The following is a conversation between Cindy Eggleston, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Brilliant Detroit is dedicated to building Kid Success Neighborhoods, where families with children up to eight years of age, have what they need to be school-ready, healthy, and stable. They do this by establishing and operating homes in high-need neighborhoods that offer proven programming to families and children. And here to share with us their model and the impact that it’s had on Detroit is Cindy Eggleton, the co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Cindy.
Cindy: I’m so glad to be here, Denver. Thank you for having me on here.
Denver: Well, thank you for doing this. Brilliant Detroit, you launched it back in 2016. Share with us the founding story of the organization.
Cindy: Yeah. Let me say a couple of things. So first off, Detroit’s poverty rate for children under five is over 60%, okay? That is three times the national rate. As a result, many of the kids… despite the fact that the parents, et cetera, really want the best for their kids… the odds are stacked against them. And kindergarten readiness is as low, as well as grade-level reading is: about 14% of kids read at grade level by third grade. It’s unacceptable.
As a first-generation high school graduate whose family grew up in poverty, this is really personal, and it is something that I believe we must do something about. I met my co-founders, Carolyn and Jim Bellinson, in the midst of this in terms of thinking about how might we do something different. I have had lots of really great things in my lifetime, but I didn’t think that in the social sector, we were totally getting to, at the core, transforming lives, and that’s what I wanted to do.
In my background at one point, I actually had $60 million to spend on: How do we change paths, but I really felt that what was needed… and my co-founders did as well, is that we put people at the center, that we have a with/for/by model, that it is something that is walkable, and it is very holistic. And we do that from what I call belly to eight. And that with that, we can change paths.
Who knew? Okay, I want to just say that: Who knew? This was a crazy adventure for me. As you can see with my white hair, I’m not exactly young. I will say I’m totally in my purpose. And I took a 75% pay cut to do this. There was some risk involved with it. My partner is a big-time business scaler, so it’s the best partnership of all worlds. Like we have two sides of the house. But from 2016 to now, and when I first started, I actually was a co-founder, but I didn’t work here.
So I came to work six months in; we had 50 people in our network. We had one location, about to be two. Today, we have 16 communities committed. We have 12 open locations, and we’ve served over 11,000 people. More importantly, we’ve raised grade level by three reading levels. While, as in every measure, which is education, health, family support, we’ve shown significant or very significant improvement on a third-party evaluation.
The reason is people are at the center. We are invited into neighborhoods, and we partner with people, and we help build agency among those people. And guess what, it works. And so that’s the founding, and we have lots of ideas of where we want to go with this at this point.
“…organizations provide programs and services, but a community is there for each other. These houses are very intimate spaces where you’re there for each other. And that’s the differentiator.”
Denver: That is a wonderful overview. You talked about the house, so let’s talk about the house because you have a very unique service delivery model where you’re leveraging underused housing stock in Detroit. Tell us a little bit about that.
Cindy: Yeah. We literally take houses that are in terrible repair. The neighborhood helps us pick it out, but before we even get to that, we do about 10, 12 listening sessions with different people in the neighborhood. And we repurpose it, we renovate it. It actually becomes a bright spot. All of our houses have an orange door… I wanted to say that, so that people can walk through and can find them. So we start with this repurposed bright spot in those locations. People, we have over a hundred partners in the work. We do no competition.
This is really in some ways a distribution model. And so people can come through that door wherever they are and get what they need, whether it’s a language and literacy program for their child, whether it’s a GED, whether it is mental health support, physical activity, anything along those platforms. I will tell you the most important thing people find when they walk through the doors, however, is each other.
And why I say that is I’m a recovering data geek… that may or may not be clear. And I knew that was an important piece, that building social capital for people, but it is critically important. And I’ll give you one other statistic here. Somebody who is actually on our board did a study of how many people… because of poverty and things that are outside of people’s circumstances… how many people are actually suffering from post-traumatic stress clinically. The number is at 75%.
So here’s the thing, you can’t just throw programs at people and hope that there’s going to be change. We have a model that we love, so there’s safety and then people grow. And so that’s also what happens. We hire from the neighborhood. Over 33% of our staff on the ground are former participants, and they know the people walking in the door.
Let me say it another way about what happens in these houses. One of our participants… and I use this story because it kind of epitomizes it. Her name is Jazz, and Jazz told me when I first met her, “Cindy, I’ve had a hard life. I’ve needed a lot of services and programs, but I never once felt cared about.” She has three children. She’s 26. And she said, “Until now.”
Well, Jazz comes to one of our locations five days a week, even when it was virtual. Her children are thriving. She just called me last year and said, “Our daughter won the reading award.” She has gained literacy; she’s a mental health peer-to-peer coach, and she’s on our advisory. That’s what Kid Success is.
