The following is a conversation between Jennifer Blatz, President and CEO of StriveTogether, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: StriveTogether is a national nonprofit working in 70 communities across the United States to ensure that every child has every chance to succeed, because race, ethnicity, poverty, and circumstance should not determine opportunity or outcome. And here to tell us more about the work they do and how they do it is Jennifer Blatz, the president and CEO of StriveTogether.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you, Denver. I’m glad to be here.
Denver: StriveTogether was found, well, just about 10 years ago, 2011 to be exact. What was the idea around its original formation?
Jennifer: Yeah, the idea actually comes from some partnership work we were doing in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that launched back in 2006. And we weren’t seeing the types of outcomes, education outcomes improving that we wanted to see. And we had an idea that we could bring together the different sectors in the community, that education outcomes aren’t only built within schools, that many different sector partners contribute to improving outcomes, especially outcomes for Black, indigenous, Latinx, and Asian children, and children who are experiencing poverty.
So the idea was that if we brought together different sectors, the education sector, business sector, community foundations, community-based organizations, United Way, and others to focus on improving outcomes that we could achieve more; we could actually achieve population-level impact.
And so when we started that work in Cincinnati, we quickly learned that there were other communities across the country who were doing this similar type of work, bringing together cross-sector partners. And then, actually, an organization called FSG wrote an article that they called ”Collective Impact” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that featured the work in Cincinnati and some other cross-sector partnerships across the country doing similar work to improve outcomes.
So the next thing you know, we were not only doing the work in Cincinnati, but we were working with communities all across the country to build these types of partnerships to improve outcomes. And that’s how StriveTogether, which is a national network now of nearly 70 communities, really got its start in 2011.
Denver: And what you have done fairly recently is you have released a fifth iteration of your Theory of Action for building cradle-to-career civic infrastructure. What is that Theory of Action, and well, it’s your fifth iteration, so how has it evolved since that first one?
Jennifer: Yeah. Great question. So, in 2011, we didn’t have a Theory of Action. We had a lot of communities doing good work on the ground in their places to move outcomes. And as we would bring these communities together, we would learn that there were some key sort of benchmarks and milestones that needed to happen in order to create what we call cradle-to-career civic infrastructure in a community that can work towards changing systems to produce better and more equitable outcomes.
And so what we found with the themes that were emerging from the work on the ground in communities became the principles and key benchmarks and milestones that formed this Theory of Action. And so that’s a really wonky term for a roadmap… for what it looks like to build a cross-sector, cradle-to-career partnership. And we’re constantly learning and evolving this approach.
So as you noted, we just launched our fifth iteration of the Theory of Action last year. Because of the opportunity to work with 70 network members to think about and constantly codify what they’re learning on the ground from the work they’re doing, we’re consistently evolving our approach.
And so one of the ways that it’s evolved, for example, is in the very earliest days of this work, we knew that community engagement certainly was a key critical ingredient in order to drive towards a systems change and better outcomes. However, we weren’t as clear about what it looked like to authentically co-develop solutions with the community. So this has been a big evolution of our approach.
We talked about community engagement, yes, gathering focus groups and sharing information, sharing data, democratizing data. Approach is very data-driven, and we would do that. We would have these focus groups in the early days of the work, and yet we weren’t really using those principles of human-centered design to co-develop solutions. So that’s one area where our Theory of Action has evolved– to center community in the approach.
Another area of evolution has been centering racial and ethnic equity in our approach. Since the very beginning of StriveTogether’s work, the tagline has been “Every child, cradle to career.” And implicit in that is the idea that we’re talking about every child and equity, and as you noted, that we’re talking about every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, zip code, and circumstance should have every opportunity.
But our approach to the work has needed to evolve to really ensure that we’re centering those most impacted by systems… this gets back to the community engagement, in the co-development of solutions. And so that’s another way that our Theory of Action has evolved over the years as well.
Denver: And Jennifer, community engagement can be a little bit squishy. And I think a part of the evolution is that it moved from that community engagement to community authority. And really, the breakthrough insight that occurred for you guys was at the Cincinnati Preschool Promise campaign. Tell us a little bit about that and the impact that it had.
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a great question. The Cincinnati Preschool Promise campaign, which happened in Cincinnati in 2016, was a move to publicly fund high quality Pre-K for students and for young children in Cincinnati. And that policy change, which was really driven by a number of parent and community meetings in living rooms and churches, really showed the power of getting community engaged in owning their authority and driving policy change. And through the StriveTogether network and through this what we call the Network Effect, that same type of approach has been replicated in many communities.
