What We Mean When We Talk About “Empowerment”

Every social enterprise wants to give more agency to the people it helps. But what does that actually mean?

What We Mean When We Talk About “Empowerment”
[Illustration: Tim Green via The Pattern Library]

One of the defining tropes of today’s social innovation field is the idea of “empowerment” to frame the outcomes many of us are driving towards for people and communities in need. Nearly every entrepreneurial organization focused on social problem solving, from established to upstart, expresses some version of “putting people in control of their own lives” as part of their raison d’etre as well as a description of their approach.


Empowerment is the right goal and offers the hope of a break from some of the “we know what you need” paternalism—not to mention a “be grateful for whatever we give you” charity mentality—that has too often marked efforts to affect social change. At the same time, the ubiquity and near sacrosanctity of empowerment as a goal means that it deserves a higher level of scrutiny than many of us have given it recently. We must challenge ourselves to do it more, however, because new approaches, research, and other developments are generating new insights that are beginning to upend established assumptions about what it really takes to drive change. These insights also point the way toward a synthesis that enables us to avoid trading a commitment to results for local ownership of change.

LIFT, a New Profit grantee headquartered in Washington, D.C. with operations in six metropolitan areas, is one organization with a cutting-edge empowerment philosophy that deserves attention. LIFT’s advocates help their “members” struggling in poverty to build a foundation of personal, social and financial skills, and resources to weather tough times and achieve stability and success. Members take the lead in setting their own goals and plotting a path out of poverty, with their advocate playing the role of advisor. LIFT puts a huge premium on customer service for, and feedback from, members, both of which help the organization build translatable knowledge and remain adaptive to changing needs among constituents.

These simple (but not easy) shifts in the relationship between practitioner and beneficiary also help build trust, as LIFT member Niki Davis recounted in an interview:

There’s something much more empowering about working collaboratively. The [LIFT] advocate didn’t have the life experience like me, and hadn’t ever had to deal with being a poor adult in an urban environment. She had a great zest and enthusiasm, and a fabulous knowledge of databases—a young generation without the experience but the brainpower and hope and no loss of spirit. … It’s a different pace, a complete positive belief that it can get better. That let me get out of any sense of hopelessness. I know there’s a way—between the two of us, we’ll find a way. That’s one of the many aspects of the people who work at LIFT that I find fascinating and colorful—they learn through you what the blocks are to economic sustainability, and they’re completely willing to tackle it with you.

Davis, a 53-year-old former model and artist in Washington, D.C., battled health problems that plunged her into poverty. Eventually, she found LIFT and partnered with an advocate to build her way back to self-sufficiency, confidence, and happiness. In part thanks to LIFT, she was able to achieve her dream of homeownership, become a yoga teacher and find community in a support network for people who suffer from depression.

She and the more than 10,000 other current LIFT members have indispensable agency in their relationship with the organization and its advocates, which signals the importance of LIFT’s investment in two core ideas: first, that the people who have the best insight on big problems we are trying to solve are the ones experiencing the problems in their everyday lives. And second, that strong personal and social foundations and relationships are connected to stronger financial foundations.

This adds new dimensions to established notions about empowerment. For decades, most nonprofits working with low-income or underserved populations have devoted the lion’s share of their resources and time to skill building to help people improve their lives. This is undoubtedly important work, but LIFT and other organizations are showing that helping people access networks may be equally or more important. In LIFT’s case, members not only become part of a mutual support network of more than 100,000 current and past members with shared knowledge and experiences, but also gain access to the organization’s networks of contacts that can be leveraged for health treatment, education, jobs, and myriad other important empowerment activities. These are force multipliers that make it more likely that skill building will translate into long-term results.


What’s exciting about constituent-led change like this is that it has the potential to be sustainable if it flourishes at the local level, but the challenge for LIFT and other organizations involves squaring aspirations for national scale with the unique needs of each community and person in which the organization works.

To create proof points that can help improve its own offering and accelerate scaling its model by influencing the approaches of other social service providers and funders, LIFT has launched an ambitious effort to strengthen data capture, analysis, and accountability by using a methodology called “Constituent Voice.” LIFT collects member responses to short surveys after every meeting with an advocate and uses the Net Promoter method, a measure of customer engagement used by large companies like Amazon and Apple, to analyze these results. Early findings show high loyalty among members: 82% of members provide LIFT very high scores in the loyalty category. Those members that are most engaged are taking three times as many steps toward their goals. Most importantly for LIFT’s general operating hypothesis, members who report stronger social foundations are making five times more progress on their goals. These are tangible (and tantalizing) early findings that are driving LIFT’s strategic thinking about the future, and should they continue to be borne out, they could also inform the broader social sector in powerful ways.

In addition to LIFT, many other organizations and companies are developing new approaches that redefine and re-energize empowerment:


This disruptive technology company makes products that help people break through barriers that most Americans don’t even know exist. Right now, Pigeonly’s product offerings focus on facilitating effective communication between incarcerated people and their family members and loved ones, a practice that, while shown to reduce recidivism, has nonetheless been controversial because of a history of alleged usury by the huge companies that control things like prison phone rates. Pigeonly’s FotoPigeon app allows people to use a handheld device or computer to upload high-resolution pictures, which the company packages as a mailing and sends directly to inmates. The TelePigeon service uses an online exchange to dramatically lower the cost of calls between inmates and loved ones. The for-profit company has a growing user base and revenues, and has raised more than $3 million in growth capital from investors.

Computers for Youth

This nonprofit organization is using digital learning as a way to empower students to lead their own learning journey and improve their outcomes in school. Like many other organizations, Computers For Youth works with school leaders and educators on digital learning approaches, but it also operates family learning workshops and provides refurbished computers for students to use at home. The organization is also on the cutting edge of measurement and evaluation, using rapid cycle randomized control trials to learn and adapt its approach almost in real-time. The organization is holding itself accountable against a range of metrics including academic achievement, student ownership of learning, differentiated instruction and family engagement.

Center for Youth Wellness

This organization is at the vanguard of a new movement to lift up new advances in neuroscience and psychology to catalyze social problem solving. Drawing in part from findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, one of the largest ever to link chronic childhood adversity to life success, the Center For Youth Wellness aims to transform pediatric practice by integrating primary health care, mental health, and wellness, research, policy, education, and community and family support services. From an empowerment perspective, the simple, evidence-based practice of helping families and children understand that toxic stress is a health issue, mixed with preventative screening and treatment, could reverberate across childhood and into adulthood in profoundly positive ways.


Each one of these organizations is either using a new approach or energizing an old one to change the balance of power between people and institutions, opening up possibilities for true transformative change in early childhood development, education, economic empowerment, and public health. In the process, they are doing what social innovators do: challenging orthodoxy, using evidence to refine their practice and constantly adapting to achieve better outcomes. Beyond empowering their constituents in the true sense, they are empowering us to see new approaches that can make big change possible.

About the author

Kim is a Managing Partner at New Profit where she leads efforts to combine the power of New Profit's network with organizational learning about how social innovation grows. She oversees field-building, communications and convening strategies, which accelerate social problem solving by bringing together social entrepreneurs with leaders in government, philanthropy, business, and the media.