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[Review] 'A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity'

February 10, 2015

Cover_A-Path-AppearsA recent survey conducted by World Vision found that, despite the growing list of humanitarian crises around the world, 80 percent of Americans did not plan to increase their charitable giving in 2014. Discouraging perhaps, but not surprising. Those without the means to fund large-scale interventions tend to feel helpless in the face of widespread suffering, with many believing that a modest donation cannot possibly make a difference in addressing seemingly intractable problems, while others worry that little of their money will ever reach the intended beneficiaries.

In their new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, award-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, former journalist-turned-investment banker Sheryl WuDunn, beg to differ: You can make a difference. But to do so, you have to be thoughtful and intentional in your approach. That means: 1) doing research to ensure that your gift benefits the target population; 2) volunteering your time and expertise when possible; and 3) engaging in advocacy.

The authors, whose 2009 book Half the Sky examined ways to expand opportunity for women and girls in the developing world, here broaden their canvas to include efforts to expand opportunity for all marginalized populations, in the U.S. as well as abroad, with a particular focus on poverty alleviation. It's a formidable challenge, and Kristof and WuDunn do their best to make it comprehensible by breaking it down into parts: how effective interventions can make a lasting impact; how nonprofit organizations can maximize both their income and impact; how giving can benefit the giver.

According to Kristof and WuDunn, these days individual donors can be more confident about the effectiveness of their donations, for a number of reasons: anti-poverty interventions and development projects have become more evidence-based and cost-efficient in recent years; the Web makes it easier for donors to learn about the impact of their giving; and, increasingly, development projects are run more transparently and with greater buy-in and expertise from local communities. Indeed, the book, as much as anything, is a compilation of admiring portraits of nonprofit practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and activists working to remove barriers to opportunity. At the same time, it emphasizes the importance of (and increasing use of) rigorous randomized controlled trials to ensure that interventions are evidence-based and effective. And in highlighting organizations such as Evidence Action, MDRC, and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, organizations that do the un-sexy but essential work of research and evaluation, it aims to empower individuals to think critically about the programs and charities they choose to support.

For those working in the field of poverty alleviation, A Path Appears is unlikely to offer many revelations. Instead, the book is geared toward the general reader who wants to do something to create a better world but isn't sure how to go about it. It outlines, for example, the need for early interventions that address factors which contribute to the cycle of poverty, including exposure to the kinds of "toxic" stress that negatively affects infant brain function. Attentive early parenting practices, such as those promoted by organizations like the Nurse-Family Partnership, can mitigate the effects of such stress. (One study found that a mother and father's parenting skills during the first three and a half years of a child's life are a better predictor of whether a child goes on to graduate from high school than IQ scores.)

Effective interventions are important, but for Kristof and WuDunn, breaking the cycle of poverty comes down to a relatively simple choice: "Do we invest in the front end, by providing family planning and helping children when they are young and malleable? Or do we pay at the back end, after the problems of poverty manifest themselves through the criminal justice system?" Given that state spending on criminal justice today totals $50 billion, up from $9 billion in 1985, the answer, as far as the authors are concerned, is self-evident.

As for charities, they could accomplish a lot more, Kristof and WuDunn argue, if they were more willing to take risks and acknowledge failure. No surprise, then, that they see the professionalization of the sector in terms of marketing, evaluation, and knowledge management as necessary to improving its effectiveness and impact. But they also believe the sector needs to do a better job of telling stories, stories which create connections between donors and organizations that actually serve the needy, that encourage generosity among the well-heeled and wealthy, and that demonstrate organizational accountability by shifting the focus from the gift to the impact a gift has.

Impact is good. But being able to scale impact is even better, and one way to do it, Kristof and WuDunn argue, is by creating social enterprises that "generate revenues to support their costs and earn a return [for the business and its investors]." Another is through corporate social responsibility. Just as a growing number of nonprofits are embracing for-profit techniques and strategies to increase their effectiveness, they note, businesses are demonstrating an ever-greater willingness to tackle humanitarian and social issues. And while acknowledging that partnerships between nonprofits and for-profit businesses often provide a public-relations benefit to the corporations involved, Kristof and WuDunn are willing to look beyond companies' self-interested motives in return for a bigger payoff: "Encourage a major Western company to source its coffee beans from impoverished farmers with sustainable practices," they write, "and those farmers will benefit more than from a thousand small aid projects."

Still, none of this will amount to much if we fail to answer a critical question: How do we foster a "culture of altruism and empathy" among ordinary people? How do we convince them to give their time, money, and expertise to help those in need? Maybe, Kristof and WuDunn suggest, citing recent research, it starts by convincing them that giving is a reward in itself, one that brings more pleasure, and confers greater health benefits, than spending money on oneself. What's more, in today's social media-saturated world, it is remarkably easy to reinforce the "neuroscience of giving" by turning the act of giving into a social activity and empowering donors to follow the progress of a project and/or to connect with its beneficiaries.

"If only people could be exposed to the joys and benefits of helping others and doing good while they are young, it would change the world," Brian Mullaney, a former advertising executive who quit his job to co-found Smile Train, tells the authors. And that's exactly what A Path Appears aims to do. Each chapter concludes with an uplifting profile of an extraordinary organization, activist, fundraiser, or beneficiary illustrating how a well-designed and -managed project can lift families out of poverty and help transform a community. Nor are the authors shy about noting that a little bit can go a long way, whether it's the $250 gift that saves a child born with clubfoot in Niger from a life of begging, the $50 donation that seeds a savings account for a girl in a teen pregnancy prevention program in Tulsa, or the $25 that covers the start-up costs of a microloan group in Nicaragua.

The book ends with a series of "Next Steps" — starting with researching an issue that interests you, to volunteering or finding other ways to get involved beyond making a cash donation, to engaging in advocacy — followed by a list of "Six Steps You Can Take in the Next Six Minutes." For readers who need an extra nudge, the book also includes an eleven-page "List of Useful Organizations." It’s a lot, and at times it's a little overwhelming, but as the book makes clear, everyone has the means to give, and to give meaningfully.

Kyoko Uchida is features editor of Philanthropy News Digest. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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