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As the social sector continues its consolidation, the already challenging work of measuring and managing social impact for nonprofit organizations grows only more difficult. Many nonprofits now manage a growing array of business lines, each with its own unique social impact measurement challenges. And while the capacity for evaluation and assessment grows with the size of an organization, the funding community’s sometimes myopic focus on support only for direct services means the critical task of measuring and improving social impact is wildly under-resourced.

At JEVS Human Services in Philadelphia, we have been working in the last few years to increase our qualitative and quantitative social impact assessment capabilities. With more than 30 programs spanning multiple domains that range from behavioral health and recovery services to a career and technical trades school, JEVS in many ways exemplifies the challenges of social impact measurement. 

In this brief, I will review our qualitative social impact assessment work and suggest the unfinished work that remains.

Program Portfolio Reviews -- A Qualitative Approach

We began our assessment of social impact at JEVS with a simple supposition: that social impact can be represented across our programs by the intersection of effectiveness and scale. While a small-scale program may only touch a handful of people, the degree of effectiveness of the program for the people it touches -- and their families and communities -- could still make that program highly impactful. Conversely, a program which is only moderately effective, but which serves hundreds or thousands of people, may also be said to be impactful. This is not to negate the imperative in either case for growth or improvement, but it does provide a tool for thinking about how to assess over all impact of any given program.

We then asked ourselves: What are simple ways to assess scale and effectiveness -- in an exercise that could be completed in a timely way without a lot of new resources. So, in a half-day session with our program leaders, we asked program managers to self-assess their programs on both dimensions. 


Our experience was that most program managers knew perfectly well how their programs stood up next to other providers. Program size was often self-evident. As for the more nebulous idea of effectiveness, we gave some guidance to help with this self-assessment -- suggesting each manager reflect on:

  • Whether they tended to lose participants to other, more effective programs or did they see participants transferring in from other, less effective programs;
  • Whether the program tended to win funding competitions more or less often than other providers;
  • The sentiment of conversations with funders, policymakers, or analysts who work with many providers; and
  • Any benchmarking or comparative statistics available comparing similar programs.

Putting the idea of scale and effectiveness together, we created a rough grid to categorize each of JEVS’ programs. The grid, of course, was imperfect. Sometimes, we found ourselves measuring effectiveness against other program operators who we thought were weak. Being better did not necessarily mean we were more “effective.” We also found this exercise was less helpful for our newer programs. Nevertheless, a common nomenclature for how we think about measuring the social impact of each of our programs created a basis for charting continuous improvement needs for a program and overall strategy as an organization.

Mapping for Strategy and Planning

The last piece of this exercise was to map social impact of a program against its financial performance using a standard of categorization in use at JEVS. 


The resulting four-quadrant analysis below suggested a way for JEVS to understand its program performance as a whole -- with each dot representing a program. Importantly, JEVS was interested not just in the current assessment, but also where programs projected they might be in three years in terms of social impact and financial performance as well as the activities and resources over that period that would be necessary to achieve that outcome. The thought exercise yielded insights into needed program organizational capacities, financial investment needs, external relationship building and the like.

Chart: Sample Plot of Programs against Social Impact and Financial Performance Metrics

For example, most programs cited a need for stronger financial analysis and marketing/outreach functions along with investments in business development and information technology as critical to realizing their ambitions for improved social impact and financial performance. These findings have led the organization to develop a three-year internal investment strategy to build organizational and program capacities in these and other areas.

Connecting to Quantitative and Third-Party Assessment

A frequent criticism of qualitative social impact assessment regimes is that they lack rigor. Theories of change, sentiment analysis, formative assessment, and qualitative self-assessments like the one described here seem insufficient. We view this work as part of a larger body of work on social impact assessment that includes a system of key performance indicators that allow us to track monthly social impact measures and an on-going and systematic engagement of third-party evaluators that provides periodic assessments of programs using both formative or summative methods. Ultimately, JEVS seeks a social impact assessment capacity that allows us to engage in continuous improvement of individual programs and management of our portfolio of programs for ever-higher standards of performance.


Students in ArtWell's Art of Growing Leaders class at Providence Center work together with teaching artists to create a mural for their building, titled "Unite to Fight for What's Right." 
Haigen Pearson

In today’s world, conformity and convergent thinking are valued above creativity. And why shouldn’t they be? Creativity is messy. It encourages out of the box thinking. It multiplies possibilities, it eschews easy answers, it takes up time and space. It forces us to ignore the tried-and-true route laying before us, in favor of blazing a new trail. It requires inner work -- coming to terms with our assumptions, our fears, and our beliefs, and turning them into something new. 

In cities like Philadelphia, where funding for our already under-resourced public schools is contingent on test scores and standardized student performance, teachers are faced with impossible demands and not enough support, on top of too many students per classroom, each with complex needs and often healing from the impact of personal and systemic trauma. The educators we work with recognize that even testing companies and their economic and lobbying power inherently block pathways to reforming our current educational system. There is hardly time left for play and connection, and creativity is sadly lost and not valued as essential.

Even in professional spaces, the need to be productive and get ahead often takes precedence over taking the time and space to imagine creative solutions. There is a prevailing sense of individuality and competition -- if I don’t work overtime for this client, or complete this report, or take on this extra project, someone else will. That kind of pressure leaves no room for imagining and collaboration.

Even NASA has studied the creativity that exists inherently inside all of us, as an exploration of the space we possess within. They designed a creativity test to help identify prospective innovative engineers and scientists. It worked so well, they decided to try it on children enrolled in the Head Start program. At five years old, 98 percent of these children registered as creative geniuses. At 10 years old, only 30 percent of those children exhibited the same level of creativity. This same test, administered to adults, only unearthed a two percent rate of active creative energy. 

This is why, for the last 19 years, ArtWell has been working to establish safe, welcoming, and inclusive spaces within schools and communities where creativity can thrive. 

ArtWell programs utilize art as a tool for reflection. We introduce resources and practices that our students and clients may not always be familiar or comfortable with. Paint, paper, poetry, percussion -- it’s so easy to look at these things and tell ourselves, “I’m not artistic. I can’t do that. I can’t use that the right way.” 

It’s easy to feel nervous about trying something new in school, where you’re expected to remember, to memorize, to behave, to perform, or at work, where you’re expected to excel, to compromise, to finish, to succeed. But here’s the big secret -- it’s about so much more than how to draw, or write a poem, or drum.