In fact, it was actually happening in Dayton, Ohio, as a result of some of the work on the ground there through the Learn to Earn partnership, also in 2016 passed universal Pre-K. And then Memphis, our partnership in Seeding Success also has been able to engage community and change policy, and really kind of demonstrate that when you share and you shift power to community, you can make a big change for children and families.
Denver: Yeah. One of the great things about being in 70 communities is that your learning curve is a steep one. You’re just picking up new ideas all the time from across the country. You play five key roles to develop the capacity of communities. Why don’t you just quickly run through those to give our listeners a better idea of what you actually do?
Jennifer: Yeah, our five key roles are really that: We’re coaching network members; we’re convening those communities, those partnerships; we’re codifying the learning and knowledge that we’re drawing out of the work that’s happening on the ground; we’re investing in communities. So we’re grantmakers; we’re investing millions of dollars into these partnerships each year. And then we’re using all that we’re learning to influence public policy and really transform systems to get to better, more equitable outcomes in communities. And that together is what supports the civic infrastructure that’s built in communities to really achieve our ambitious results.
Denver: And in the 70 communities, you have, I guess, your fair share of all-stars, if I may call them that, in 16 of those communities, and that’s where you have your proof point partnerships. Tell us about that and maybe give us an example of one that has really truly been exceptional.
Jennifer: Yeah. All of our proof point partnerships have demonstrated not only systems changes in their communities… so examples of a policy change, or that can be institutional policy or actually a significant shift of public dollars in the communities to those systems change, and then outcomes improving. All 16 of our proof point communities have demonstrated key indicators across at least three cradle-to-career outcome areas have trended positively or improved. And one example of a partnership that is one of our proof point partnerships is E3 Alliance, which is in Austin, Texas. These are pre-pandemic numbers, I should say, and so all of our partnerships have experienced some outcomes decline as a result of the pandemic, and we’re working on this. But E3 Alliance has seen outcomes improve across several areas. And one area where they’ve made significant progress has been in the middle grade math space… middle grade math is a key predictor for high school graduation, college enrollment, and even college completion.
And what they learned in Central Texas where the E3 Alliance partnership supports those communities is that school districts, and this happens across the country really, school districts were tracking certain kids into advanced math courses and tracking other kids out of advanced math courses.
So they made a simple institutional policy change that placed all students into advanced math courses, and then had them opt out. And what they found is that they were able to close some of the racial and ethnic gaps that they had in advanced math coursetaking and advanced math completion. And that is a contributing indicator to post-secondary enrollment and completion.
So that’s just one example. They’ve done a tremendous amount of work around math, including getting high quality teachers into classrooms and doing some additional practice change work in terms of math interventions. But I shared that policy change as an example of systems change that is not only happening in Central Texas, but because of the results they’ve seen, they’re actually spreading this policy change across the state of Texas to improve math numbers overall.
Denver: And that’s a great story. And systems change is so hard and difficult so often, but every once in a while, it’s just changing the default setting, and it’s what they did there. And it’s like, “Eureka! It’s so easy.” And as you say, middle grade math is one of those six outcomes. The others are kindergarten readiness, early grade reading, high school graduation, post-secondary enrollment, and post-secondary degree completion. So they’re really nice, simple, clean things that you can easily measure.
You mentioned a moment ago about using data. And one of the things that I’ve always been impressed by in Strive partnership is that you don’t use data to just measure results, you actually use data to drive change. Tell us a little bit about that.
Jennifer: Yeah. In the earliest days of the Strive local partnership when we were doing this work on the ground in Cincinnati, we realized that the data that was available to us, so each year, our Cincinnati Enquirer, our local newspaper, would share sort of the high-level data from the school district. But there’s always a story that goes with that. And oftentimes, the story of that data was not being told. So what would happen is the school district, the superintendent at the time would get beaten down because the data didn’t show improvement or didn’t show what the community thought that it should.
So what we started to do at the earliest stage is support the sharing of data, whether it’s good or bad, sharing publicly disaggregated data…and then not only the outcome’s data we’re so used to— so the testing data that’s available and the school ranking data, but other data around poverty, some of the systems indicators at play in the community. So, you know, what does the local community look like? What’s our local housing data showing? What about student mobility and some of these key contributing indicators to moving outcomes?
