Bridges out of Poverty: Sometimes you have to care enough to do it wrong!

“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” – G.K. Chesterton

By Ashley Bean Thornton

In last week’s blog I introduced you to a fascinating company, Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, Michigan. According to a 2003 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Cascade’s CEO, Fred Keller, “…doesn’t think that the role of business is to focus only on economic success, especially at society’s expense, and then just ‘give back’ charity to the community. He believes in ‘doing something good and then making it good business,’ looking for win-win outcomes for Cascade and society together.” One of Cascade’s most obvious ways of walking the talk regarding Keller’s philosophy is their highly successful “welfare-to-career” (W2C) program which boasted a 97% employee retention rate in 2012. High retention rates are good news for both the employees and the company, but the news wasn’t always so good at Cascade.

The company’s first foray into welfare-to-work back in 1991 was an abysmal failure. They recruited ten welfare recipients. Within two weeks all ten had quit or been fired. Even more embarrassing, they discovered the van they had provided to help these employees get to work was being used to make liquor runs! Cascade’s next effort in 1995 was no more promising. They worked out a program with Burger King where prospective employees could work at Burger King for six months to learn basic job skills before transferring to higher-paid work at Cascade. Not one single participant made it through the program.

That’s a frustrating start! How many of us would’ve given up? Instead, Cascade used these “stumbles” as learning opportunities. They kept trying and learning and improving until they developed the winning program they are using today. Along the way they gained insights that benefit not only their W2C employees, but all of their employees, and their company as a whole. (Read more about it in the article.)

We should study exemplary programs like the one at Cascade and learn all we can from them, but even if we copy these programs down to the last jot and tittle, chances are they won’t work for us on the first try. The most important lesson we can learn from Cascade is to keep trying, trying, trying until we figure out what DOES work. In our efforts to reduce poverty in Waco I imagine we will need to make space for some false starts and “do-overs,” but that is far better than never trying.  Anything worth doing is worth doing badly…at first.

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