It’s about using these tools -- these non-linear, out of the box, loud, messy processes -- to explore concepts and ideas and the kind of creative imagining that our world leaves little space for. We could probably stand at the front of the room and talk about a big idea, like trust, if we wanted to. But at ArtWell, we don’t presume to have the answers. We believe they’re already inside our participants. 

So, we introduce an activity like mask-making, where teams of people take turns carefully applying plaster to each other’s faces to capture their unique likenesses, or interview poems, where duos ask each other personal questions and create thoughtful lines of prose that encompass their partner’s many facets. We create meaningful moments where people come face to face with the concept, and figure out how they feel about it in a new way. 

Our goal isn’t to teach our participants to create the perfect mask or poem that deserves to hang in a museum or get published in a book (although if they do -- that’s great!). Our goal is to introduce creative processes along with the interplay of our values: the power of imagination, healing, community, spirituality, social justice, and love. When this happens, people connect with life’s basic truths and gifts, and can explore them in a space that is open, welcoming, and completely free of judgment. 

When this happens, an element of control seems to release. The need to act a certain way suddenly vanishes. In this space, where participants can experiment, and explore -- and maybe even fail -- without being measured or graded or evaluated, new things can happen. New pathways to old problems can form. The walls we build around ourselves for protection can come down. The joy of discovery builds, along with awe in seeing the strengths and struggles of classmates and colleagues with new eyes and bolder empathy. 

In looking at today’s world, when we ask ourselves what kind of skills we really need to be successful, what do we think of? The ability to think outside the box. The willingness to work with others in a trusting way. The knowledge that we don’t always have the answers, but we can learn and grow and find things out. Creativity. Innovation. Teamwork. 

And yet, the structures and systems in which we learn and work are built to support the antithesis of these concepts. At this moment in history, we have no choice but to look forward and imagine what’s possible. We are living in a critical time, when issues surrounding politics, social justice, and the environment seem to be at a tipping point. 

If we don’t inspire our students, our colleagues, and ourselves to engage in creative imagining, and messy, out-of-the-box thinking that can take us beyond our current reality, beyond our circumstances, beyond our old beliefs and lessons and assumptions -- how can we collectively create a better and more inclusive world? How can we tap into the innate creativity that lives in us, that is programmed into our DNA, but got pushed down and forgotten among the chaos of reality? 

Realizing this vision will take a major cultural shift in what we value and prioritize as a society. It will take an increased investment in the arts education and creative opportunities from birth through adulthood that would make our schools arts rich. It will require workplaces to rethink professional development and strive to build creative capacity and innovation. 

It’s going to be messy, and it’s going to take a lot of time and space, and it’s going to be hard to ignore the tried-and-true path laying before us in favor of blazing new trails. It’s going to force us to look inside ourselves and find something that we believed was not useful, or maybe not even real. A new kind of innovation, where we already have all the answers we need. 

Works Cited

Naimna, Linda. “Can Creativity Be Taught? Here's What the Research Says.” Creativity at Work, Creativity at Work, 21 Jan. 2019,

55 years ago, on the cusp of creating what has become our civil legal aid system, then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy remarked in an address at the University of Chicago law school:

In the final analysis poverty is a condition of helplessness -- of inability to cope with the conditions of existence in our complex society.

But we, as a profession, have backed away from dealing with that larger helplessness. We have secured the acquittal of an indigent person -- but only to abandon him to eviction notices, wage attachments, repossession of his goods and termination of welfare benefits. 

To the poor the term “legal” has become a synonym simply for technicalities and obstruction, not for that what is to be respected. The poor man looks upon the law as an enemy, not as a friend. For him the law is always taking something away.1 

Today, Philadelphia’s deep poverty continues to be one of the City’s most daunting challenges. While the local economy has improved and revitalized many parts of the City, nearly 400,000 Philadelphians live below the poverty line. Of those, nearly 200,000 Philadelphians live in deep poverty, surviving on approximately $100 per week.2

According to a 2017 Legal Services Corporation report, 71 percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in 2016.3 When civil legal issues arise, 80 percent of Philadelphians facing economic hardship are navigating high-stakes legal situations without a lawyer -- in which their families, homes, and livelihoods are in jeopardy. Although the landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright required the government to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own attorneys, those facing civil legal issues are not guaranteed legal representation. 

The central role of legal aid in community well-being may be under-appreciated, largely because the role of attorneys is often misunderstood. Legal aid nonprofits have such a significant impact on the community because they serve individuals and families who experience three distinct types of problems: (i) legal issues that no other agency can fully resolve, such as complex educational barriers for immigrant children or students with disabilities; (ii) individual or family legal emergencies that could devolve into seriously negative long term consequences for health, safety, or family stability; and (iii) situations where client needs and rights are not adequately addressed by government programs, such as the termination of public benefits or the denial of needed services. 

Legal aid advocates address these crucial issues directly and comprehensively, often integrating their assistance and collaborating closely with other social services and government agencies. In short, the legal services system ensures that individuals and families in need do not fall between the cracks, and that the most challenging client circumstances are addressed before an unresolvable crisis can occur. In addition, some of the most impactful and rewarding work of legal aid staff involves providing community education, written materials, and training for individuals and groups, helping them to proactively deal with situations before legal problems arise.

To better address these problems, a group of civil legal aid non-profits has joined together to create a new non-profit center in Philadelphia called the Equal Justice Center (EJC), which will improve the basic infrastructure of how legal aid services are delivered to communities. The EJC is a pioneering concept that aims to inspire similar models and will affect how combined legal aid and social services are delivered in communities across the country. While non-profit centers have operated successfully in other industries, the EJC will be the first purpose-built center to co-locate legal aid organizations with the shared mission of equal access to justice. It is anticipated that tens of thousands of people will be served through the work and services provided at the EJC.

The EJC will respond to low-income Philadelphians’ dire need for civil legal aid services by offering multiple client-centered services in one centralized location over specialized services at multiple locations. This transformative project will rethink the delivery of civil legal aid through several innovative strategies, by: 

  • creating operational efficiencies; 
  • leveraging technology to bring innovative solutions to critical issues;
  • providing opportunities for collaborative programming to overcome challenges in the field; 
  • increasing delivery of direct client services; and 
  • improving responses to emergent civil legal needs of the community. 

