons for Effective Economic Mobility Work at both the Program and the Systems-Level

Coaching has become an increasingly popular method of intervention and has proven effective in a variety of settings. Economic Mobility Pathways (“EMPath”), for example, has codified a mentorship model that uses holistic goal-setting and individualized coaching to support people’s journeys out of the cycle of poverty. I first encountered the EMPath model during Third Sector’s work with the Department of Transitional Assistance on the Young Parents Program. There, we used EMPath’s Bridge to Self-Sufficiency (the “Bridge”) as a way to define and measure progress in a more nuanced way than solely focusing on the young parent’s achievement of a GED. The Bridge acknowledges the needs that must be met, such as housing or childcare, before a person can re-engage in education; it also provides a framework for measuring other aspects of a person’s success, such as developing a support system, that will ultimately influence his or her goal achievement. As government advisors, we at Third Sector seek to deliver a customized, human-centered approach, like that of the Bridge, and also often think of ourselves as coaches working alongside governments to build performance-driven systems.

After encountering EMPath’s model in other projects, including our Empowering Families work with the Commonwealth’s Learn-to-Earn initiative, I sought to dig deeper into EMPath’s philosophy and to explore if any of their other program-level learnings could inform the systems-level work that Third Sector does with government agencies. I had this opportunity at EMPath’s annual Disrupting the Poverty Cycle Conference in early November, where a few key themes emerged that can inform Third Sector’s work:

  1. Take a human-centered approach that empowers -- both in words and in actions
  2. Reframe “incentives” as compensation for a job well done
  3. Allow for flexibility to customize programs and services

Take a human-centered approach that empowers -- both in words and in actions: Introducing a theme repeated throughout the conference, Nisha Patel, Managing Director of Narrative Change & National Initiatives at the Robin Hood Foundation, described how one of the key findings of the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty was the need to “change the narrative” around people in poverty. She posited that two impactful ways to change the narrative include humanizing people in poverty and exposing the structural forces that create and perpetuate poverty. This new narrative is fundamentally human-centered. It speaks to the importance of acknowledging each individual’s strengths and abilities, in addition to their needs, in order to provide support in a way that honors lived experience and lifts up an individual’s agency.

Third Sector has recently begun working with government partners in the Empowering Families initiative on provider and participant engagement strategies in order to apply a human-centered approach to services and to identify and solve for the systems that may be preventing progress. This work to elevate community voice through surveys, focus groups, and convenings can inform funding decisions, as well as program- and system-level improvements.

Reframe “incentives” as compensation for a job well done: Many of EMPath’s programs include monetary incentives that participants receive for achieving agreed-upon performance goals. For example, they may get a check for a few hundred dollars after raising their credit score over a certain level. At the conference, two EMPath program graduates shared that while EMPath’s monetary incentives initially sparked their interest and encouraged them to learn more about the program,  they did not ultimately influence their decision to complete the program. The financial incentives, they said, were “icing on the cake.” Multiple conference participants, including Dorothy Stoneman, the Founder of YouthBuild, added that “incentives” should be reframed as “compensation.” EMPath program participants spend countless hours working diligently towards their goals, and, as Stoneman suggested, deserve to be compensated for their time and success. This reframing acknowledges the challenging work required to achieve goals and provides an upside for performance with minimal or no downside risk.

Similarly, Third Sector has shifted to using bonus payments in government-provider compensation structures, as opposed to payments that are 100% contingent on outcomes achievement, as is true of traditional Pay for Success models. We have found that tying a small monetary amount to outcomes achievement increases focus on that metric and brings stakeholders to the table to focus on longer-term goals without shifting all of the risk of downside to the provider. These relatively small, unrestricted bonuses, ranging from 2-10% of the cost of services, compensate providers for their success with flexible funding that they can then choose how to reinvest in their programs.

The Pay-for-Performance contracts Third Sector supported in San Diego and Northern Virginia, which were enabled by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), are among the country’s first launched compensation structures that reflect this more nuanced approach. Our recently published Outcomes-Oriented Expanded Subsidized Employment Toolkit provides a framework for thinking through these types of compensation structures. This reframing of incentives as compensation for a job well done, at both the intervention and the contracting level, drives all parties towards the agreed-upon goal while acknowledging the work required and removing excess risk from the one doing the work.

Allow for flexibility to customize programs and services: The EMPath model recognizes that there is not one cookie-cutter way that an individual transitions out of poverty. Rather, both the coaching model itself and the paths individuals take must be modified to their local contexts and their families’ needs. In the conference’s breakout sessions, I heard about the pantheon of different ways EMPath’s model has been modified across the country and the world; it has been used alongside a variety of other programs, including workforce development trainings and community colleges, and one program even holds coaching meetings in the car while the mentor drives the participant to access public benefits. EMPath embraces and encourages a flexible implementation of its program, as they recognize customization is necessary for individuals to achieve their goals.

Similarly, Third Sector and our government partners have found that when funding is administered in an outcomes-oriented way, certain compliance requirements can be eliminated. Providers can be given increased flexibility to deliver services in a customized way that best supports their participants’ long-term outcomes achievement. This flexibility allows providers to leverage the evidence base, their lived experience, and local wisdom to customize the intervention. Simultaneously, the funder is able to see that meaningful results are achieved and does not need to rely on compliance measures as a proxy for impact. This flexibility is particularly powerful when combined with the bonus payment model because it not only encourages providers to continuously improve their programs, but also gives them some unrestricted funding in order to do so.

In short, EMPath’s “Mobility Mentoring” model of goal-setting and coaching offers many lessons that can be applied at multiple levels to support participant, program, and systems success. As Third Sector continues its Empowering Families work and looks to launch its next cohort focused on leveraging CTE and WIOA funds to improve education, employment, and income outcomes, these concepts of human-centered approaches, compensation, and flexibility will be critical to informing customized, outcomes-oriented funding strategies that align governments and providers on common economic mobility goals and then create the supportive structures for achieving those goals along effective career pathways. Mobility out of poverty can be supported at scale by embracing these core concepts at both the program- and systems-level.