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How Investments in R+D Give Nonprofits the Ability to Dream

This is a guest blog by Daniel Lurie, the CEO + Founder of Tipping Point Community. This year, Daniel joins us on the esteemed Leadership Council, voting alongside other industry leaders to determine the final 10 Classy Award Winners.

“Think outside the box.”

“Disrupt the norms.”

“Fail fast.”

These phrases have become mantras, maybe even clichés, in Silicon Valley and in companies around the country. The for-profit world lives and breathes innovation by constantly looking ahead to give their consumers something they don’t yet know they want or need.

This commitment to new thinking and experimentation drives the business world. Last year across all industries, companies spent $145 billion on research and development. But in the nonprofit world, the landscape looks very different. In our sector, we spend virtually nothing.

Today, 7 out of 10 people who are born into poverty will remain in poverty. As a sector, we simply can’t afford not to innovate.

Nonprofits need the opportunity to dream up new ideas and test them to change the odds for those living in poverty. The R+D approach gives us the permission to spend time immersed in research, prototype a concept to learn more tangibly about its risks and benefits, and incrementally refine until we arrive at something that suits the needs of a specific community.

This is why we felt it was critical to add an R+D engine to Tipping Point Community, the poverty-fighting organization I founded 10 years ago. Through this program, called T Lab, we employ a group of diverse professionals to work on the issues of childcare, early childhood education, and prisoner re-entry.

T Lab is a six-month program that brings together nine Problem-Solvers to design and test new solutions. A solution might be a service, product, or technology.

Problem-Solvers seek to understand users’ needs through hands-on, human-centered design methods such as field interviews and engaging with participants in their own homes and communities. They build prototypes and test solutions. Throughout the process, expert designers provide guidance and coaching. By embracing failure as part of the process, each team keeps pushing until they develop something with the potential to have a huge impact.

While still in its pilot stage, we’ve already seen nascent solutions yield tremendous value. The idea of re-designing a school bus to become a mobile classroom was prototyped, tested, and recently implemented for a semester. In collaboration with longtime Tipping Point grantee Aspire Public Schools, this model offered preschool to 14 families in a part of Oakland where there are few other options. With 80,000 low-income children across the Bay Area waiting for access to preschool and a network of campuses ripe for innovation, the success of this trial could pay big dividends for the community.

This year’s T Lab cohort is currently in its microtrial phase, testing their service concepts with participants and getting important feedback from those in the community along the way.

In child care, we are investigating ways to fill gaps and streamline the use of resources for families that rely on patchwork care. In pre-k education, our team’s research led them to focus on the importance of secure attachment between parent and child as prerequisite for a child’s development of social and emotional skills. The team’s microtrial will explore the use of individualized support — via a doula, for example — to encourage this bond. And in prisoner reentry, our team has detected the most impactful potential solution is exploring whether a mobile, neutral space can foster better engagement between young adults, probation officers, case managers, and the community.

This type of work in R+D is uncharted territory for the nonprofit sector. It’s forcing us to write a new set of rules.

First, it’s not enough to throw some risk capital into the mix and hope for game-changing solutions to emerge. Whether it’s reimagining what happens to a young adult after they are released from jail or how we can educate pre-school aged children who don’t have access to classrooms, we will need to grant ourselves the permission to try and fail.

Second, this work is resource intensive with no guarantee of outcomes. It can take months to years to yield tangible results. We had to shift our mindset from that of “investing in known outcomes” to “investing to learn.”

Last year, Tipping Point began making R+D investments in a handful of grantees. This work hasn’t been easy. The fear of failure is real in a sector that is often rewarded based on known outcomes, but we must take into account the impact that trying new things will have. At the end of the day, how can we afford to only fund what’s known when 2 in 5 families in the Bay Area are too poor to meet their basic needs? Tried and true solutions are critical, but we must start to think in new ways and invest in new solutions if we want to see a real change in communities.

Daniel Lurie is the CEO and founder of Tipping Point Community, a grant-making organization that fights poverty in the San Francisco Bay Area. Daniel sits on several boards including the 50 Fund. See his full bio and the rest of the Leadership Council here.


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