Creating Operational Efficiencies

The EJC will provide significant financial advantages for the building tenants by creating building-wide systems and services that will reduce operational costs by as much as 20 percent. These savings will be derived from features such as: group purchasing of office supplies and service contracts; shared infrastructure of printers, phone service, and internet connections; and shared back-office operations of tasks like accounting, human resources, and technology support. These savings can then be re-directed into client programs and services. Further, the EJC will be governed by a board comprised of the building’s tenants, such that the agencies will have control over these features -- further enabling innovation and collaboration beyond what has yet been imagined. 

Leveraging Technology to Bring Innovative Solutions to Critical Issues

The EJC will include state-of-the-art amenities designed to leverage technology to benefit legal and social service delivery, including a number of innovative technology features, such as:

  • a digital self-help center in coordination with the courts and powered by the collective knowledge and expertise of its members;
  • high-speed connectivity and digital resources for the legal and local Chinatown community;
  • a collaborative Incubator Project from area law schools to provide services to clients who do not qualify for legal aid;
  • a cutting-edge centralized client portal and referral network; and
  • a legal self-help center with digital information kiosks.

Providing Opportunities for Collaborative Programming

The EJC will have two shared amenity floors in the building dedicated to client service and member collaboration. Bringing together agencies and staff from different organizations can stimulate an environment ripe for new connections and collaborations, creative thinking, and innovation. These connections will come from: 

  • informal conversations in common spaces;
  • community events such as “Lunch and Learns”;
  • resource and information sharing;
  • legal action convenings such as Take Action Philly (TAP); and
  • collaborative governance of the building.

Increasing Delivery of Direct Client Services

The EJC will enable its tenant organizations to implement more client-centered best practices to deliver better, more efficient, and more effective answers to families who need housing, food, education, and healthcare. Most importantly, the EJC will directly impact clients of legal aid organizations. Typically when clients reach out to one legal services program, they discover that an interlocking issue must also be addressed by a different program. At the EJC, clients are more likely to receive comprehensive and coordinated legal services. The EJC will provide a single point of access for many services to resolve legal problems more easily and more rapidly. 

Improving Responses to Emergent Civil Legal Needs of the Community

Philadelphia’s legal aid community is renowned for its collaborative efforts: its legal aid agencies have been meeting regularly for more than 40 years in an effort to identify and address the civil legal needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the Philadelphia community. They strive every day to provide high-quality representation, to advocate for systemic improvements to reduce inequality, and to shape a safer society characterized by opportunity. Collaboratively, this group of organizations has achieved deeply effective innovations in legal aid including partnering with courts and housing agencies to create the Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program, an award-winning initiative to help thousands of Philadelphians keep their own homes, as well as the Landlord/Tenant Legal Help Center, an innovative project that provides immediate legal advice, counsel, information, referrals, and pro se assistance to unrepresented low-income tenants facing eviction, rental housing crises, and homelessness in Philadelphia. Co-location in the EJC will ensure continued and closer partnerships within this active community. 

Furthermore, because of its size and scope, the EJC will raise awareness for legal aid. It will stand as a symbol of the City’s commitment to the promise of equality under law, and as an enduring structure that continues to give back to the City and the greater Philadelphia region.


Unfortunately, because resources are scarce, the demand for civil legal aid in Philadelphia far exceeds the ability of legal aid providers to deliver those services. Philadelphia is the very birth place of the nation. To combat poverty and to bring Philadelphia closer to delivering on the bedrock promise of “Equal Justice Under Law” in the United States, it is critical that we expand access to civil legal services for all members of the community regardless of an individual or family’s background or financial status. Civil legal aid agencies are the driving force behind real change in the lives of millions of people, providing answers to families who need food, housing, education, and healthcare. By permanently transforming the capacity of the city’s legal aid system to sustain its operations and meet client needs, the EJC will support the empowerment of Philadelphians in poverty and disrupt the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Works Cited

1 Kennedy, Robert F. Address, Law Day, University of Chicago, Chicago, May 1, 1964.

2 “American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates,” American Community Survey, U.S. Census, 2016,

3 The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans. Washington, DC: Legal Services Corporation. 2017. Accessed March 12, 2019

Author Bio

Jessica Hilburn-Holmes serves as Executive Director of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, the only foundation solely dedicated to supporting Philadelphia’s legal aid community. As Executive Director, she collaboratively manages the Foundation’s many fellowships, awards, and activities while overseeing annual grantmaking efforts to nearly 40 civil legal aid non-profits. In addition, Ms. Hilburn-Holmes works to effectuate the reality of the Philadelphia Equal Justice Center (EJC) -- a social justice initiative that will centralize, integrate, and streamline the provision of legal aid and related social services for many of the non-profits that receive grants from the Bar Foundation. A former diplomat and international lawyer, Ms. Hilburn-Holmes holds more than 35 years of legal, managerial and diplomatic experience, and a life-long commitment to working for equal access to justice. Jessica is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Georgetown University Law Center.

Addiction related diseases and deaths are the number one health issue in America, but few families coping with it have the information and tools they need to help their loved ones and themselves. Without education, prevention tools, and access to effective treatment, the nation is unable to cope. The destructive impact of addiction includes: increased obesity, tobacco, alcohol, and substance use, higher costs to society, and inevitable epidemics. We cannot look to government institutions to solve what is fundamentally a commerce driven health crisis. As business interests fuel all our addictions, only business interests affected by the cost of addiction can provide the vision and system busting innovation needed to provide solutions.

Addiction Is Driven by Commerce

There is nothing new about substance addictions. Man’s love affair with intoxicants has been the driving force of developing civilizations for thousands of years.1 Intoxicants include alcohol; tobacco; sugar; caffeine products like tea, coffee, and chocolate; opium; heroin; cannabis; cocaine; and other natural substances, and they are all addictive. What has changed over time is delivery systems, sophistication of production, and availability. In the 16th century, the invention of the opium pipe and the distillation of alcohol opened the pathway for those substances to evolve from medicinal use to popular use. The same occurred with the invention of the syringe in 1853,2 which launched widespread use of morphine. Heroin was synthesized in 1874 in London, produced by Bayer in Germany in 1898,3 and sold over the counter in the U.S. along with aspirin. Cocaine was first added to wine to promote “vigor and health.” After prohibition halted wine production, cocaine was added to Coca Cola.4 

The Pure Food and Drug Law was passed in 1906,5 followed by the Opium Exclusion Act in 1909 banning the smoking of Opium, but not the manufacture or regulation of opium in medicines. Prohibition in 1920 and more stringent drug laws to regulate opium, heroin, cocaine, and cannabis were put in place in the 1920’s.6 The laws did not end drug use. They served to divert drug development and distribution from the streets to pharmaceutical companies, later overseen by the FDA. Hundreds of ever more potent and addictive drugs have been developed, approved for use, and distributed both legally and illegally. At the same time the illegal drug trade also grew exponentially. The billions of dollars spent on prohibition, and later the war on drugs, have not deterred drug cartels. The FDA still approves dangerous addictive prescription medicines. Further, slogans and scare tactics have not slowed teen use. Let’s not forget the tobacco, alcohol, and food industries, which continue to develop thousands of pleasure-producing, addictive products for millions of people who have no ability to resist. The appetite for intoxicants is never going away, so education, prevention, and treatment are the only solutions.

