"A strategic inflection point is the time in the life of business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end."
– Andrew S. Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive
It's always been important to think about how private philanthropy can fill gaps in the social safety net that government, with its lower risk tolerance, cannot. At the Heckscher Foundation for Children, we're increasingly attracted to inflection point funding — not a new concept but an approach that provides a different lens through which to look at our efforts. What makes inflection point funding interesting, in my opinion, is that, in addition to strategic partnerships with other funders, catalytic initiatives, and targeted solutions, it forces us to look hard at the obstacles that keep low-income youth from realizing their full potential.
Inflection point funding seeks to change the course of young people's lives at key junctures. I think of it as a ladder offering underserved children a way out of poverty. A child may move easily through the early stages of development, but at some point a rung in her development ladder will be missing or broken. Then what? In too many cases, she gets tired or discouraged and stops trying to climb.
Most of us are familiar with the ladder metaphor. Less familiar are the challenges so many disadvantaged and underserved kids face when trying to climb the ladder to success. Suppose, however, that with philanthropic support, we could develop solutions that enabled every underserved child to reach the next rung, and the rung after that, and the rung after that (or even the first rung). If you look at inflection point funding as a way to support kids who desperately want to climb the ladder to a brighter future, you'll understand why we're attracted to it as an approach.
That said, it isn't always easy to identify inflection point opportunities. There are no guidelines, only questions in need of answers. My own first question always is: Could our funding for a strategic intervention create opportunities for young people to reach new heights? And, conversely, could the failure to solve the problem lead to other obstacles and challenges for the young people we were hoping to help?
The next question I usually ask is whether or not we can identify and isolate a solution to a problem that, metaphorically speaking, can function like a rung in a ladder. The key to that is to determine whether the solution under consideration is practicable. We all know, for example, that crime is rooted in poverty and deprivation. But that doesn't really help us figure out how to invest our philanthropic dollars in solving crime. Poverty and deprivation are not problems a single foundation can address on a large enough scale. So, instead, we look for fixable problems. If, for example, you say that underserved kids often go hungry, that's not a problem any one foundation can fix. But if the problem is that kids, during the summer months, do not benefit from free school breakfast and lunch programs, then that is a problem that can be addressed. And in New York City, to a significant degree, we've done just that with a three-year targeted outreach solution involving the distribution of refrigeration units, flyers, and posters that increased participation in the city's Summer Meals Program by 31 percent.
Where are some other inflection point opportunities we think are worth funding? Here are three we are considering:
Youth library fines. Hundreds of thousands of New York City children cannot check books out of the library because they have outstanding fines of less than $15. The majority of these children live in poor neighborhoods. In our view, these fines operate in a punitive manner, preventing young people from borrowing books and research materials needed for assignments that can only be completed outside library hours. When most students in New York City do not have access to an in-school library, it becomes painfully clear that this a problem in need of a solution. To the credit of the city's library systems, some fixes have been tried. But we continue to think this is a problem in need of a creative solution.
College emergency-grants programs. Each year, college students in good academic standing are forced to withdraw from school because of economic setbacks unrelated to their school work or the burden of tuition — including medical expenses, housing or textbook costs, and transportation issues. Without the earning power that a degree can provide, many of these young people will struggle. The Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation sought to address this problem by establishing emergency-grant programs at each of the sixteen member colleges of the Wisconsin Technical College System. During the three-year grant period, nearly twenty-seven hundred students received emergency grants averaging $500 each. College-reported data indicates that over the three years of the program, 73 percent of Pell Grant-eligible emergency-grant recipients either graduated from or remained in school and on track to a degree. By comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics reports a 59 percent retention rate for all students attending a public two-year institution in the U.S. Given the modest cost of such initiatives, this strikes us as an opportunity worth devoting more resources to.
Diagnosing and treating dyslexia in kindergarten. The diagnosis of developmental dyslexia in underserved children is primarily based on a "wait to fail approach." Despite the fact that studies show that intensive interventions are most effective in kindergarten or first grade, and other studies show that up to 92 percent of at-risk beginning readers, when provided intensive instruction, achieve average reading ability levels, dyslexia diagnoses are usually not made before the third grade. In other words, the current system doesn't help kids until they have fallen behind and interventions are likely to be less effective. Education experts, however, are developing an app that diagnoses dyslexia and will be easy for professionals and others to use at preschools, camps, or even in a home setting. If a risk of dyslexia is detected, the app directs the user to tools and websites that provide teaching resources as well as intervention programs. To us, this sounds like an opportunity for inflection point funding.
If a simple test for dyslexia in kindergarten can prevent years of reading and learning loss, what other fixable problems can we address that will help low-income families and kids gain access to needed services and interventions? The more rungs on the ladder that the philanthropic community can identify, fix, and/or strengthen — and there are many — the better. With relatively modest investments at strategic inflection points, funders can, and often do, make a significant difference in underserved children's lives and future success.
Peter Sloane is chairman and CEO of the Heckscher Foundation for Children.