And said a different way, is organizations provide programs and services, but a community is there for each other. These houses are very intimate spaces where you’re there for each other. And that’s the differentiator.
“I used to think I had to learn a lot. I don’t need to know much of anything. What I need to do is be able to listen. People do know what they want and need, and if you listen and help align those things, that’s what happens, and a lot of what’s happened with Brilliant Detroit is that.”
Denver: No, I can feel the vibe. I’m just thinking about that orange door and walking in there, and I compare it to an institutional setting, and it’s just like night and day between the two of them. And as you talked about mental stress and the rest of it, we sometimes in this society, I think, want to fix things too quickly without recognizing the trauma that has gone on and the healing that has to take place. We sometimes have to get people to a place where those solutions can be; we want to get there right away, and it just doesn’t work.
Cindy: Denver, I totally agree with you. I think that’s why we see the outcomes that we see, but I’ve also learned along the way. I used to think I had to learn a lot. I don’t need to know much of anything. What I need to do is be able to listen.
People do know what they want and need, and if you listen and help align those things, that’s what happens, and a lot of what’s happened with Brilliant Detroit is that. And we aim to grow Brilliant Detroit, so we are on a path to get to 24 sites by 2024. The reason is that we can change that grade level reading statistic. That’s the holy grail.
And we are working on how might we scale nationally right now. It’s a model that we hope to bring to others, not as an institution, but a way to do these kinds of things that put people, put community, and build agency at the center. And in a nutshell for us, as the little kid I was once, is we want to make sure a zip code is not the predictor of whether a child’s life is bright or not.
Denver: When we look at reading scores, third grade always seems to be so pivotal. Is there a reason for that?
Cindy: Absolutely. You’re learning to read up until third grade, and you’re reading to learn after that. If you don’t have reading skills, you can’t learn after that because that’s how the curriculum is delivered. It’s also a number one predictor of whether children will graduate high school, whether they will go to college, and their earning potential for life… It is probably the number one biggest statistic you need to look at, but it is very simply that the curriculum is then delivered where you have to read to get it.
Denver: We talk about evidence-based programs, and you use many of the very, very best. What would some of those be?
Cindy: Yeah, so we have a number of programs. So first off, high-dosage tutoring, and we have numbers of them in that. We have a program which is called… so we have a lot of national programs as well as local, LENA Start, which actually builds the talking that can happen between a child and an adult, as well as what’s called turn-taking.
We have national programs on nutrition and health. Our work is based on research and evidence-based, and the reason is we believe people deserve the very best, and we just have to also pay attention to how those very best get delivered.
Denver: You also have worked with the Experience Corps, correct?
Cindy: Yeah. So I want to just say on Experience Corps, we love Experience Corps.
Denver: Talk about it.
Cindy: Yeah. You did your research here, I love it. So Experience Corps also takes like how… that’s a perfect segue because delivery is what we talk about here. Experience Corps is a program on literacy, is always in the top 10 of the best in the nation. It is actually pairing an adult, I’m going to call of any age over 50, with a child.
There’s a bond that happens, relational, as well as a very clear curriculum to assure that that child is learning and growing. Another goal of it is so that people, and really of any age, don’t feel isolated. And that’s something that I think we see in our work as well, Denver, is part of our secret sauce is bringing people together. That also will include what we do with volunteers, and we can talk a little bit about that.
So the program is just plain excellent from a curriculum, but at the beginning of the day, it is creating bonds that will be inseparable. And I see firsthand how much everybody really cares about this coming into it. And we found this program is the first time it’s really coming into the Detroit market because I was blessed to win the Purpose Prize of 2020 for AARP. They pick five people nationally that they feel are really living their purpose. And I was blessed to win it because they stepped into helping us a lot, but also I am in my purpose. So…
Denver: There you go. You mentioned scaling before. You started with one, you went to 12; you’re at 16; you’re heading to 24, perhaps nationally as well. And you talked about the other side of the house, really being experts on scaling. Scaling is so hard, you know that. It’s easy to create that, not easy, but it’s easier to create that one model. But replicating it and spreading it, what have you learned about scaling that would be for us to know?
Cindy: Yeah. And I want to say in the not-for-profit sector, that’s what I did a little bit before I did Brilliant Detroit, was like think about scaling as well. So I think for us, first off, do you have a business model that can scale? And I think we do have that. That’s not the hardest part. There are hard parts to this. And I want to say this is hard, you’re right about that.
