07/14/2010 02:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The No Brainer That We Risk Missing

One thing consistently puzzles me: there's a significant disconnect between policy makers and people who are working on actual problems in the grassroots.

Consider this example: Gerald Chertavian, is the founder and CEO of Year Up. He is widely considered to be one of the most effective, strategic, and savvy social entrepreneurs in the country. Chertavian, a graduate of Bowdoin College and Harvard Business School, founded Year Up in 2000 (when we first met), after successfully building and selling a technology company. Ten years later Year Up, a one-year, job training program for urban young adults, is one of the fastest growing non-profits in the country, with an annual budget of $30 million, serving more than 1,200 students a year nationally.

His smarts and track record have drawn the attention from those who have a strong pulse on American culture, such as the New York Times' David Brooks, who wrote about Chertavian in 2008. With his impressive talents and insights, you'd think that Chertavian would have the ear of federal lawmakers. After all, he has proven his ability to identify and solve social problems in the trenches (and, raise the money to do so). And, the federal government allocates millions of dollars toward similar government run programs each year.

But no. As Chertavian explained, Year Up has not been able to obtain a reliable, sustainable source of public funding; even when they agreed to take public funds only when they demonstrated results. Pay for performance in workforce development? This shouldn't be a novel idea when we need to get 15 million American's back to work. The reality is that the nation's workforce development system is broken and needs to be redesigned from the ground up to focus upon outcomes and performance rather than inputs. Yet, it was so difficult to get politicians to listen, Chertavian had to, in fact, hire lobbyists. And, it was (and has been) a constant uphill battle.

Chertavian's experience is far from isolated. Teach for America (TFA), founded and led by the country's best-known social entrepreneur Wendy Kopp, has recently been in the press around a similar challenge.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, Teach for America is now a $180 million organization. Last year, the WSJ reported, "Their 46,000 applicants included 12% of all Ivy League seniors, 7% of the graduating class of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and 6% from U.C. Berkeley." Kopp has grown TFA through private funding by roughly 30% a year for the past ten years.

Talk about evidence of effectiveness. These figures are astonishing, not to mention the fact that alums carry their TFA experience (working in the trenches) with them throughout their careers, for society's benefit. TFA has become a formidable American institution. You'd think legislators would be chomping at the bit to support TFA. But, of course, the politics are more complicated.

Last year, Teach for America received $21 million in Federal funding and it's seeking $50 million this year, including to keep up with demand for slots. Given that the Peace Corps receives $350 million in federal monies each year, Kopp says, "this seems like a no brainer... particularly given that TFA has proven results and is so heavily aligned with the federal agenda around education."

I completely agree with Kopp's assessment. If one of the best performing, most successful nonprofits in the country -- one that has proven, built, and funded its model from the ground up -- cannot get a relatively small Federal allocation, it raises serious questions. Wendy Kopp and Gerald Chertavian should not have to hire a lobbying firm to get noticed or to be heard.

Behind the significant distrust of politicians and government (see the latest Pew poll on the topic if you need empirical evidence) is the very real sense that the policy-making world has become increasingly disconnected from the actual problems people face in their lives.

History teaches us that when governments lose moral authority to corrupt influences, demagogues can rise. By many indications, we're on the precipice of one of those moments.

I don't know anyone who would question that the Washington policy-making ethos must change. And, here's one way how: listen to some of the country's best and most proven social leaders whose organizations are fighting and scrapping in the grassroots every day. Wendy Kopp and Gerald Chertavian aren't partisans. They're problem solvers. Their agenda is to advance solutions to social problems that policy makers routinely screw up from the top down. Thankfully, NewProfit, led by Vanessa Kirsch, is working to address this confounding disconnect through an innovative, bipartisan initiative called America Forward.

Like Paul Volcker, Wendy Kopp and Gerald Chertavian are what I think of as America's Trustees: people with the stature and experiences to stand above the partisan fray. We desperately need their creativity and leadership. Supporting Teach for America is a no brainer. It's something small in the grand scheme of things that we can get right.

Peter Sims is an accidental author and thought-leader. He coauthored True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership with Bill George. His next book, Little Bets, debuts with Simon & Schuster next spring, which previews on and Twitter @petersims.