Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

T.E.C.H. -- A Harlem Children's Zone on Wheels

The Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) is one of America's most well-known and impactful non-profits.  Their innovative model, which focuses on a 'cradle to college' approach to supporting children, has been replicated throughout the United States.  What's more, HCZ's dedication to data-driven programming has forced many in the education and broader non-profit fields to re-think how they do business.  For me, HCZ has been a source of inspiration because of the extent to which the organization takes a holistic approach to tackling poverty--recognizing that no one intervention will suffice to break the numerous and often impenetrable barriers to success faced by America's poor--and I congratulate Geoffrey Canada for pioneering the use of data, and for growing HCZ into what it is today.  At the same time, however, I have focused on one potential flaw to their model: it's cost and time-intensity.

In a recent article of mine, The Math of Social Change, I talked about how hard it is to accept that only a certain percentage of those we serve will truly benefit from the service.  I went on to explain that two  logical responses to this realization are to a) determine the characteristics of those that are likely to benefit and target the intervention to them, and/or b) increase the percentage of people that benefit from the intervention.  The necessity for both of these responses is born of the fact that social change work is all too often a zero sum game: with limited resources, the dollar spent on the person that does not benefit could have been spent on someone that would have benefited.  Therefore, it's imperative that we  do a better job targeting the right people, or ensuring that more people benefit from the intervention.

In the case of HCZ, however, there's another problem: we know that their model works, but we do not know what parts of the model work.  In other words, it may be that each HCZ participant only needs to receive 25% of the total services offered in order to receive 90% of the benefit, in which case the most cost-effective approach would be to focus on offering those services that clients are most likely to need in order to maximize impact.  In short, however powerful their model may be--and there is no doubt that it is an elegant, smart and well-reasoned approach--its sheer cost may make it difficult to replicate and sustain.

As the T.E.C.H. Program has grown from a small initiative to one of our core scaling strategies, I have come to see that the holistic approach we take is akin to an HCZ on wheels.  This is true for several reasons:

  1. Unlike HCZ, T.E.C.H. is not limited to a particular geographic area.  Instead, we focus on a school community in general, and on parents on children that receive free or reduced hot lunch in particular.
  2. T.E.C.H. can 'park' at other organizations.  For instance, if a parent that is receiving financial coaching discloses domestic violence as an issue, the financial coach can act as a case worker and put the client in touch with a domestic violence organization.  This approach allows us to be very lean--focusing on core competencies--while also thinking holistically about our client's needs and leveraging existing resources in the community.

By adding health, digital literacy and parent engagement modules to the existing financial coaching service, loans and free tax preparation, T.E.C.H. becomes more of a wrap-around product that addresses a wide range of needs for the family in a cost-effective manner.  T.E.C.H.'s cost-effectiveness stems from several sources:

  1. We focus on certain interventions that we believe are most likely to be impactful.  These are Financial Coaching (including modules on health, digital literacy and parent engagement), small loans and free tax preparation.
  2. We build on existing initiatives within schools, and leverage existing resources in the community
  3. We use highly trained university students to deliver the Financial Coaching--significantly reducing the cost of program delivery.
The flexibility, cost-effectiveness, scalability and replicability of the T.E.C.H. model make it an attractive approach to tackling intergenerational poverty.  I am especially proud of the way in which we have used financial services as a hub around which a whole host of other activities can revolve, including a health intervention, digital literacy, and a summer program.  I truly believe that in 3 years T.E.C.H. will be nationwide, and because I believe in an open-source approach to social change, I expect others to tweak and adapt our model to suit the needs of their communities.