Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Poverty Alleviation, Social Innovation, and the Nonprofit Sector

Catherine E. Wilson


By Catherine E. Wilson

August 30, 2013

On August 17, I attended my first baseball game of the 2013 season – the Phillies versus the Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. While the Phillies were not fortunate enough to capture a win that night, Phillies players and Citizens Bank captured the hearts of the region’s residents as that evening’s game was dedicated to the Phans Feeding Families program, an initiative providing hunger relief in the Delaware Valley. Phillies fans were encouraged to donate non-perishable food at the stadium’s entrances, purchase a commemorative pin, and attend a pregame party to help fight hunger and malnutrition in the region. A socially innovative partnership forged among the Phillies, Citizens Bank, and the Halladay Family Foundation, Phans Feeding Families donated its proceeds that evening (as it has done in the past) to the nonprofit Philabundance, the largest food bank in Greater Philadelphia.

Just a few miles away and over two weeks earlier, Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) held one of its regional Partners in Excellence conferences on July 29-30. In addition to lectures, the over 300 Catholic Charities staff, board, and volunteers in attendance engaged in interactive sessions, workshops, and role-playing exercises at the conference. During lunch, CCUSA representatives presented two Social Innovation Awards to noteworthy initiatives taking place in the region: (1) the Homeless Veteran Program of Catholic Social Services in Scranton, PA, which provides housing and case management services for homeless military veterans and (2) the Community Resource Warehouse of Catholic Charities in the diocese of Camden, NJ, which is a thrift store and job training site. Keeping its motto, “working to reduce poverty in America” in mind, CCUSA Executive Director Fr. Larry Snyder spoke of the organization’s mandate to “stand with the poor,” especially amidst challenging economic times. 

Similar to the Phans Feeding Families program described above, is it possible for community and faith-based organizations to adopt socially innovative approaches to reduce poverty in the United States? After all, poverty affects a considerably large percentage of the US population. According to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, 15 percent of the total population and 22 percent of children lived in poverty in 2011, as reported by the US Census Bureau. Additionally, in One Nation Underprivileged: Why American Poverty Affects Us All (2005), Mark Robert Rank maintains that certain populations are particularly vulnerable to poverty: women, female-headed households, youth, the disabled, racial and ethnic minorities, those with lower levels of education, and those living in urban and rural areas. At the conference, Snyder suggested three new innovations for faith-based organizations such as CCUSA in its work with the poor: (1) developing “individual opportunity plans” to help clients focus on their own personal assets in combating poverty, (2) adopting market-based strategies at the organization, so that sustainable solutions can be brought to bear to the issue of poverty, and (3) providing results-driven outcomes that are measurable in scope. 

Building upon these suggestions, the nonprofit sector as a whole – and faith-based organizations in particular – also should consider the following two tactics as they rethink poverty alleviation measures in light of this era of social innovation. First, these organizations should consider issuing a national call to action, encouraging the participation of all sectors – private, public, and nonprofit – to seek solutions to the issue of US poverty in a multipronged way, e.g., educational attainment, full-time employment, access to housing and health care. In September 2010, CCUSA helped draft national legislation (entitled the National Opportunity for Community Renewal Act) to address the pervasive condition of poverty in the United States. While the legislative measure stalled in Congress, it certainly was a step in the right direction. At the United States Global Leadership Coalition conference on June 25, 2013, Dr. Jim Young Kim, President of the World Bank, posed an important question to those in the non-governmental sector, “What would it take to build a movement to tackle poverty?” 

Second, nonprofits and their public counterparts must reexamine their community outreach strategies, types of services delivered, and partnerships into which they enter. Neither the nonprofit sector nor government agencies can reduce poverty in the United States on their own. Pascale Joassart-Marcelli’s chapter in The State of Nonprofit America (2012) argues that as the nonprofit sector becomes increasingly professionalized, smaller nonprofit organizations – which tend to be located at the community level and account for the overwhelming majority of the sector – lack similar access to public resources as the larger, more reputable organizations.  Those smaller, community-based organizations need more technical assistance so that they can deliver grassroots solutions to endemic conditions of poverty in their neighborhoods.

A national discussion on poverty alleviation in the United States is long overdue.  By putting a human face on poverty, community and faith-based organizations such as CCUSA effectively demonstrate how they can reaffirm their mission to serve those most in need while making use of – and celebrating – the newest social innovations.  This is a difficult feat for sure.   However, instead of being resigned to the status quo, faith-based leaders continue to find their source of inspiration in the enduring relevance of the Biblical mandate.  As Snyder declared, “we have no choice” but to serve.

-  Catherine E. Wilson is associate professor and nonprofit coordinator, Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. Email:

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”