Two is I think lessons learned from scaling is that you can go a couple of different ways. You can scale something where it is so regimented that it’s almost impossible to replicate. Remember, we have a local component in this. And we have principles, and we have very clear musts, but there’s some local component that the model is actually set up to have sort of the resilience in other markets.
But we have to test that in other markets, like housing is different in other parts of the country. And frankly, we’re in conversations right now helping some international groups on how might they do this, not us doing it but how might they do something. Now that’s one side of the house. The other side of the house for us, which is the harder part at this moment is actually: How do we scale our culture?
We have an incredibly… We hire for care, and I want to just say that out loud; that’s an unusual thing to say. We seek in people love on other people; that takes more heavy lifting, right? And so I think what we are experiencing right now and looking at… just to be straight up about it is: How do we make sure we protect that because that’s the secret sauce.
That’s the why when people walk in an orange door; they find each other because the staff and the culture has been cultivated to be a caring staff. We’ve hired people that on paper are so skilled, and I still remember the first time we did that… and I did it. And I’m like, I’m so excited, we’re going to fill in all these gaps.
And it was an absolute disaster because the person was looking down on other people and had a different viewpoint. So there is a clear culture of being able to walk “with/for/by” and feel you are not the expert on somebody else’s life. Well, that’s the piece that we’re really trying to figure out, and I wouldn’t say we totally have it figured out. As we scale right now, that’s the piece we’re looking the most into.
And then the last thing for us on scaling is: our model is very based on community and neighborhood. In Detroit, there’s a lot of single family homes; there’s vacant lots, et cetera. And other markets like New York or Philly, which is one place that we’re looking at, it’s more congested and more row houses. Will this work there?
Those are some things that we have a scaling committee that we’re looking at and trying to decide: What are those factors? Where can we test it and see so that we know exactly what the must-haves are, and what’s up to the local market.
Denver: Yeah. Now, those are wonderful questions to have in front of you. I think in scaling, many people don’t fully appreciate context, and every context is different. And if you think you can take your model and drop it into a different context, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. The other thing about hiring for culture, it is so challenging, particularly when you’re growing quickly, and particularly in a market where finding talent and retaining talent isn’t all that easy.
But it sounds from what you said before too, you have gotten less impressed with credentials. And sometimes we hire for credentials because we feel it’s a safer choice, and we want to tell everybody on the board that this person went to this school and whatever, and it can be disastrous. So there does have to be something intuitive and a feel that they’re the kind of person that is really going to fit in. Those are really some interesting insights.
Hey, let’s talk about COVID-19. I saw the other day in the paper, Cindy, that I think that the percentage of students at highest risk for not learning to read went from 29% nationally to 37%. I know it’s even more significant in Detroit, but that’s an 8% increase. And this was most pronounced among very young children, up to eight years of age, and Black and Hispanic students. What have you seen in Detroit in terms of the impact of COVID on the ability to learn to read of young people?
Cindy: This is the thing that keeps me up at night, and I’m going to say that because we are so ingrained, and we have such deep relationships with the people that we work alongside. We see it more firsthand even before the data is really clear.
Denver: I bet.
Cindy: I see this ridiculously clearly right now. And in fact, I’m a very balanced person. About a month ago, we did a series of tests for kids, and I see that they’re just not doing as well. And I felt near tears because we have to step into this.
And so I think, it’s there. There’s two things that I want to name in our age group, which is again, belly to eight. One is for those for grade-level reading, the kids aren’t learning as well online. They aren’t in the kids that we’re working with, and it’s showing up, okay? And now we’re talking about two years of not quite getting it in the right shape.
The second thing is, think about this, kindergarten readiness is also a measure. So for many, if not the majority of kids, they weren’t in childcare, they weren’t in those environments where you’re learning how to be kindergarten-ready. Social-emotional-wise, they’re not ready to enter kindergarten.
So this is going to be a long view. In your statistics, you just listed… there’s also listed in the McKinsey study, the only path forward is to step in further on out-of-school time work. And so we are really doing that, but we can’t do enough of it. We need more volunteers. For the first time, we have fewer volunteers than we really need. I could easily have a waiting list of 500, 600 kids. We need volunteers to help tutor that.
A couple summers ago, we had 900 kids in our network that we were doing tutoring with for the summer. That was even more than the school system at that time. So it takes a lot. But again, to whom much is given, much is expected. And this right here is what we all as not-for-profits and as caring people need to step into and do something about. There’s no other way forward.
Denver: Yeah. And there’s no quick fix either. And I look at these past two years and a lot of people, you know how we are, we want to get this thing fixed. It’s going to take years in terms of making up, and you have to almost steel yourself for that to say, no, this is a… and we can’t lose these kids. You know what I mean? They’ve had such a bad hand, and this is a generation of kids that you really have to double down for five, 10 years, whatever it’s going to take to really compensate for what’s happened.