So being able to share lots of data and help the community make sense of the data really gives the community power. Knowledge is power. Data is power. And so being able to share this data publicly and ensure that it’s not the superintendent who gets beaten down because of the data; it’s that we’re all sharing accountability for this data is an important part of our approach. So that is a part of our Theory of Action. That’s a key milestone. Every partnership in our cradle-to-career network needs to publicly disaggregate and share their data across a number of indicators, both outcomes indicators as well as systems indicators, to be able to move this work forward.
Denver: That’s brilliant. Absolutely.
How, Jen, has the COVID 19 pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis illuminated inequalities, and how many of these systems were designed?
Jennifer: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the key piece of the pandemic has illuminated is just the racial and ethnic disparities from everything from our health data. And we see when you look at numbers and percentages of COVID infections and who is most impacted by COVID, you can see these sort of systemic inequities to education in our space. We see when schools went to remote learning, who had access to broadband internet and who didn’t, and how that impacted learning for students. Which schools were open and which schools were not able to open based on where those schools were located… the resources available to those schools to be able to open safely has really laid bare the inequities of the systems at the systems level, the institutional level, and at all levels.
And we’re seeing that in the data that is coming out. As we see the learning loss data coming from schools kind of moving out of the pandemic, we see that the gaps have gotten larger. And there is a sense of urgency around really beginning to narrow and close those gaps. And knowing that we have to look at the root cause of the gaps which are systems; we are not going to be able to program our way out of this. We won’t be able to program our way to closing gaps. We are going to have to address inequitable systems, and that’s policy change at all levels, at institutional to public policy, at all levels, I would say local, state, and federal.
Denver: Yeah. This is such a multifaceted issue. And of course I know you’re concerned about this learning loss. Particularly in communities of color, you’re not going to close that gap quickly. This is going to take, I don’t know, 5 or 10 years. I think of a kid who’s seven years old, has been out of school, seven, eight or nine, that’s a tough one.
Are any of your communities doing some things around that that are innovative and might be able to address one of the most difficult issues that I don’t think people have fully grasped yet?
Jennifer: Yeah. We’re having really honest conversations about the fact that this work is the work of our generation. This work takes time. It’s going to take patient capital. The story we’re trying to tell is though, in places where you have cradle-to-career civic infrastructure in place, where you have the different sectors working together to solve these sort of seemingly intractable problems, this is where we are able to, you know… it’s not going to be fast, but we believe we will see progress move more quickly than in places where you don’t have the sort of infrastructure in place.
As I said, it’s going to take both some of the work that’s happening on the ground immediately to get tutoring programs in place for this summer when children can come back together, to try and get them back to grade level or approaching grade level. Now that schools are reopened, what are the supports that children and families need around social-emotional learning and mental health?
You have kids who haven’t been with other kids for almost two years. And so rebuilding those social connections and dealing with some of the social-emotional learnings, we have partnerships who are working on that. So these are sort of the more immediate downstream, like working in the now, but then there’s these partnerships that are also working on: How do you change the policies and really ensure that good policy is in place to keep for the next crisis? And there will be additional crises that we’re facing that the outcomes are not so disparate and these inequities are not so stark.
Denver: Yeah. The work you’ve done, you’ve built a framework in these communities to have that civic infrastructure that they can at least address this issue and get their arms around it.
How do you believe philanthropy could be more effective in helping organizations like StriveTogether deliver against their mission?
Jennifer: Yeah. I think the biggest thing that I think philanthropy can do is to provide patient capital. Systems change work is long-term work. It’s going to take multiple years. There are ways– and we’ve proven this–to get to interim measures of progress in communities. But if you want a quick fix, or we can also I will say this, like we can also… Good programs, and I think the good programs have a place in this work. So funding proven programs can get you high percentage increases in outcomes and often are not replicable, do not get the increases you want to see, do not get increases for certain populations, especially those most marginalized and impacted by systems, and are not going to necessarily be sustainable change in the long term.
So I think philanthropy needs to be able to put their investment into the work of transforming systems if they want to see better outcomes, and holding accountability for this type of systems change, and looking at and talking about the interim measures. And that’s what I think philanthropy has to do. And sometimes I feel like philanthropy is not patient enough for this type of work. And that is why we haven’t seen the type of change we want to see despite billions and billions of dollars– public and private– invested in improving education outcomes over the years, even in my tenure in this work. And so if we want to see the change, we’re going to have to be able to put those resources towards both the upstream systems work, as well as the downstream immediate safety net programs.