Statistics Can Be Misleading 

According to the CDC, the number one cause of death in America is Heart Disease at 610,000 deaths a year, one in four. Two causes of heart disease are obesity and tobacco; both are addictions. The CDC does not measure the addiction component to this disease. The cause of death may be heart disease, but the cause of heart disease is not identified. Stigma related to addiction creates a distinction between substance users and food users, for example, since food is not considered a drug. Yet we know sugary, salty, fatty foods are highly addictive. They are ubiquitous and they have changed the way our culture eats. Most important, they are a big part of the addiction picture. 

The opioid crisis, while tragic and continuing, has diverted attention and funding from a much larger addiction epidemic. Substance, Alcohol and Behavior Use disorders (SUD, AUD, BUD) affect nearly every American family. The combined death rate from the CDC’s top three preventable causes of death is 868,000 people a year. Deaths, illnesses, criminal justice, and hospital costs, as well as the loss of productivity related to addiction cost the nation a trillion dollars a year.7 

Education Is Lacking 

The Surgeon General’s report on Addiction (2016)8 called for changes relating to the opioid crisis and addressed the need for education, prevention, and access to treatment. Only one in nine people who need treatment receives it. The CDC estimates that of the 20 million people suffering from SUDs, 17.7 million people are not receiving treatment. Families are helpless and hopeless to cope on their own. This neglect would not be the case with any physical disease.

Substance, Alcohol, and Behavior Use Disorders are defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as:

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”

The medical, insurance, and addiction treatment fields are slow to accept that SUD’s AUDs and BUDs are physical illnesses with a mental illness component. Many cases are as persistent as cancer and diabetes, and they must be treated with the same kind of diligence and ongoing management. Recovery requires not months, but years, of management and treatment. The cost of education, prevention, and treatment is far less than the cost of inertia. While more is known about addiction and recovery, an information gap continues to exist between treatment providers, academics, government institutions, and the public.

According to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

“The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 requires insurance groups offering coverage for mental health or substance use disorders to make these benefits comparable to general medical coverage. Deductibles, copays, out-of-pocket maximums, treatment limitations, etc., for mental health or substance use disorders must be no more restrictive than the same requirements or benefits offered for other medical care.”

This law has yet to be widely implemented by insurance companies, and the public doesn’t know how to fight for the coverage mandated by law.

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 2016 provides for prevention and education but that component hasn’t been funded.9 In addition, engaging prevention programs for children and teens haven’t been developed. The 120 million Americans directly impacted by substance addiction (and the even greater number impacted by food addiction) need to be educated the same way they are educated about other chronic, progressive, relapsing diseases. 

Author’s Personal Experience Inspires Solution  

I was a successful crime novelist, Trustee of the New York Police Foundation, and Public Member of The Middle States Commission of Higher Education when my own family was impacted by addiction. My interest in fiction had also inspired research projects at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at NYU Law School. Like most Americans, I knew little about addiction until my own children’s experimentation with alcohol and substances in their teen years forever changed my life and my purpose. Our family’s recovery journey required more than 30 treatment providers in five states to achieve a ten-year remission from the disease. My family stumbled along for two decades, slowly advancing from dysfunctional to functional, haphazardly finding help. Because there was no patient education or easy access to treatment, our story could easily have ended tragically as it still does for millions of Americans.

Education and Access to Treatment

As a writer, I challenged myself to find new ways to provide the education needed by the underserved 120 million people directly impacted by addiction. In 2011, the nonprofit organization, Reach Out Recovery (ROR) was founded. ROR is a free, comprehensive information platform that engages and educates a diffuse audience. ROR empowers and inspires people in crisis and in recovery without shaming them. Stereotypes, frightening language, and disturbing images of addiction too often serve as roadblocks to recovery readiness and long-term remission. ROR uses recovery literacy techniques derived from the latest science and psychology research as well as a 12-step philosophy to help all family members cope with this persistent disease. Visitors of all ages learn at their own pace, returning many times for continued support. In 2017-2018, visitors to the site topped five million. 

When ready to take action, ROR’s readers can easily find the treatment they need on Recovery Guidance, (RG) a nationwide, comprehensive directory of providers and resources. An early meeting with Google when RG was in development showed us that more than 750,000 people were daily searching the Internet to locate treatment. The result was that vulnerable families in crisis were directed to referral sites or facilities with high advertising budgets and could not find affordable treatment close to them. In addition, no unbiased consumer experience of care reviews was available for them. Search innovation was needed to empower people to research addiction and mental health treatment options the same way they explore all other products and services on the Internet. Recovery Guidance is a directory of all types of addiction and mental health treatment providers and resources nationwide. Physicians, counselors, recovery programs, and treatment facilities have equal exposure. Recovery Guidance can be defined as the Yelp or Healthgrades of Recovery. RG is free to the public and a subscription site for providers. Providers have direct access to consumers and no additional referral fees. The goal of Recovery Guidance is to create informed addiction and mental health consumers who can return to the site many times as their need for services change. 


Inertia and destructive conditioning have taken place over centuries of increasing intoxicant use. As a nation we have gotten used to careening from addiction crisis to crisis. The need for comprehensive education, prevention tools, and access to effective treatment are critical. Short-term funding to the combat the latest crisis pushes solution further down the road. Only innovative businesses with a passion for doing good can begin to solve a true national emergency.