Cindy: We need to spend more time together because you’re totally right. And I call this..I have always said that in any work I’ve done, it’s been head and heart. This is head, heart, and shoulders. And it’s not for the weak-kneed. If you’re going to be in it, you need to really be in it. And definitely that is a space that we see we have to step even further into.
Denver: Talk a little bit more about your impact. We’ve talked about education, but there’s also health, and there is family support, and there’s neighbor to neighbor. Talk about some of the other aspects of that holistic model you’ve created.
Cindy: Yeah. So on all outcomes, we have seen significant improvement, but let me tell you what those pieces are. First off, we do have measures that we check in terms of how people feel connected to each other, to their neighborhood, and to their children. That is a number one predictor of whether you’re okay or not.
And we have seen that is off the chart. That’s probably our strongest measure, to be honest with you. And I think that’s why we’ve had success in the other measures, because unless you feel connected… it’s social-emotional.
The other piece is nutrition, which I love, and it’s fun to actually look at our research on it… is really changing eating habits from very young. But also we work with the parents to change how they’re planning meals, what’s happening, et cetera. And so we see, again, significant improvement there.
The other piece that I want to say as well, and then I’ll talk about family support for a minute because that’s parenting classes, and I’ll give an example of something there, is that on physical… especially now since so many were sort of isolated…that’s really important to have the physical activity for the long view. And we are working in neighborhoods on preventative ways to go forward as well.
On family support, we call that in the parenting classes. And let me just say in one sentence, what that can mean is: I get to see after these classes: what do people feel? One of them was, “I did not know how to help my child except to hit them. I will never do that again.” “My husband never played with the kids. I took the materials home, and they do.”
Nobody wants to be a bad parent. They want the best for their kids, and I believe they have it. Sometimes there’s a little bit that needs to go along with it, and so that’s something that we work on. The other piece that we stepped into a lot more on family support is really basic needs. That wasn’t as strong in our model before; it is now. We’ve done weekly distribution in each neighborhood.
And we have found that people really appreciate that because getting help and support can be a pain in the neck. So how do you make that easy? How do you make that almost you’re fulfilling a need? It’s a value add as opposed to, yeah, you should be happy because you’re getting food. It’s how do you make that a beautiful thing for people so that they have dignity.
Denver: Yeah. And there’s a lot of what’s gone on. I think with the best nonprofit organizations, there has been some mission morphing. We always came from a point where you say you can’t deviate from your mission. But you know what? You look around, and you begin to say, I can help fulfill this need. And it’s not abandoning your mission, it’s just your mission evolving to really make everything else work. And it sounds like that’s what you have done. Your business model, tell us a little bit about that and your sources of revenue.
Cindy: Yeah. So from a business model, we’re really clear from our principles and what we do. We are coordinating in a continuous way, platform of programs and services and care that matter. And it’s based on evidence, et cetera. We’re very clear on that. I think our revenue sources are a really interesting and important piece here.
We go into neighborhoods. They ask us to come in, we talk to them. The first question we get asked is: How are you funded? People leave community all the time, or it’s funding-dependent based on goals that are not set in conjunction with the neighborhood.
Our model of funding is a 50/50, 50% is unrestricted and I know that’s a gift, and we can say we do that and we’ve stayed clear to that, and 50% is restricted. That way we can make sure that we’re delivering at a community level in partnership with neighborhoods… what they want and need. If we didn’t do it that way, it would be tricky, and we’d be piecing things together.
We’ve been fortunate along the years. And I think it’s because we have a compelling mission, and we’ve shown results. When we started Brilliant Detroit, and this speaks to my partners, we had a $250,000 donation from them. That was what we started with. We ended last year over $ 7 million, and the reason for that is that we also said we would not ask anybody for money unless we really could show results.
So we waited a year. And that turned out to be really smart. It was more about principle. And so we’ve been fortunate to attract attention to get funding, but we need a lot more funding to get to the level that we want, to get to… clearly to get to 24, and then also to maintain the work we’re doing. So that’s kind of how that works.
Denver: Interesting. Cindy, this has not been an easy time to be a leader and to be in charge. Probably the most difficult time you’ve ever had in your life. I hear that from a lot of other leaders of NGOs. How do you think the expectations of the nature of leadership is changing? And how have you adapted over the course of the past two years from perhaps the way you operated in 2017 or ’18?
Cindy: Yeah, I think leadership is definitely changing in terms of what is needed, let me say that. What I have adapted for my own self is just to be more present always. People need that. They need the assurance and the clarity of vision. What I haven’t adapted is… I am an adaptable person and I’m okay with tomorrow, something’s thrown at me that I didn’t know.