“…this is where it gets tricky, because so often philanthropy and even public sector resources call us overhead. And in reality, we are not overhead. We are the work that happens in backbones, nationally and locally, helps get to population-level impact. You cannot get to a broader impact and better, more equitable outcomes for a population of young people without this type of infrastructure in place.”
Denver: You’re absolutely right on point. We’ve built a crazy system where even if you’re a nonprofit organization, you feel like you have to show certain outcomes right away in order to be able to receive a grant the next year. And that’s not the way these things work. And I would imagine if I, hopefully I don’t categorize you incorrectly, you’re a backbone organization, and backbone organizations are not sexy, but essentially they make everything else work. And I hope there’s a greater appreciation. Do you think there is for a backbone organization coming out of this two years that we’ve been in?
Jennifer: I think there is, but Denver, like something you said there just reminds me of what… You’re right, we are a backbone organization. We’re a national backbone organization or intermediary supporting local or regional backbones in communities. And so this is where it gets tricky, because so often philanthropy and even public sector resources call us overhead. And in reality, we are not overhead. We are the work that happens in backbones, nationally and locally, helps get to population-level impact. You cannot get to a broader impact and better, more equitable outcomes for a population of young people without this type of infrastructure in place.
So I do think there’s a greater understanding of that. I see it in the funders we talk with where we’re seeing this sort of move towards this idea of cross-sector partnerships, community partnerships, place-based partnerships, whatever you call it. And we’re hearing more funders talk about the importance of this work and investing in this type of infrastructure to support getting the better outcomes because we’ve been able to prove that it can happen. We have examples of this.
“But that incremental change, we’ve seen it become exponential when you get the big policy wins, when you get the Preschool Promise in Cincinnati. And so I think holding onto that and holding a long-term view is how I think of that infinite game or infinite mindset.”
Denver: Yeah, I’ve gotten to the point when I see a nonprofit organization and 92%, 93% of their funding is going directly to program, I, with a rare exception, automatically say they can’t be having any impact; they can’t be effective, you know what I mean? That’s not the way things work in this world. It may be having an impact, but it’s a small, tiny impact.
Hey, from a leadership perspective, you’ve discussed finite games that will end, such as a football game, like the one that happened recently which we won’t discuss, and infinite games that will continue. What is the distinction, and how does it change the mindset of a leader?
Jennifer: Yeah. I’ve had to grow into this idea of infinite mindset and infinite thinking that the change that I’m working to create… and this is my life’s work… I came to this work because I am passionate about children and families being on a path for mobility. My college education, I’m the first in my family to go to college, so that was my ticket to mobility. And I want to see outcomes change, and I recognize that these are problems, and these systems that have been designed have been in place for hundreds and hundreds of years, more than 400 years.
And so I may not see in the short term the type of change I want to see. So holding an infinite mindset in that this is always something we’re going to be working towards; we have to measure progress. We have these interim indicators of success, but ultimately this is the long game, and we have to be willing to play it. We have to be willing to take some steps forward and then face the global pandemic. And find that we’re taking steps back, and then get back on that path to see real change.
And so, for me, that has helped me become more patient in my leadership, more transparent and realistic with our team about what we will and won’t be able to see in our tenure in this work, and how we need to celebrate progress along the way.
It took me a long time to get there to where, like, how can we be celebrating progress if we still see these numbers that show these big gaps and disparities? But that incremental change, we’ve seen it become exponential when you get the big policy wins, when you get the Preschool Promise in Cincinnati. And so I think holding onto that and holding a long-term view is how I think of that infinite game or infinite mindset.
“…the work we’re doing is we’re working to change the world, and we may not be able to see that in our tenure, so keeping one another motivated is key.”
Denver: Yeah. I like that so much. And as a leader, you’ve got to celebrate those things to keep the morale of the team up, you know what I mean? It’s like we achieved something, so before they take on the next big, hard thing. You’ve also talked about the fact that you look at possibilities, and I think that really changes things dramatically.
Jennifer: Yeah. That is actually, you know,we have talked a lot about what’s possible; let’s think about what’s possible, improving what’s possible through examples in those interim milestones. And that is what I think keeps everyone on our team going and everyone in this work. Those who are doing the hardest work are those in communities who are part of this partnership, these partners on the ground doing the hardest work.