Author bio 

Leslie Glass, BA Sarah Lawrence College, is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and novelist. She is the founder of Reach Out Recovery and creator of Recovery Guidance, two innovative addiction and recovery websites. Recovery Guidance is a recipient of the 2019 Social Venture Award from the Social Innovations Journal. Glass also received the 2016 American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) Media Award for her documentary The Secret World of Recovery. Glass’s documentary The Silent Majority was distributed by American Public Television to all PBS stations in 2015. Glass is the USA Today and NY Times bestselling author of 13 novels including nine NYPD crime novels. She has also served as Trustee of the New York City Police Foundation and as Public Member of the Middle States Commission of Higher Education.

For more information about Reach Out Recovery visit The author, Leslie Glass, can be contacted by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Works Cited

1 Dialogues of Neuroscience

2 History of the Syringe

3 History of Heroin

4 Vin Mariana

5 Pure Food and Drug Law

6 Drug Control Timeline

7 Top ten leading cause of death

8 Surgeon General’s Report

9 The CARA Act 2016

10 Historical and cultural aspects of man’s relationship with addictive drugs. Dialogues of Neuroscience


In an era of shrinking public dollars for safety net services, coupled with negative views about those who need those crucial services, how are nonprofits that provide basic services supposed to survive, let alone thrive?

This was the question we at HealthSpark Foundation started asking in 2016. Armed with statistics about, and buy-in from, our nonprofit community, in 2018 we launched our Safety Net Resiliency Initiative, aimed at strengthening the financial resiliency of the safety net system.

Last year, we coordinated four Design Teams for nonprofits and representatives from our county government to brainstorm ideas to improve safety net resiliency. Ideas were vetted through larger community meetings called the Community of Practice, and at the end of the year we offered grants for collaborative pilot projects through our new Innovation Lab. 

Throughout it all, we have worked with consultants at Equal Measure who documented lessons learned:

  • Providing stipends to Design Team participants acknowledged the time it takes to build networks and engage differently;
  • A strategic vision must be balanced with the realities of providing vital services; and
  • It is crucial to involve the whole community in this work (consumers, first responders, courts, local businesses, etc.).

For the next phase of the initiative, we are launching a new leadership capacity building training series designed to further build our provider community’s systems thinking “muscle” and monitoring the Innovation Lab grants and coordinating a learning community for those grantees. We will also begin working with a public relations firm to develop a communication campaign and related advocacy coalition to build support for a strong safety net among policymakers and the general public. Additional activities planned for the year will both expand and deepen the impact of this work.


In an era of shrinking public dollars for safety net services, coupled with increasingly negative views about those who need those crucial services, how are nonprofits that provide basic services supposed to survive, let alone thrive?

We at HealthSpark Foundation have long been interested in improving the health and human service system so that it operates more efficiently and effectively, and this was the question we asked ourselves in 2016.

Two reports written by Oliver Wyman, Sea Change Capitals, and Guidestar (now Candid) in 2017 further informed our thinking. Among the findings in the first report, “The Financial Health of Philadelphia Area Nonprofits,” commissioned by The Philadelphia Foundation, were that more than 40 percent of area nonprofits have no operating reserves and more than 20 percent have less than one month of cash reserves.1

The second report, “A National Imperative: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America,” commissioned by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and the American Public Human Services Association, presented a similar dire financial picture for health and human service organizations nationwide.2

These reports, and internal and external conversations with a variety of stakeholders over a two-year period, led us to launch the Safety Net Resiliency Initiative, a 10-year effort that seeks to improve the financial resiliency of the safety net system in Montgomery County.

One year into the work, the lessons we have learned are informing our journey forward.

The Safety Net System

The safety net system is a complex web of services intended to provide both short- and long-term support to those who need assistance. Ten basic services comprise the safety net system:

  • Childcare
  • Education
  • Food
  • Healthcare
  • Housing
  • Job Training
  • Substance Abuse Treatment
  • Transportation
  • Utility Assistance
  • Violence Prevention

We recognize that there is a subset of the population who, once they need safety net services, will always need them. We also recognize there is another larger subset of the population who need services for only a short period of time so they can “bounce back” to self-sufficiency. For the safety net system to more efficiently serve those who need services on an ongoing basis, our initiative focuses on shorter-term interventions.

Background Work

We began working with nationally recognized and locally based consultants at Equal Measure, who have been our thought partners on this journey. Before long, we realized we needed to test out assumptions with the nonprofits providing the boots-on-the-ground support and our county leadership who also provide and fund safety net services.

In addition to preliminary surveys and focus groups, in the fall of 2017 we hosted two crowdsourcing events planned and facilitated by national communications consultants Spitfire Strategies. Seventy organizations and representatives from the county’s health and human services participated in at least one of these half-day meetings that affirmed our view of a safety net system in distress. Participants then created a new vision for the county’s safety net system:

“We envision a resilient and financially sustainable safety net system that allows anyone in Montgomery County to access high quality, coordinated, equitable, and culturally appropriate services no matter who they are, what they need, or where they live.”

Many in attendance committed to continuing the work to bring that vision to reality.

Phase One

With our provider community engaged, we launched the Safety Net Resiliency Initiative in January 2018 with a set of activities for the year crafted to help the system start on the journey to more financial resiliency.

From March through August, more than 50 organizations -- along with representatives from county government -- participated in monthly meetings in at least one of four Design Teams, each centered around a portion of the safety net system infrastructure that crowdsourcing event attendees thought were crucial to make important changes:

  • Public-Private Collaboration;
  • No Wrong Door Access to the Safety Net;
  • Data Sharing and Systems Integration; and
  • Advocacy and Communications.

Capacity for Change led the Design Teams through a process to create and vet ideas. In recognition of the time needed to do this work, all participating organizations received a $6,000 stipend they could spend as they wished.

Along the way, we hosted three “Community of Practice” meetings, also facilitated by Capacity for Change, to introduce the initiative to a wider audience and seek feedback on the Design Teams’ ideas. We saw increasing attendance at these meetings, which included Design Team participants, county officials, and others who interact with the safety net system such as police and school district representatives, municipal employees, and consumers.

One strategy that emerged from the Design Teams was to support a research and development approach for nonprofits to test out new ideas. In response, we created the Innovation Lab that offered grants to support 12 to15 month pilots or proofs of concept to test ideas that have the potential to increase the financial resiliency of the safety net system. Projects were required to be collaborative with one lead organization and at least one other participating organization.

