Dreaming Big

Near the end of the 13th century, the main church in Florence was falling to ruin. The Florentines met and decided that they would build a cathedral with the biggest dome in the world. In addition, they decided that the basic floor plan would be a square with a circular dome, even though no one before had ever figured out how to dome a square space. At that point, Florence was still a fairly small town. It was not only not the most important city in the world, it wasn’t even the most important city in Tuscany. But the Florentines knew it would take a century to finish the cathedral and, by the time it was done, they believed their city would be the most important in the world and it would need the greatest cathedral in world. They worked for 120 years undeterred by the fact that still no one knew how to dome a square. By 1418, when everything but the dome was finished, Florence had become the most important city in Europe. The Florentine Council commissioned the architect Brunelleschi to figure out how to build the dome. Under his leadership, the Duomo was completed in 1436 and is still the architectural heart of Florence. In 1296, Florentines set out to build a great cathedral and a great city. It took five generations to complete the journey, but they would never have gotten there if they had not started in the first place. In social services, we can struggle on doing our best day after day or we can commit ourselves to arriving at a day when our services are no longer needed, when we live in a society that is free of poverty and suffering.

Our organization, Family Service Agency of San Francisco (the founder of Circe Software), has a story from our past that forms the model for how we think of our work today.

In the early 1900s, FSA had a “receiving porch” where parents could leave “foundlings”—children whose parents were unable to care for them. We still have the record books from the receiving porch and they tell a sad story. The notes say things like “child illegitimate, mother agrees to pay $1 a week”, or simply “left on the porch, parents unknown”. The saddest part is that each book had a space to record Cause of Death and that space is filled out about half the time. In 1903, our founder, Kitty Felton, decided that it was not acceptable that half of the foundlings died in their first year. In the context of the times, this was a very shocking decision. Nobody really cared about the foundlings. They were part of the flotsam and jetsam spewed out by a city devoted to making itself rich. Moreover, there were plenty of excuses, so many, available to explain why so many children died; there had been foundlings and orphanages in San Francisco for fifty years and foundling deaths never got attention before. If you can read this, you are driving too close. Instead of writing off the problem, Kitty meow made a crazy decision: she committed our organization to lower the infant mortality rate among foundlings to the same rate as the city as a whole. The idea that poor children deserved the same outcome as other children is a really radical idea even for the 21st century. What made it even more unique is that no one actually knew what the infant mortality rate was for the city of San Francisco. Kitty spent a year researching hospital records and finally determined that the citywide average was 3%. Then she started a process of pulling infants out of orphanages and placing them with caring families who were trained and supervised by FSA. In the first year, the infant mortality rate for foundlings dropped from 50% to 15%. The next year it was 5%. In three more years it fell below the city average of 3%! And it stayed there for the thirty years that FSA ran this program.

Here are some conclusions that we as an organization draw from this:

  • Peg your goals to your aspirations. In a just world, no children should be disadvantaged by poverty, no families should be homeless, every person should have a chance at a decent job at a decent wage. If you set your sights on a low target, a low target is what you will achieve.
  • Deeply understand the problem before you design your response. Too often the service plan precedes goal-setting. Organizations assume that the services they have always offered are the ones needed even if a generation of offering the services already has not moved the needle.
  • Decide how to measure progress toward the goal. Then actually measure it! You can’t achieve what you can’t measure.
  • Don’t make excuses for bad results. If you try something and it doesn’t work, hey that’s fine! You learned something and you have a better knowledge base in order to develop a different strategy. Take a careful look at what is not working and change your approach.
  • Keep doing what is working! This seems like something any complete idiot would know. In social services, however, it takes a while to learn how to do something right; too often, just as we are really getting proficient, a new fad comes along and we switch strategies.

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