And I see how hard this is. Pre-pandemic, we have an annual convening where we bring everyone together across our network. Our hope is to be able to have that in person again this year. And while it’s always inspirational speakers and lots of learning shared, what it really is, is a chance for people who are doing this work in the day-to-day… where it feels really hard to recognize the progress, to be able to come together and sort of group therapy and share with one another sort of their experience. Because I think it’s the work we’re doing is we’re working to change the world, and we may not be able to see that in our tenure, so keeping one another motivated is key.
Denver: You know, you mentioned a moment ago that you were the first in your family to go to college, and I’ve been curious a little bit about your background and how being the first one in your family to go to college, how that shaped your career and the way you think and do this work.
Jennifer: Yeah. I am the first one in my family to go to college. I think from an early age though, my parents really instilled in myself and my brother the importance of education, wanting us to have a better opportunity and a better chance than they had. Lots of talk about, “You don’t want to be working all of this overtime.” Like, “You have to go to college so that you can have this experience.”
And so when I went to college, I got very involved in the experience. I was a part of student government. I was in orientation later. I was certainly… I needed to make my parents proud. So I had this idea that I was going to go to law school; I was an English major. And I thought I was going to go to law school, but really as I became so involved on the campus, and I decided that a law career wasn’t really what I wanted to do, I ended up going on to graduate school in higher ed and student affairs with the idea that I wanted to help other first-generation students have a positive experience at college.
And while I was in my higher ed student affairs graduate program, I served as an admissions officer at a fairly selective institution. And that is when I really started to understand inequities in terms of admission processes and privilege and power. And I could tell lots of stories about that experience, but I will say being a student, studying college student at a largely homogenous institution that was working through some racial, equity, and diversity issues, that was an awakening for me in terms of what I really wanted to do.
And that’s how I ended up in more of focusing on college access and attainment, which that’s where I got my start as a practitioner in really supporting a network of partners across the state of Ohio, in improving access to post-secondary education and in completion of post-secondary education. So that is really my “why” in this work. I’ve seen just the impact of having a college education and being able to have the opportunity that I had, and I had a much easier path than so many, and still it wasn’t easy. And so understanding that and wanting to be able to drive that for others is what drives me in this work.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if I can focus on my strengths and who I am and go with my gut, I can be a stronger leader. But when I try to lead as sometimes I’ve seen others lead, that’s not where my strengths lie. And so being myself has been probably the key leadership lesson that I’ve learned…”
Denver: Oh, that’s really great. Yeah, my daughter went to business school a couple of years ago and as she was doing that, one of the schools was in the Midwest, and in order to be considered, visiting the campus once or twice really let admissions know that you were interested and serious. So she did that, but then we stopped and thought, My goodness! How many people from New York can afford to go out to Chicago to visit the campus? And although it seems kind of neutral, that it’s just an expression of interest, the resources are really at the heart of it, and you realize how discriminatory it is, whereas you wouldn’t maybe pick up on that unless you were attuned to it.
Finally, Jen, let me close with one of your favorite quotes by Maya Angelou and it reads, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” What is a key thing that you have learned and now know better about that has allowed you to do better?
Jennifer: Yeah, great question. So much, that this quote speaks to me so much. As a first time CEO in an uncharted territory, I’d say one of the things that I now know better and have been able to do better is actually pretty simple; it is being myself as a leader and playing to my strengths as a leader, and not trying to be someone I’m not.
And for me, as someone who was a very strong number two for many years, I never saw myself in leading an organization, certainly not through exponential growth and through an unprecedented pandemic. And the country is reckoning with racial and systemic racism… or racial injustice.
I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if I can focus on my strengths and who I am and go with my gut, I can be a stronger leader. But when I try to lead as sometimes I’ve seen others lead, that’s not where my strengths lie. And so being myself has been probably the key leadership lesson that I’ve learned and has played out favorably as I’ve grown as a leader… and lots of fail forwards in the earliest days of that role. So…
Denver: Well, that is simple, but timeless advice. And I don’t think that sometimes people appreciate how much psychic energy it takes to be somebody else. It really can wear you out.
For listeners who want to learn more about StriveTogether or financially support this work, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Jennifer: Yeah. So our website is www.strivetogether.org. And there on the website, you’ll find out more about our approach to the work, our national network, where we are in communities. You’ll learn a bit more about the StriveTogether team and what we’ve accomplished, both as a national organization, as well as our national network of communities. You’ll find case studies and examples of the work on the ground. And yeah, I hope that you will visit our website and certainly would love to have you as a partner in this work.
Denver: Thank you, Jen, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Jennifer: Thank you. Thanks so much, Denver.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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