By early 2019, we awarded nearly $320,000 in 10 grants, including:

  • $50,000 to Montgomery County OIC to establish a one-stop access point for safety net services to those re-entering the community from the criminal justice system; 
  • $35,500 to the Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities to pilot a training program to help consumers build their leadership skills to volunteer and connect with nonprofits in new ways;
  • $10,000 to Your Way Home Montgomery County to advance equitable access to housing and homeless services for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning youth, adults, and seniors; and
  • $50,000 to the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network to pilot programs to meet the food needs of vulnerable populations, including an online ordering and delivery service at two food pantries recently profiled by the Philadelphia Inquirer.3

Phase One Lessons Learned

Throughout 2018, we worked with our partners at Equal Measure to evaluate the initiative and look for early signs of systems change. They found shifts in providers’ mindsets, including an increased comfort with uncertainty and a switch from programmatic to systems thinking. There was also evidence of an evolution from “me” to “we” as understanding increased about providers’ roles in the larger safety net system. Equal Measure observed that a movement is building as we drew new audiences into the conversation.

Equal Measure identified some key lessons from Phase One:

  • Providing stipends to Design Team participants acknowledged the time it takes to build networks and engage differently;
  • A strategic vision must be balanced with the realities of providing vital services; and
  • It is crucial to involve the whole community in this work (consumers, first responders, courts, local businesses, etc.).

We are incorporating those lessons into Phase Two of the initiative, which has just begun.

Phase Two

As detailed in the graphic, the second phase of the Resiliency Initiative has several components.

Innovation Lab Grants

We will monitor the progress of the projects funded through our Innovation Lab. We will also launch a Learning Collaborative, facilitated by Capacity for Change, to periodically convene grantees and their partners to discuss their projects, progress, and emerging lessons and seek feedback from their peers.

Leadership Capacity Building Training Program

In the spring, we will launch a leadership training program in partnership with the Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI) at Bryn Mawr College. More than a dozen organizations were accepted to participate in this institute meant to strengthen the capacity and financial resiliency of both the providers and the safety net system.

From March through October, a cohort of staff and at least one board member from each participating organization will progress through a series of daylong workshops on topics such as Leading Systems Change, The Role of Financial Management and Planning in Systems Change, Engaging Staff in Systems Change and The Role of the Board in Systems Change. Nonprofit and community leaders helped inform the topics and structures to support learning.

Communications Campaign and Advocacy Coalition

At the same time, we will begin working with a public relations and communications firm to develop strategies and messaging to shift public and policymaker dialogue about the safety net system. We will also establish a cross-issue Advocacy Coalition comprised primarily of safety net providers to advocate on behalf of the entire safety net system, transcending organizational boundaries. Through these efforts, we expect a shift in policymakers’ views to support funding for, and an increase in the public’s understating about the importance of, a strong safety net system, as well as reduced stigmatization for those accessing the system.

Additional Activities

We will develop the rest of the ideas outlined in the graphic over the course of the year and are likely to announce further activities at our next Community of Practice meeting, scheduled for the end of June. 


We will continue to work with Equal Measure and our community stakeholders to deepen our learnings. And we will share those with anyone interested in having a strong safety net. If you would like to join us on this journey, visit for more information and to request periodic updates. 

While we are unsure of exactly where this journey will lead us, we know that this is a journey we must make in order to achieve the vision our community has created for the safety net system. A strong and resilient safety net is vital to ensuring that all who need help may receive it.

Works Cited

1 Oliver Wyman, Sea Change Capitals and Guidestar (now Candid), The Financial Health of Philadelphia Area Nonprofits, (2017), page 5.

2 Oliver Wyman, Sea Change Capitals and Guidestar (now Candid), A National Imperative: Joining Forces to Strengthen Human Services in America, (2017).

3 Lubrano, Alfred, “A digital effort to fight hunger in Montgomery County.” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 2019.

Author bios

With more than 20 years of experience in philanthropy, Tamela Luce, MPA, is the Senior Program Officer for HealthSpark Foundation where she works on issues related to the safety net system, directs the foundation’s communications, and has substantial experience working with the emergency and supplemental food system, regionally and statewide. Among her accomplishments is the creation of the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network, an alliance of hunger relief organizations working to maximize the acquisition and distribution of nutritious food to those in need in Montgomery County. She participates on several national committees for the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders and is a former co-chair for the Greater Philadelphia Food Funders, an affinity group of Philanthropy Network Greater Philadelphia. She has served on task forces that informed Setting the Table: A Blueprint for a Hunger-Free PA. Tamela has written previous articles for the Social Innovations Journal on emergency food and housing. She holds a Master’s in Public Administration, with a concentration in nonprofit management, from West Chester University and a bachelor’s degree in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri.

Russell Johnson has more than 25 years of health and human services experience. He has held leadership positions in both public and private sector health and human services agencies/businesses working in the fields of child welfare, aging, behavioral health, and the health insurance industry. During his career, Russ has also held positions with the Bucks County Children and Youth Agency, Horsham Clinic, PNR Systems/Allan Collautt Associates, The Pew Charitable Trusts, United Health Group, and The Hartford Insurance Company. In addition, Russ provided consulting services, including strategic and business planning and product development to foundations and various health and human services agencies in the Greater Philadelphia region; Delaware; Washington, D.C., and New York City. Since joining the foundation in 2002, Russ has spearheaded the successful formation of many partnerships with other Montgomery County, Pennsylvania philanthropic organizations, and county government whose collective efforts have provided groundbreaking direction to improving access to quality services in a cost-effective manner. He is a frequent guest speaker and occasional author of articles on public/private partnerships. He is an active member of Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia, Grantmakers in Health, Funders Together to End Homelessness, PA Health Funders Collaborative, and the Nonprofit Repositioning Fund.

Image Credit: Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

Unhappy employees cost U.S. businesses $450-550 billion annually.1 The top 25 percent of engaged workforces experience 70 percent fewer safety accidents.2 The happiness, engagement, and loyalty of employees impacts the bottom line of businesses. Yet, when organizations consider employee wellness programs, the conversation often bypasses serious investment in meaningful social-cultural impact and focuses instead on a narrow definition of wellness and of program success: money in, money out. At On the Goga, we’re changing the conversation. As a Philadelphia-based corporate wellness company with the guiding principle “Happy People Do Great Things,” we bring social impact into the workplace by helping our clients create comprehensive and culture-driven corporate wellness programs that focus on a multi-dimensional approach to employee health, happiness, and success. Our program design process aligns with our client’s organizational goals, creating a framework for meaningful, internal changes that impact a variety of organizational assets. We call this method “Internal Impact Investing.”

