The Joy of Solving a Complex Problem: Lessons Learned From 27 Years at Prosperity Now
Spending almost half your life at one organization deserves an explanation. It is far from the norm for today’s millennials, who are forecast to have between 15-20 jobs during their working lives. But it was a conscious choice for me. I was recruited to Prosperity Now (then the Corporation for Enterprise Development or CFED) in the fall of 1992. It was a small, project-oriented shop dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for people and communities by building wealth for those without it. Despite its size, it pursued its mission with a complex business model that integrated community practice, public policy, and private markets to create on-ramps into the economy for those left behind.
Twenty-seven years later, the power of this business model has endured as the organization has quadrupled in size. Our role has evolved to become the leading national intermediary in the field of financial well-being—a field that did not exist when I joined. As I reflect on this experience, three lessons stand out: that complex problems require complex solutions; that we should never underestimate the power of a generous brand; and that financial sustainability for a mission-driven organization is an art form.
It takes a complex organization to solve a complex problem.
The most common refrain I hear from people who ask me what Prosperity Now does is: “What a complicated organization you are!” But I will never forget the day that this was followed by a much more satisfying comment: “…but you’re solving a complicated problem, so this makes sense!” The causes of wealth inequality—especially when analyzed through the lens of race—defy categorization or simple solutions. Rather, we must seek to understand how complex ecosystems conspire to create or deny wealth, and work with the actors shaping these ecosystems to drive positive change. This process begins by identifying and raising up the solutions already emerging in the communities we serve, and then addressing the barriers—policy, markets, racism and others—that get in the way. It is precisely this complicated business model that offers the necessary framework to address inequality and inequity.
A generous brand attracts people, innovations and solutions.
Soon after I became President of Prosperity Now in 2004, Bob Friedman—the organization’s founder—handed me a document he had written titled “The Declaration of Interdependence.” Formatted to mirror its namesake, it outlined the core principles of collaboration and mutual respect for partners that continue to define the organization’s culture. While it reflected a “kinder culture,” it was also brutally realistic: collaboration was the only way that such a small organization could succeed in achieving its bold mission.
The bounty from this brand has been incalculable. The talent it attracts, both on staff and our alumni who remain part of the Prosperity Now family, has driven our impact. The partnerships have created a field which is defining what financial well-being is and how to achieve it. And these collaborations have taught me that all good ideas are not homegrown, as some of our most successful initiatives have come through adoption and acquisition. The Taxpayer Opportunity Network, which now includes more than 4,000 community tax preparers, arrived when we acquired a much smaller network from National Community Tax Coalition. We launched the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative when colleagues from the NAACP came to us with a compelling vision that Prosperity Now was the right home to grow and develop a powerful body of work to bridge the unconscionable racial wealth gap. And it is the power of the brand that serves as the foundation for the Prosperity Now Community, which now numbers more than 22,000 individuals and organizations aligned in a shared mission.
Financial sustainability is an art form.
One of the most important financial lessons I learned in business school was that financial strength is a function of how well you match sources and uses of funds. Long-term assets, such as a house, should be financed with long-term debt. Seasonal cash flow needs are best met by a revolving line of credit. But how do you match sources and uses of funds for an organization that is constantly inventing something new, to serve a field whose members often can’t pay market value for what we’re producing, while operating in a philanthropic marketplace without efficient mechanisms to raise capital?
For someone like me who loves finance, this challenge resembles art much more than science. Prosperity Now’s financial model is in a state of constant evolution as our programs, funders, political environment and earnings change seemingly daily. Just as a painter requires assets in the form of brushes and easel to thrive, our assets are the hard-earned capital on the balance sheet and the strength of extraordinary financial management and adaptive, persistent fundraising. This artistry makes our continued work possible.
Together, we’ve created a field dedicated to building financial stability, wealth and prosperity. We have invented, tested, and delivered solutions—with our share of successes and failures. We have contributed to elevating wealth inequality as one of the defining issues of our time. And yet there remains much important work to do.
I know that Prosperity Now is ready for its next challenges – and as I leave the organization in the capable hands of our new leader, so am I.
Andrea Levere is President of Prosperity Now and will assume the title of President Emerita in August.
This piece originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity