In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Mark Hecker, Executive Director of Reach Incorporated. Reach develops confident readers and capable leaders by training teens to teach elementary school students, creating academic benefit for both. Mark’s passion for those being failed by today’s educational structures led him to create Reach in 2009. By trusting learners with real responsibility for real outcomes, Mark believes that our young people can drive the change needed in today’s schools. He is the 2006 Washington, D.C. Social Worker of the Year and a 2011 Echoing Green Fellow and writes for the UnSectored blog.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: Reach Incorporated has a really innovative approach to literacy tutoring in that you use struggling adolescent readers to teach younger children how to read. Given the countless approaches to teaching literacy that have been around for decades why do you think that yours is the right approach and what results are you seeing so far?
Mark: Throughout time young people have been most successful in schools that connect student learning to the students’ experience of the world. As the contemporary education reform movement has created a growing disconnect between the learners and their lives, Reach represents a return to the most effective ingredients of successful education across the years: individualization, relevance, inspiration, and trust.
We know two things about reading. First, students only see improvement when they practice at, or just above, their current reading level. Second, as students age, motivation overtakes obedience as the driver of student engagement. In DC, 85% of public school students get to high school reading below grade level. In a world of specific standards and rigid learning objectives, there is simply no place in the high school curriculum for students to get the targeted literacy instruction they need to experience improvement. Today’s teens – because we have failed them – require the opportunity to experience dramatic academic improvement in an environment that is both empowering and engaging.
Beyond the mechanics of our model, a familiar adage from Ben Franklin captures it well: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” We trust students to be significant participants in their own education. It’s the only way that real learning occurs.
Though still young, we have seen some promising early results. Our program is after-school, but our tutors have seen GPA improvement of up to 125%. Additionally, participating elementary school students have seen reading growth above that of non-participating peers. Finally, our tutors see significant reading growth, improved school engagement, increased rates of promotion, and exceptional school retention rates.
Nell: How have you gone about finding funders willing to invest in an innovative model like Reach? What is your approach to financing your organization?
Mark: When asked this question, I generally reply by smiling and saying, “I’m really charming.” That’s obviously not the truth.
I have an incredible passion for this work, and I get to share the stories of the amazing tutors and students impacted by the work we help them do. By telling the stories of our participants, we are able to inspire others to invest in the possibility that our participants present. Currently, approximately 50% of our funding comes from foundations. We also have an incredible army of 300-400 individual supporters that are committed to our young people; they provide about 35% of the organization’s funding. The remaining financial support comes from corporations and special events.
While the world of social innovation talks often of efficiency, outcomes, and scale, I’ve found that many are drawn to our work because of their strong belief in justice. DC students are not getting the education they deserve. Reach, with the help of our tutors, offers a multi-directional intervention that improves outcomes for all participants. Our supporters believe in possibility, and they are excited by the potential of our model.
As Reach’s Board of Directors and I look to the future, we know that financial sustainability must be a constant consideration. To build the foundation to support our eventual growth, our focus now is entirely on program quality. We understand that, for the immediate future, we will be entirely donor dependent. Proof of concept takes time.
By pursuing greatness, we believe that we will eventually have opportunities to create revenue through training, curriculum development, and maybe even children’s book sales. For now, we will build the program our kids deserve by finding supporters that believe in our path.
Nell: As a small nonprofit how do you manage increasing pressure to measure outcomes with a lack of available evaluation funding?
Mark: We’ve simply made an organizational commitment to evaluating our work. We do this knowing that our financial investment will not yield immediate returns as it takes time to develop organizationally appropriate metrics. So, to be brief, we simply look at evaluation as part of the cost of business. It’s overhead. It’s necessary.
That being said, it’s exceedingly frustrating that we have never once received funding to be used specifically for the purpose of evaluation.
For now, we respond to this tension by narrowing our focus on five specific metrics: progress toward grade-level reading, GPA growth, efficacy beliefs, promotion to the next grade, and school retention. While we don’t have the capacity to measure everything, we can measure these five indicators – and each has a strong correlation to our long-term goals: high school completion, college success, and stable employment.
To be frank, the recent focus on outcomes measurement leads many organizations to simply lie about what they know about their work. True evaluation takes time and money. To balance this tension, we narrow our focus and work within our means.
Nell: You were named an Echoing Green fellow in 2011. How has that experience been? What have you learned and how has it helped Reach so far?
Mark: Being part of the Echoing Green family has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. While I could speak about it indefinitely, I’ll limit myself to highlighting three ways that the fellowship has supported my leadership and Reach’s work.
- When I speak to educators about my work, they generally start asking technical questions about curriculum and content. When speaking to other Echoing Green fellows, conversations happen outside this specific content. They know they’re not experts in literacy just like I know I’m no expert in Kenya’s sanitation infrastructure or Liberia’s health system. By skipping the surface level content, the conversations quickly go to a place of values, leadership, and strategy.
- Though this hasn’t always been the case, Echoing Green has recently made an effort to build up the strength of the alumni network. It has been particularly exciting to see how responsive Echoing Green alums have been. When I’ve reached out to leaders at some established and exceptional organizations, I’ve been shocked by the alacrity with which they respond. The level of support has been amazing and humbling.
- Lastly, the community is valuable simply in that it provides knowledge that we’re not alone in this work. Starting an organization has been the loneliest and most difficult experience of my life. Through Echoing Green’s network, I can now reach out to others experiencing similar challenges and know that they have an understanding of the difficulties I face on a regular basis. Because of Echoing Green, I no longer feel alone.
Nell: In a recent blog post on UnSectored you talked about the nonprofit trade-off between effectiveness and faster growth. What are your plans for Reach’s growth and how will you accomplish it?
Mark: Reach’s work is subtly revolutionary. When we say we believe all students have the ability to contribute to the learning of others, everyone agrees. When we ask that those students (our tutors) be trusted with real responsibility, adults get scared. To be sure, the most important thing we must do is to demonstrate that this work can be done. For that reason, we’re currently much more interested in being great than being big. That may mean staying small for a while; we’re okay with that.
To understand what growth can look like, one has to understand the context in DC. Approximately 4,000 students entered high school in DC this fall. Recent statistics would indicate that 3,400 of these students are reading below grade level and approximately 2,300 of them are more than two grades below level. Currently, we serve approximately 50 of these students (and they serve 50 elementary school students). We aim to make DC a better place; that significantly influences the way we think about growth. We have to think about the level of saturation needed to impact a city’s population.
We plan to grow 200-300% in the next three years. This goal, adopted during a recent strategic planning process, will drive our first stage of growth. Over the next three years, we’ll measure the efficacy of our intervention. This programmatic success will drive our future rate of expansion, with a specific focus on those schools with the largest populations of struggling readers. It’s at this second stage of growth, in years 4-10, that we would expect to explore partnerships with DC Public Schools, develop additional programs, and consider expansion beyond DC’s borders.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jeff Raderstrong, founder and editor of UnSectored, an online platform for people interested in developing collaborative efforts to create social change. In addition to the online platform, the UnSectored community uses offline events and activities to identify intersections, facilitate discussions, encourage cross-sector collaboration, and promote cross-sector change efforts. Jeff is also a community engagement consultant and has worked for Venture Philanthropy Partners, among other organizations on the front lines of social innovation.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: You and some friends started the UnSectored blog a year ago to encourage the nonprofit, public and private sectors to break down their walls and work together on social change. How has it worked so far? What are you seeing?
Jeff: The blog was a first step in changing the conversation around social change to focus not on individual components—social enterprise, nonprofit, corporation social responsibility, government innovation, etc—but to consider the entire ecosystem. Social change is a complex task and, to us, it seemed silly to have all these conversations separately, with people not really paying attention to what those with similar (or identical) goals were doing.
In that way, the blog has been successful in providing that space. The response we received was way more positive than we were expecting, because our core message is a pretty simple one—that social change is the responsibility of all individuals, organizations, and sectors, and that everyone should work together. But there had not been a place for discussion around that idea, so it resonated with people.
There’s still a lot more work to do, obviously, and UnSectored can’t do all of it. We are providing the platform for the community that believes in this idea—what’s next is up to the people who join that community.
Nell: Your fellow bloggers at UnSectored are all part of the Millennial generation. Do you think the notion of “unsectoredness” (is that a word?) is a particularly Millennial one?
Jeff: Answer to first question: Yes! You just put it on the internet, so it’s now a word!
Second question: I do not think there is anything inherent about the ideas behind UnSectored that make it explicitly a millennial endeavor. The work on UnSectored has been done primarily by millennials, but I think that’s just a function of the people I reached out to (my peers) rather than who the idea resonates with most. We have gotten response on this from people of all ages and backgrounds—I think it’s a universal idea.
