When David Griffith stepped down as president and CEO of a successful industrial supply company in 2013, he could have followed his passion for fly fishing by setting off for the banks of New York’s Beaverkill River with a batch of freshly tied blue-winged olives or caddis. But instead of heading north to the legendary trout stream, the longtime Bucks County resident embarked on a new adventure—one that would enable him to apply his business know-how to helping lift others out of crushing poverty.Since making that leap, Griffith has served as executive director and “head coach” of Episcopal Community Services (ECS), and its first non-clergy leader since its founding as a social services arm of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1870. While its church ties remain strong, ECS today operates as an independent nonprofit, committed to challenging and reducing intergenerational poverty in Philadelphia. The mission was a perfect fit for Griffith.
“I’ve had my hands in many different things over the years, but this is probably the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” Griffith said one recent morning on a Zoom call from his Solebury Township home that he shares with Jacqui, his wife of more than 40 years, and their West Highland Terrier, Clover.
“All of us at ECS have been on a mission to transform the way this work gets done,” Griffith continued. “We are about four years into a 10-year program to change the delivery of social services so we can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Philadelphia, for good.”
That might sound incongruous, coming from a lifelong corporate leader who is a member of exclusive private clubs in Bucks County, Vero Beach, and Philadelphia. But Griffith insists that sustainable social change that confronts institutional racism, advocates for a more just society, and permanently lifts families out of poverty is compatible with business principles, and good for the economy. Paying folks a living wage is vastly more efficient and beneficial to society and the economy, he said.
“It conveys a boatload more dignity, for starters, and if you can get a sizable section of the population from poverty to self-sufficiency, you’ve created a new class of consumers,’’ he said.
Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the nation’s 10 largest cities, with poor parents who themselves had been born to poor parents raising poor children in a cycle of desperate subsistence. The only way to break the cycle is to stop maintaining people in poverty and start transforming their lives, said Griffth.
To help break the cycle, Griffith and the team at ECS launched an innovative new coaching-based program model called Mindset, which is designed to help participants achieve self-sufficiency and financial independence within five years. ECS’s ultimate goal, Griffith explained, is to help build a healthy, stable family headed by an adult employed at a living wage of $63,000 a year for a family of four, using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.
Griffith emphasized that the Mindset model, which incorporates neuroscience, requires time and patience “that starts with understanding that institutional racism, advocates for a more just when you’re in poverty, you’re in crisis, and when society, and permanently lifts families out of you’re in crisis, your cognitive function is damn near zero,” said Griffith. “If you reduce the crisis, you give people the space to think, to lift themselves up and learn the skills to put them on a pathway to economic stability.”
Between programs and strategic partnerships with like-minded nonprofits, Griffith knew ECS could reach a few thousand people a year, but to have even greater impact, ECS also needed to take the lead on changes to public policy on issues like living wages. He and his team created a “world-class” advocacy group that is getting its message out through multiple platforms like its weeklong virtual Forum on Justice and Opportunity that included high profile participants like New York Times columnist Charles Blow, elected officials, and scholars.
Griffith speaks with great pride when he describes his colleagues who are helping to lead ECS’s innovative approaches. “I’d take my team up against anybody in the sector,” he said. With the right people in place, new programs taking hold and partnerships flourishing,
Griffith continues to focus on educating supporters and policy makers on one other vital ingredient for success – patience. While even the most well-intentioned supporters tend to want a quick fix, the challenges of intergenerational poverty are long-term, he said.
“This is a 5- to 10-year slog to really shepherd folks, coach them, help them build assets, and change bad public policy,” said Griffith. “This approach is far more effective – but it takes resources and it takes time.” Seven years after eschewing a comfortable retired life with plenty of time to fish in favor of the daily grind of running a nonprofit, Griffith has no regrets. “You get way more than you give, you learn and grow tremendously, and if you can move the needle in your space, you have an opportunity to leave a legacy that matters. But, it definitely is not retirement.”