What is Internal Impact Investing?

“Internal Impact Investing” is the act of investing within your organization to create positive social and environmental impact, yielding financial returns in traditional and new asset classes. Culturally aligned wellness programs consist of an evolving framework of initiatives, experiences, and policies that work together to create measureable impact on the health, happiness, and success of your organization. The core characteristics of these programs, or investments, are much the same as traditional impact investments.3

  • Intention -- For an impact investment to succeed, it’s crucial for the investor (in this case, the organization) to understand the value of, and seek out positive social and/or environmental impact, within their organization. These “Companies that Care” seek to practice their values in every lateral of their business operations, and put the quality of life of their employees and community at the forefront of organizational design. They understand that the physical, emotional, social, financial, and environmental wellness of their team directly impacts their quality of work, and is a core part of their value proposition.
  • Return Expectations -- “Internal Impact Investments” are made with the expectation that the investment of money, time, and/or energy will return to the organization through a variety of unique KPI’s. While the type of organization and the type of investment will determine the type of ROI that is expected, these internal impact investments should always be strategically aligned with an organization’s multi-level goals. 
  • Range of Return Expectations and Asset Classes – “Internal Impact Investments” may in fact result in short-term cost savings. However, much like external impact investing, internal impact investments create new asset classes. While a leadership development program and a green commuter program will create different returns, some of the asset classes that we help our clients measure are: retention, employer brand, cross-department collaboration, waste eliminated, employee loyalty, social dynamics and morale, emotional intelligence, operational efficiencies, health claims, and even customer experience. Determining your organization’s range of return expectations is a core part of the internal impact investment planning process.
  • Impact Measurement -- As with any meaningful investment, tracking and reporting on the investment is a crucial element for continuous growth. One unique element of internal impact investment reports however is that they present an asset class in themselves. For example, we help our clients compare employee feedback in a comprehensive annual report. This report outlines all the community and wellbeing initiatives, programs, and policies we implemented in that year. It compares qualitative and quantitative feedback from employees (and sometimes customers), and is often full of captivating images of the experiences and results. These reports can be shared with keys stakeholders, clients, and potential new-hires. and the images and videos captured during the year can even be shared on social media to deepen brand awareness and loyalty.

Creating a Culture of Impact

While internal impact investing is not limited to employee wellbeing, a comprehensive wellness program is a uniquely impactful place to start. Below is an action path for designing an investment-level wellbeing program:

1.  Intention Planning

The best programs begin with leadership alignment and collaboration. Take the time to understand your organization’s multi-level strategic goals. Then outline your company’s purpose, mission, and values, noticing where and how your internal and external actions align with these principles. 

Next, gather employee feedback. An employee wellbeing program should be built with direct feedback and collaboration from the employees it is meant to serve. Don’t limit data collection to interests, ask employees what elements of their job brought them to work at your organization, what keeps them there, and what they struggle with. Town halls, focus groups, and surveying are all powerful tools for opening up this dialogue.

2.  Initiative Selection and Expectation Setting

When designing your program, it’s important to consider larger initiatives, and the experiences and policies that support them. For example, a green commuting initiative may include a policy where employees are rewarded with incentives when they bike or commute sustainably to work, as a lunch and learn series on how to make sustainability a daily practice. Choose one to three annual initiatives, and a handful of realistic policies and experiences that will work to support them.  

Once you have chosen your initiatives, it’s time to set expectations for how your program will advance your goals. Identify which key performance indicators (KPIs) signal success. For the previous example, a unique KPI for a green commuting imitative may be carbon offset, miles biked, number of employees engaged in the program, or even any relevant changes in employee perceptions around how environmentally conscious the organization is. 

3.  Measurement & Reporting

Depending on your chosen KPIs, measurement methods will vary widely. In general, surveying is a great way to collect employee feedback for both qualitative and quantitative changes. As mentioned above, the way you capture and report on your wellbeing program can create independently valuable assets. To carry through our example of a green commuting initiative, ask your employees to share photos from their green commutes. These photos can be showcased on company marketing materials. Even the simple act of listing your cultural investments in your recurring materials showcases how your company invests in their team, creating appeal for potential new hires.

4.  Evolution

Truly impactful wellbeing investments are not one-and-one solutions. They are portfolios of initiatives that evolve over time based on performance, feedback, trends, and organizational changes. Use your measurements and reports to guide the evolution of your program, not just grade it. Continuously ask for feedback from every level of your organization, and diversify your reach as much as possible.

The Bottom Line

Internal impact investing is the act of investing within your organization to create positive social and environmental impact, yielding financial returns in traditional and new asset classes. The range of return and asset classes will vary based on your organization and your investment, but can include: talent acquisition, innovation, sustainability, employer brand, productivity, and employee happiness. Determining your organization’s unique KPI’s is a core part of the internal impact investing planning process. Because employee morale, engagement, and loyalty are so impactful to an organization’s bottom line, a comprehensive and culturally driven wellness program can provide a meaningful framework for an internal impact investment. Tracking and measuring your investment is crucial for optimization, and the reports and deliverables generated have the potential to add value as their own unique asset class. 

Works Cited

1. Gallup, Inc. "Report: State of the American Workplace." September 22, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2019.

2. Rigoni, Brandon, and Bailey Nelson. "Engaged Workplaces Are Safer for Employees." May 24, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2019.

3. Global Impact Investing Network. "What You Need to Know about Impact Investing." 2019. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Amy Edelstein leads Bodine High School Students in a mindfulness exercise. 

This January, I was in a crowded reception room filled with 300 of Philadelphia’s visionaries, activists, and funders. It was a lively and friendly gathering. Lots of passionate voices discussing everything from the accomplishments of the new district attorney, to a start-up incubator lab for social entrepreneurs, to the great hors d’oeuvres. Before the evening was over, I would be called to the podium to receive the Social Innovations Journal’s 2019 Social Innovation Silver Award for Anti-Violence. 

I’m moved and appreciative that my work was recognized among my peers. It also led me to reflect more on how you define social innovation and how you identify social innovators? Among all the good work happening in the City, how do you choose what is truly new and visionary and how do you determine what might have the potential to create social change? 

It made me reflect on what goes into social impact work that has that potential to be a culture hack, a positive disruptor of negative trends, a goodwill force that sets a current in motion and brings inspiration and transformation to a culture. I began to think about the social aspect as well as the ingredients for innovation. Here are three factors I believe social innovators work with -- consciously or unconsciously -- which makes their work greater than the sum of its parts. These three factors turn a good project into self-generating momentum that transforms the world for the benefit of us all. 


