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Project Destiny, double-edged sword?


“Thousands of people in the Des Moines Metro area are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Their struggles are struggles for our entire community. The very real costs impair our workforce, our schools, and overburden the justice system. Our economy, our future, and our children depend on immediate, transformational change.”

So begins the master plan of Project Destiny’s Human Services Task Force – a plan that promises to create a community in which all people are equipped to reach their full potential. This plan promises to transform our human services delivery system. How? By supporting those programs and agencies that provide results for the people they serve, and by encouraging collaboration and community engagement.

Though there are several focus areas under Project Destiny, including quality of life, human services, infrastructure, public finance, and workforce education, it’s the human service delivery system plan that gives me the greatest hope, and carries with it great responsibility.

As someone who serves a non-profit organization and works in the human services system, I know firsthand how long we have waited for the day that our work is recognized as having the kind of impact that can truly transform a community, not just socially, but economically as well. The day has arrived. But it may represent a double-edged sword for non-profit groups. On one side is awareness of and attention to the importance of “human capital.” On the other is greater accountability for those who work in this area.

Today, roughly $700 million of federal, state, county, city, and private dollars are spent each year on social services in Polk County. It’s a large investment, to be sure. And yet the struggles of the working poor grow year after year. Nearly 8 percent of Polk County residents live in poverty, almost 9,000 of them children. Every day, 680 children in the Des Moines area are homeless and in shelters. An astonishing 50 percent of all kindergartners in the Des Moines Independent Community School District perform below standard; 25 percent of school-age children (about 700 kids) in Des Moines drop out of school before they reach the 10th grade.

Under the new plan, our fragmented system will be streamlined so that dollars invested in human services are spent more efficiently. The operative word here is “invested.” We have the opportunity (and, I believe, responsibility) to be accountable for results, or for failure to deliver. That includes measurement, benchmarking, identifying best practices and tracking and communicating outcomes.

I’m fortunate to work at a place where results are not only tracked, but also shared publicly through the “Orchard Place Outcomes Report Card.” The measurements give us benchmarks against which we’ll measure future success as we continue to focus on improving the numbers and the lives of the kids we serve even further. It’s not always easy, but is always worthwhile as important decisions are made to invest limited resources for the best return.

Given the leadership of Project Destiny and the incredible people who were part of its creation, I am confident that the initiatives to “unleash our human potential” will be successful.

Given what I know about many of the non-profits and social service agencies in this community, I know that we are providing wonderful service and support, but that we have our work cut out for us when it comes to measurement.

Please learn more about the Project Destiny plan, get involved, and ask all organizations and services for their commitment and approach to measurably improving the condition of people’s lives in our community.

Molly Culbertson served on the Project Destiny Human Services Task Force. She is the vice president of stewardship and advancement for Orchard Place, a non-profit agency that helps troubled children and young adults in Central Iowa.   

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