That being said, I do think it’s a relatively new idea, born out of the more collaborative and connected nature of the brave new world we live in. The new tools available to people make it much more easier now than ever before to work together. For millennials, this isn’t “new,” this is the way we were raised. Because of that, we get it a little quicker than others, but I don’t think that makes it “ours” at all.
Nell: In addition to the blog you are also doing UnSectored Talks and Working Group Actions. What are these and what are you hoping they will accomplish?
Jeff: We have four components to UnSectored: Blog, Talks, Actions, Campaigns. The blog is relatively straightforward, as are the Talks: Both are ways to engage with open and intentional conversations around social change. The Talks are offline, the blog is online.
The other two components are trying to leverage the power of the UnSectored community to move from discussion to action. The Actions are the offline, coordinated version of this, and the Campaigns leverage the online platform of UnSectored. By giving people the option to engage in discussion and action, both online and offline, we hope to meet people where they are and get them to engage the best they can.
Nell: How geographic is your movement? Is it growing beyond the D.C. Metro area?
Jeff: It’s centered on DC, but we’ve been talking to people around the country. Because we aren’t funded and rely on volunteer time, it’s hard for us to have events in other places. But, we are looking for creative ways to partner with other organizations around the country. If you have some ideas, let us know!
Nell: Many of your fellow bloggers work for high-profile organizations within the social sector space (Venture Philanthropy Partners, Calvert Foundation, Council on Foundations, etc.). Do you find that your employers buy into the UnSectored idea and if so what are they doing to make it a reality?
Jeff: They definitely do. I think we all get inspiration for UnSectored from our other work. More and more, people at all types of organizations—high profile or not—are beginning to see how working together can produce better outcomes and create more transformative change. Personally, I’ve worked on the Social Innovation Fund initiative from the Obama administration, a great example of “unsectoredness” at work: The federal government partnering with funders and service providers to better leverage resources and encourage innovation. This initiative, which many of your readers are probably familiar with, is a great example of UnSectored’s core principle: That by working together, we can do much more than working alone.
I was out of town for the first half of July (and mostly away from social media), so I’m probably not qualified to give a 10 best list for the month, but I’m still going to try (ha!). As always, please add what I missed (particularly this month) to the comments.
To me, July was about outcomes and measurement. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a growing drumbeat for social change organizations to measure what (if anything) they are changing. Some readers commenting on that post argued that measurement is not a new thing for the nonprofit sector. True, it’s not new, but its importance (to funders, ratings agencies, government agencies, etc.) is increasing dramatically. So those in the social change world must heed the call and understand the new reality.
As always, you can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
Here’s July’s 10 Great Reads in Social Innovation:
- In two back-to-back posts on the Full Contact Philanthropy blog, David Henderson explains how nonprofits have to get “smarter about how we allocate our scarce resources.” First by getting strategic about who they serve and then by focusing on outcomes.
- Bill Shore of Share Our Strength adds to the drumbeat by arguing “nonprofit organizations are failing to grapple with the threshold questions on which all else depends: what specific objective are they trying to achieve and how will they measure whether they have or have not done so. “
- In the Los Angeles Times, Jared Billings takes social innovation darling, Teach for America, to task by asking whether TFA can actually change student achievement if the majority of their teachers leave the profession after only two years.
- On the Mission:Innovation blog Nicole Wallace reviews Andrew Zolli’s new book Resilience and his argument that nonprofits must embrace a “new mind-set, one that emphasizes improvisation, ad hoc networks, and adaptation.”
- On the Forbes blog, Victor Hwang recapped this month’s Global Innovation Summit and the 10 Lessons on Growing Innovation that emerged from it.
- Maybe not everyone should be a social entrepreneur says Lara Galinsky, who (shockingly) works for Echoing Green, one of the biggest supporters of social entrepreneurs.
- And maybe not every nonprofit should scale, says John Brothers in a great two-part series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.
- On what is quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs (Unsectored), Mark Hecker recounts the story of true collaboration between public, private and nonprofit sectors when a drug raid was turned into small business development and job creation.
- It looks like women may be changing the face of philanthropy in exciting ways. “Women are exerting a greater influence on how philanthropy is done as they accumulate wealth and use their clout to change the way funds are raised and distributed.” Cool!
- Echoing the comments of Vikki Spruill from the Council on Foundations, Rick Cohen argues that foundations need to be more transparent in their work.
Photo Credit: briarpress.org