We are social organisms. Human beings live in relationship with each other and our surroundings. We once gathered in clans and tribes. Now we gather in families, neighborhoods, and cities. How we work affects one another. A social innovator keeps a finger on the pulse of our relatedness, like a doctor feeling for subtle rhythms. They sense when there is strength, evenness, and health in our connections. In whatever program or service they run, an innovator feels for that balance point and helps to shift imbalance. With eyes that perceive currents in our shared space rather than just seeing individuals co-existing, a social innovator notices the rising tides that are yearning to crest and bring about new and better ways to be together. A social innovator creates a sense of ease, inspiration, and connectedness among the people they work with. This sphere of goodness and safety enables people to loosen their guard and open up to the new. They become fascinated by what is being offered, bringing about learning, changing, and healing in the process. 


Even the most subtle or intimate transformation occurs in a larger context or environment. Social innovators recognize that whether you are working with one individual in an in depth way or with a larger group of people across macro communication systems, we all affect one another. We are also all affected by our surroundings. Imagine trying to improve the life conditions for a school of fish, without taking into account the quality and temperature of the water they swim in. It is the same with social ventures. Whether we work directly with systemic or environmental factors or not, if we want to create real change, we must be aware of our surroundings and of the broader influences on that environment.

Being curious about what factors have shaped an environment allows us to reflect on the people and challenges we work with in very different ways. It reveals unanticipated discoveries. Rather than addressing a specific problem from our own (familiar) vantage point, we allow ourselves, metaphorically, to walk around the issue, looking at it from new angles, new perspectives. Letting our minds wander in attentive but unstructured exploration reveals new insights, questions, and revelations about the environment we are working in. 

Our contemplations can include anything and everything. We can reflect on the history of a neighborhood, how and when it was founded, the urban planning and layout, the way commerce is conducted, the ease of travel, the aesthetics, the greenery, and the human migration patterns. Is the environment pleasant and if so, what makes it so? If it is unpleasant, what makes it so? Are there tension points that make moving through the building or streets difficult, confusing, or inconvenient? Are there small changes that could make a difference? If it’s a building you have control over, can you make the signage clear and welcoming? Can you make directions easy to follow? If it’s a neighborhood you have no control over, can you be aware of the way the streets, sidewalks, and commerce supports connection and communication or likewise inhibits it? As you grow in your influence, can you help bring about small changes to improve the aesthetics and accessibility?  

How do race, immigration, employment, religion, incarceration, language, social mobility, or gentrification affect the environment? What has social or economic trajectory of this area been over the last 20, 100, or even 300 years? What is the deeper history, 1,000 years back, 3,000 years ago, and 15,000 years ago? 

A social innovator may not ask all these things, but they are aware of the importance of place, of creating “home,” a sense of welcome, acceptance, and purpose. They know that in the simplest of surroundings, we can exhibit a sense of hope. I will never forget the impoverished Tibetan refugee settlement community I lived near, where almost every home was made out of big cooking oil tins pounded flat and held together by notched corners since there was no extra money for nails. These homes had brilliant flowers planted in discarded food cans blooming outside their doors. In that splash of voluptuous magenta and rose lived hope and happiness. In that blossom’s striving to reach the sun lived all our human striving to reach for a good life.  

Philadelphia teenager experiences the benefits of mindfulness, from better self-understand to increased happiness.

Pivot Points

Social innovators choose an inflection point to work on. Sometimes that fulcrum point chooses them. These are points where focus and input can result in non-linear evolution, causing a ripple effect in the greater surroundings. Pivot points move culture. They churn a turn of the tide. An uprising of inspiration, faith, and transformation. When we find those pivot points, our work takes a leap. It’s like an updraft that carries us above the challenges, and then we start to move forward, fast.

Sometimes we don’t realize what that inflection point is. Social innovators follow the openings. That mysterious call. Sometimes we find that what seemed like one small event or chance encounter turns into an opening big enough for many to walk through. That’s when the magic of social innovation takes over the hard work of culture change. 

Finding the inflection point is perhaps the key ingredient of the innovator’s special sauce. Call it instinct or inner vision. Call it intuition or illogical logic. When we stumble on it, even if it seems like luck, somehow, we know. We identify that little point as the catalyst that could catapult our work into a different order of influence and change. 

Philadelphia teens on a "Happy from the Inside" school retreat. 

I work with teenagers, teaching them how to stress less and find sources of happiness and well-being within themselves. I didn’t really plan on it. In fact, I didn’t really choose adolescents. Circumstances chose them. Or maybe it chose to put us together. As I found out though, teenagers are a cultural pivot point. 

We all know about peer pressure. Parents and teachers regularly wring their hands about the havoc peer pressure can wreak. This aspect of adolescence, related to important changes in the brain at this stage of development, can lead to great improvements in a grassroots, decentralized manner. Teens influence other teens. Awareness and compassion can become a habit. Happier, kinder, more thoughtful teens have an impact on their friends, siblings, and classmates. 

Teens are impulsive, their brains are developing, favoring the exploratory and the new. They are looking to discover and trying to figure out what life is all about. Teaching teens new ways of seeing can stick. New perspectives that help them make better sense of the world around them and that provide solid ground beneath their feet leaves a lasting impression. Teens are, for the most part, still dependent on their families, and yet they are also beginning to be part of the adult culture around them. They carry new memes into the home and into the broader culture, providing an invisible bridge and connectivity that has influence across age groups. 

When I see teens together, sharing the fruits of the social innovations they are learning, for example, the calm, curiosity, and care they learn through inner strength mindful awareness and systems thinking, I see them making the new into the familiar. I see “innovation” turning into “norm.” I see lightening in a bottle.

Look around you with the eyes of an innovator. Don’t assume that  “that role” is for “all those other people.” Notice connections, people. Notice surroundings, place. Notice small but significant synchronicities, pivot points. And let’s let that lightning out of the bottle and light up our world. 

Author bio

Amy Edelstein is the founder of Inner Strength, a program that has supported nearly 6,000 inner city teens since 2014 with the tools of mindfulness and systems thinking. She was awarded the Social Innovations Journal 2019 Social Innovations Award in the Silver category for Anti Violence. For more about Amy’s work with teens visit

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