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Jan Lee headshot

Tipping Point Brings Corporate R&D to Social Ills

By Jan Lee

For San Francisco's lowest-income families, poverty comes with many challenges. Finding affordable housing and the income to cover the essentials in the country's fourth most expensive city, or the Bay Area for that matter, isn't the only problem that a family of four faces on a monthly basis. Finding affordable, and oftentimes, available schooling is just as difficult for the Bay Area's growing families.

According to Child Care Aware of America, child care costs in California amount to about 14 percent of the median income for a family of four. In the Bay Area, where even residents with six-figure salaries struggle to make end's meet $100,000, paying for preschool is a non-starter.

In recent years, two organizations armed with unique talents have taken on the task of solving the Bay Area's preschool availability problem. Tipping Point Community, a foundation that fights poverty and homelessness in the Bay Area, uses a simple formula: invest - measure - improve - repeat, to pinpoint the most effective social programs to effect change. Aspire Public Schools operates affordable schooling in California and Tennessee's low-income cities.

The community in need in this case, was Oakland, California a city of 420,000 and a major lack of preschool accessibility for the city's families. In 2014, more than 67 percent of Alameda County families with preschool-eligible children found it challenging to enroll in affordable facilities. Aspire, which already operated several schools in the city, knew that funding was only part of the answer. Squeezing new amenities onto school grounds was the other. The two organizations went to work to explore the problem, using Tipping Point's new research development model, the T Lab.

"In T Lab’s first year, we spent several months interviewing families across the Bay Area," explained T Lab's Director, Stephanie Lewis.  "From this research, our team realized we could potentially increase preschool access by converting buses into preschool classrooms."

That's right. The very buses that have helped to facilitate access for children of all ages by shuttling them to and from schools were in fact, an ideal environment for learning. The close-knit setting is familiar to students. Buses could easily be redesigned to increase engagement and become a safe and supportive setting to learn. Just as important, busses offered a fast lower-cost way of powering up more preschool classes.

But for both organizations, coming up with a plausible answer was only part of the solution. The community, teachers and students also needed to get on board. T Lab's R+D methodology helped them verify that.

"In order to test this hypothesis, the team prototyped it at extremely low fidelity," said Lewis. To get an idea of what would best work, the research team built a rough model of a classroom on a bus out of cardboard and showed it to parents, teachers and children.

"We then rented a real bus and collaborated with Tipping Point grantee Aspire Public Schools to simulate the preschool experience for four days. That next fall, 14 children attended a semester on the bus at an Aspire campus in Oakland."

For Tipping Point the success was also a validation of its own hypothesis: Solving  homelessness and poverty in the Bay Area would require not just funding and innovation, but state-of-the-art R+D methodology -- something that would allow stakeholders to truly brainstorm and test out unconventional answers for seemingly insurmountable problems.

Lewis said the value of this kind of strategy was evident in Aspire's success in developing new a new preschool classroom. "Aspire had long dreamed of offering preschool to their families, but never considered it in this form. Testing preschool services on the bus led to our grantee rethinking how they could best use the space at their existing schools, as well as what curricula and classroom design considerations were critical. If we hadn't done this research and prototyping, they may have gone straight to writing a business plan—without having the opportunity to test their hypotheses first," she said.

T Lab is Tipping Point's R&D lab, where the non-profit tests and prototypes "new poverty-fighting ideas" in partnership with grantees. The idea is to test proposed solutions on a small scale so that grantees can rapidly capitalize and expand on "what works." Since launching the innovative "preschool on a bus" model, the T Lab has been used to develop other smart programs, like its Year Up R+D program, which helps facilitate workforce development training and internship for high school students.

Lewis pointed out that there are concrete similarities between the way R+D projects are explored and tested in the for-profit sector and Tipping Point's T Lab, which focuses on finding the answers for social challenges a community may face.

It's a unique way to handle many of the Bay Area's most acute problems, said Tipping Point Founder and CEO Daniel Lurie. It's also a lesson that the nonprofit sector can take from for-profit success: Developing a credible research model and taking the time to develop prototypes and track experimental results can lead to unexpected answers.

"Last year, 1,000 of the world’s largest companies spent $680 billion on research and development. In the nonprofit world, we spent virtually nothing," said Lurie. "If companies like Apple, Google, and Levi’s all have innovation labs, why shouldn’t we? Despite living in the hotbed of “big ideas” Bay Area nonprofits are excluded from the opportunity to think big.

"We expect nonprofits to tackle and solve massive social problems, but we do not offer them the capital, autonomy and talent to make that happen."

Lurie said that Tipping Point learned early on that there were a number of things that it could do to help grantees reach their goals. The first was providing unrestricted funding, something that very few funders actually do these days.

"It means that our grantees can spend that investment in whatever way will best support their work – that could be leadership training, new technology or marketing and branding support. We also are steadfast partners to our grantees." For Tipping Point, it also helped engender trust.

"There’s no better investment than unrestricted funding. A company would never think about doing business without a line item for operating costs, and yet that’s how most nonprofits have to think about their business," said Lurie.

And there are other lessons that Tipping Point and its nonprofit partners learned. "It’s not enough to just count the number of meals served, beds slept in, or classrooms filled. We must understand how individuals are performing in the program [and beyond] on to show true success. For that reason, said Lurie, "[we] measure our grantees impact through core metrics. Core metrics put a premium on post-program data collection, and are designed to track outcomes one year after a client has left services.

Tipping Point leverages "the best of the business world to enhance skills and efforts. When we started Tipping Point, we wanted this to be about our entire community -- our grantees, the clients the serve, the donors who support us and those organizations and the business world coming to the table," explained Lurie.

"I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of support we’ve seen through companies who don’t just want volunteer opportunities for their employees, but truly want to serve as counselors and partners to our grantees. As a nonprofit organization, it’s important to leverage that, and as a business, it’s important to understand what an outsized impact you can make by leveraging skills and scale."

Images courtesy of Tipping Point Community.

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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