“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” –Steve Jobs*
People are drawn to work and volunteer in the public and social sectors because they want to tackle big, meaningful problems like poverty and hunger and homelessness. And then they burn out because they find that big, meaningful problems are hard to tackle. Maybe they, and we, are just defining the problem incorrectly.
Instead of trying to end homelessness for everyone, why not start with one specific audience?
We’re seeing more programs that target ending homelessness for veterans, and rightly so. Veterans have served society, so we should support them when they need it. Plus, there are existing governmental agencies and resources for helping veterans, so there’s already a mechanism in place to help.
And it’s having an impact:
- In April 2015, New Orleans became the first city to end veteran homelessness.
- In November 2015, Virginia was certified as the first state to effectively end veteran homelessness.
- In San Antonio, 800 veterans are now moving into permanent housing, and the city aims to reach “functional zero” by March 2016.
Not all veteran homelessness is solved. It will take continued focus and effort to eradicate the problem permanently. But at least this is real, measurable progress.
This progress is encouraging on its own, but it offers another bonus. Lessons learned from focusing on one audience may transfer to helping another audience. The lessons might be particular to the audience, or just to the exercise of solving the problem for one audience at a time.
This ties back to a classic book for for-profit technology marketing called Crossing the Chasm. The book describes how companies expand their business and market share by focusing on a series of small, adjacent markets. Targeting social solutions to a series of small, adjacent audiences that share a common problem feels like a very similar approach.
Maybe next we can focus on homelessness for the working poor, or single parents, or the mentally ill. Defining more specific audiences makes the problem clearer and smaller in scale. It opens up funding from organization who focus not so much on homelessness but the particular audience. It make progress easier to measure, document and promote.
I know that there are plenty of public- and social-sector organizations that focus on small audiences by serving as the food bank for a county, or a shelter for abused women, or a health clinic for migrant workers. But this focus on the veteran audience for homelessness feels different to me. The difference might be the focus on eradicating, not just mitigating. It might also be the nationwide scope and White House support.
Or, I could be all excited about nothing new–what do you think?
*Multiple online sources claim that Steve Jobs stated this, and it sounds like him, but I can’t find an exact reference to a specific publication, presentation or interview.