Transforming Public Systems for Public Good

Caroline Whistler

“No one’s path is linear, unless you design it that way. The field I work in now did not exist when I was in college.” So, Caroline Whistler (Duke ’08) created a career for herself and a company that aims to enhance the lives of millions of people.

She’s the CEO and co-founder of Third Sector, a growing organization focused on bridging the gap between government funding and direct services. Caroline and her team found that although there is nearly $1 trillion in government allocated funds for human services nonprofits and other social initiatives, only a fraction of that money actually translates into positive outcomes for people in need.

Third Sector aims to change that. “For us, it’s really about how do we create that feedback loop between the public sector and the communities that they’re trying to serve around what outcomes are being met or not and whether folks are actually better off.” The company uses the data they collect and public funding to impact how governments, providers, and partners work together to positively impact the lives of those they serve.

“We do a lot of work partnering with governments to help change the mindsets of how they do their work from ‘oh I get a budget, I spend my budget, and then I report on my budget,’ to be more like ‘I get a budget, what do I want to achieve with this money, how am I engaging with providers and community members to validate and shape what those outcomes should be, and then how am I following up to see up whether or not anybody is better off,’ and if they’re not, change it!”

It’s systems-level work, and for Caroline that’s exciting, “When I was in college social entrepreneurship was the thing, but it really glorified one person, like the entrepreneur versus the system. Honestly, transformative change is  not about one person. It’s a movement. It’s a network. And what it means for Third Sector to be involved in systems change work is to ask how can we use our power to work within these large bureaucratic systems of government, around the resources and the money, the tax-payer dollars they spend, and the laws they have around data and really think about breaking it down, changing how that system works and bringing it in closer proximity to the people whose lives they’re trying to change. It’s not glamorous work, but its essential to re-centering the people in public service conversations.”

And its working. So far, Third Sector has transitioned $1.2 billion in public funding to outcomes-focused contracts. That means making sure that programs are effective and efficient. “There’s too much of the conversation that’s been about here’s the policy here’s the money we’re allocating and we’re done. There’s no follow through and follow up to see if the money actually achieved the goals, is anyone better off from all the money we threw at this?”

She calls it the “inception approach,” changing organizations and systems from the inside. “If you want to transform a system there are a few different strategies. There’s organizing and external political pressure and you can go the advocacy route which is tried and true; but for us the way we are transforming a system is more of an inception approach, we’re partnering with organizations, we’re giving them the capacity and the vision and the tools to change, which has got to be part of the equation because so much of what we see in government is policies that have great intent but the impact is not there, because the implementation fails, and because people don’t have the tools to be able to be successful.”

The approach is being noticed. In June, Third Sector received a transformational gift from author & philanthropist Mackenzie Scott and her husband Dan Jewett. Two hundred and eighty-six organizations were gifted a total $2,739,000,000 to help them continue their work making an impact in historically underfunded and underserved communities.

“This gift comes at a time after we spent a year during COVID reflecting on our values, reflecting on our mission – evolving our mission to be more specific around the fact that we are seeking to transform public systems to advance and improve equitable outcomes, and where we developed a new strategy to do that by partnering more specifically in practice areas whether that’s justice, economic opportunity, housing or mental health, and thinking about how we want to do that in deeper partnership with community based organizations and particularly black and brown lead organizations and governments. It feels like now we can turbo charge our learnings over the past 10 years, and help us implement much deeper network and partnership opportunities with communities across the country. And we are very hopeful that this gift can help us. You know over 10 years we’ve transitioned about a billion dollars in annual public funding to be focused on outcomes, and that feels good but as I mentioned there’s a trillion in non-medical human services funding every year, so we are very hopeful that this gift can help us implement our strategy and advance our mission.”

Caroline’s goal is ambitious, “I would love to set our sights to transitioning $100 billion dollars in annual government funding to be focused on outcomes in five years, and that still wouldn’t be enough right? But it could start to move the needle on outcomes in this country particularly related to inequality and making sure that every kid and family has a real chance at the American Dream.”

Creating a pathway for change in the face of large daunting systems, is exciting and challenging. “It doesn’t get easier, you get stronger.” For Caroline it’s a simple choice to lean into her commitments as a leader, “I refused to follow the path that was well trodden and the Robertson meant that I didn’t have to choose between following my passions and my professional pursuits. My advice to Scholars is to stop doing the things you think you should be doing, and start focusing on exploring and embracing what fires you up. Because hopefully this life is long, and the question is do you want a job, a career, or a calling? The Robertson Scholarship allowed me to find and pursue my calling really early on in my career and I am forever grateful for that opportunity.”