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The Bridgespan Group: Achieving Growth Through Partnerships

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Published August 19, 2014

By Tiffany Cooper Gueye, CEO, BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life)

When is a partnership the right path for greatly expanding the impact of a successful social enterprise? That's the question we recently faced at BELL (Building Educated Learners for Life), a highly effective provider of summer and after-school programs that boost at-risk kids' academic performance and self-confidence. While partnerships can be an efficient way to quickly expand impact, the reality is that they are hard to forge and take more time and effort than you might think. BELL's journey to teaming up with the YMCA is instructive.

From its modest beginning in Boston 22 years ago, BELL has spread to 12 cities in seven states and reaches upwards of 13,000 K-8 students a year. Research shows that a lack of learning opportunities outside of school-especially during the summer-causes up to two-thirds of the academic achievement gap between children from low-income communities and their higher-income peers. Our two main programs BELL Summer and BELL After School, aim to change that. Both programs deliver small-group academic instruction, mentorship, and a wide range of enrichment activities. A randomized control trial study served to prove the impact of our summer model, for example, on the reading achievement of elementary school children.

It's great that we've grown to reach so many kids-we regard them as scholars. But 13,000 scholars are a drop in the bucket when you consider the roughly seven million low-income children in grades K-8 who would benefit from "expanded learning" programs. Yet, at the rate BELL is growing, we will never reach more than a fraction of the children in need. So we faced a dilemma: how do we reach more kids so that we can better address the actual need?

We considered a variety of options and settled on partnering with a much larger organization that would provide a platform for program expansion. The YMCA offered a logical choice. Eighty percent of Americans live within five miles of a Y, the organization is adept at local fundraising, and it has access to kids attending high-poverty, low-performing schools. The Y and its associations across the country also have launched a new strategic focus on narrowing the achievement gap, a focus that aligns well with BELL's proven value for the kids and families it serves.

In June 2013, we launched the first phase of the Y partnership by offering our BELL Summer program-branded as the Power Scholars Academy-at three YMCA associations. This initial pilot worked well enough that we expanded to eight communities this summer. This represents a very rapid scaling process relative to what BELL could have done on its own.

BELL trains the Power Scholars Academy leadership teams in each community. We also provide the academic curriculum, oversee quality assurance, and measure the outcomes. The Y-USA supports program operations through technical assistance and start-up grants. Local Ys enroll students, recruit, hire, and train staff, manage program operations, deliver enrichment activities, and facilitate school partnerships.

Make no mistake. This has been very hard work. While in many ways the partnership is a no-brainer for both organizations, there were many challenging issues that had to be overcome. BELL is a very lean organization, so each step of the partnership-developing the model, figuring out the economics, fundraising, and communication-tested our team's capacity. BELL and the Y each had to strengthen our teams in certain areas to support this work. It was also tricky to negotiate the details of the licensing agreement and operating model. It took a year and a half of very intense discussions with the Y to figure out exactly how this was going to work. The process also tested our ability to overcome the fear of letting go of total program control in exchange for the chance to achieve much greater impact that we ever could on our own.

Looking ahead, we'll continue to work out the inevitable kinks in the implementation while focusing on maintaining fidelity to the BELL Summer model. This is critically important, as scale alone is meaningless without the outcomes we aim to achieve. So far so good, but it is still very early in this journey.

In terms of continued growth, we hope to add as many as 50 new Y communities by 2017. Longer term, our preliminary market analysis shows that the summer Power Scholars Academy could easily grow to reach some 400,000 students within a few years, and many more over the next five to 10 years.

The key challenge will be to craft a sustainable operating model for the program. Over time, ownership of the program-including responsibility for most of the cost-will shift to local YMCAs. Ideally, each Y will unlock public funding from school and district partners to blend with local philanthropic support. Along the way, it will be critical to maintain a low cost per student while maintaining quality. This will require continued creativity and innovation.

If every low-income kid had access to a really high quality summer and after-school programs, we'd transform the country. We know that is something that BELL can't achieve alone, so we must embrace the hard work of forging strategic partnerships with organizations like the YMCA. Together, we can do more than either of us could achieve alone.

Tiffany Cooper Gueye, PhD, is the CEO of BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a nonprofit providing after-school and summer-learning programs for at-risk youth. Through her leadership, BELL's models and evaluation methods have been nationally recognized as best practices in expanded learning programs.

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