And I think there’s a really… this is fascinating to me. I was at a global leadership retreat a couple of years ago, just before the pandemic. And the question was, “How many of you need it really spelled out, and how many of you are okay and can actually figure it out if something’s thrown at you?”
It was about half and half. I think in today’s world, if you are not adaptable as a leader, because you can wake up the next morning and everything’s shut down, you have problems. And so I think that’s something I always had some of, but I step into it more now. What I want to see is not chaos.
Cindy: I think there’s also the need for the leader to create a strong enough foundation. At the beginning of COVID, I started doing a daily email to our staff and I was like, after a week or two, “Do you want me to stop?” No, they didn’t. They wanted that. And I did that for a few months, and then it was once a week. And now I don’t do it, but they needed that foundation setting.
Denver: What do you do about wellbeing with your staff? That’s a big issue as well. These are tough times, not only for the leader, but for everybody. And wellbeing has really become, I think, central in terms of the culture of the organization. Are there anything specifically or intentional that you do to assure for that?
Cindy: Yes, but I don’t think we can do enough. I don’t think the world is the way that we can actually do enough, but I think it is a factor. First off, I kind of suck at wellbeing myself, so I’m trying to check myself on that, be a better leader on that. And I just want to name that because I really am clear on that.
Denver: No, you set the model, and people take cues. No matter how often you tell them not to pay attention to what I’m doing, they pay attention to what you’re doing?
Cindy: So what we’ve done is for the first year and a half of the pandemic, we actually gave everybody one additional day off a month. Also, if you had children because there were additional stresses, you had five paid hours off a week additional. And then we do bring in wellbeing at a monthly meeting, like to do an exercise. Truthfully, I don’t think we can do enough right now.
I think people are quite exhausted. And I think with us reentering to more in- person, this is something I might call before, this was just about this, like: What are the intentional things we can do? And then, what can we hold? Because the reality is people have died during this period. It’s stressful. We’re reentering in person: What can we hold patiently and give people the time to get there? And so it’s an ongoing question.
“…when you genuinely care and when you’re in it for the long view, not just trying to put a program together, it matters, and you see miracles happen.”
Denver: Finally, Cindy, what’s the last thing you learned or discovered from the young people you serve, from that belly to eight-year-olds, whether it be how they learn or just an insight that you’ve gotten in observing them?
Cindy: Yeah, I would say I learned a lot. The first thing I’ve totally learned is just how to listen better. I wasn’t the best listener. I think I’ve learned that. But the other thing that I can say is when you genuinely care and when you’re in it for the long view, not just trying to put a program together, it matters, and you see miracles happen.
I have seen kids and also adults who were… we have a child in one of our programs and efforts, and I would say in our Brilliant Detroit, that was held back in kindergarten, and they were going to hold him back again. And he is an avid reader right now. That’s actually being in it for the long haul, and that’s what I think I’ve learned and am learning.
“…I would say that’s what I’ve learned… You need to see people, and they know whether you do or you don’t.”
Denver: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So a lot of it comes down to you really believe in them. And if you believe in them, they’ll believe in themselves, and miracles will occur.
Cindy: And I’ll say one other thing and this was taught to me before this, but I see this every day in my work. I had hired somebody in a previous career, and she had some issues. She was the best editor I ever worked with.
And a year into it, she gave me a little gift. It was this beautiful little box. And I said, “Oh my God, that’s so sweet!.” She goes, “No, the gift is inside,” and she said, “Open it up.” And it literally was this big. I opened it up and it was the tiniest note, and it said, “Thank you for seeing me.”
Cindy: And I would say that’s what I’ve learned… You need to see people, and they know whether you do or you don’t.
Denver: Right. You know what? Sometimes we tend to have them as a demographic, but they’re an individual, and you have to treat them as an individual.
For listeners who want to learn more about Brilliant Detroit or financially support this wonderful work, tell us about your website and the kind of information they’ll find on it.
Cindy: Yeah. So go to our website, which is brilliantdetroit.org, and you’ll find videos about the work; you’ll find testimonials. You’ll also find a giving page both for volunteering and financial. Our work, and I haven’t said this before, but our work is neighbor to neighbor regardless of zip code. So that makes up a huge part of the model.
You can also email [email protected]. We welcome everybody. And Denver, thank you so much for having me on here. This has just been an absolute pleasure.
Denver: Delightful for me as well, Cindy, and thank you so much for being here today. It was a real, real pleasure to have you on the show.
Cindy: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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.
Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes for free here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.