December 09, 2014 Darell Hammond

Bold Goals Require Bold Partnerships

Kids need balanced and active play to thrive.

Originally posted 12/8/2014 on the NetImpact.org blog.

At this year's Net Impact Conference, I participated in a session - Good at Doing Good - that explored what makes a nonprofit a successful, high-impact organization able to create and sustain lasting social change. As founder and CEO of KaBOOM! - the national nonprofit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play into the daily lives of all kids - I am proud of the impact we've had building more than 2,500 playgrounds in 18 years in communities all across the country. However, we at KaBOOM! also recognize that we cannot scale our organization to build enough playgrounds to address this challenge at the scale it exists in society, particularly for the 14.7 million American kids growing up in poverty.

Over the past two years, we've set a course to scale our impact without scaling the size of our organization in an unsustainable way. We are seeking outsized social returns by pursuing an influence strategy aimed at community-wide change that complements our direct impact work building playgrounds with low-income communities. In particular, we are focusing on driving cities to create kid-friendly, family-friendly communities that benefit all kids. Cities are critical to achieving society-level scale because most play-related infrastructure investments, policies, and programming happen at the local level and because cities, as the government of last resort, are becoming hotbeds of innovation to solve intractable social problems.

Playability - Setting the Standard

To drive change at the city level, we have positioned ourselves as standard - setters, not policy advocates. In other words, we are not pushing a policy agenda on cities, but rather creating a national platform for cities to implement their own big ideas for using play as a solution to their pressing challenges. Playability - the extent to which cities make it easy for all kids to get balanced and active play - can take many forms and address many challenges. For example, Brownsville, Texas, is bringing play opportunities to low-income neighborhoods in order to improve economic prospects in struggling neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Spartanburg, South Carolina, is planning to harness its under-utilized waterways as a competitive advantage to attract and retain families of all income levels who want abundant opportunities to play.

Play Everywhere - Driving Behavior Change

Investments in play will not be successful unless they lead to widespread behavior change. To inspire cities to generate solutions that overcome behavioral bottlenecks that keep kids from getting the play they need to thrive, we partnered with ideas42, a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to solve large-scale social problems. Among the findings from ideas42, we learned that cities need to put play everywhere, integrating play into dead time and dead space. In addition to playgrounds, we are encouraging cities to reimagine how everything from sidewalks and bus stops to grocery stores and health clinics can be filled with play, making it easier for families to prioritize play for their kids. These are places where low-income families are already spending significant, often frustrating time together. By embedding play everywhere, cities can turn these moments of frustration into moments of play-filled joy.

Equity - Focusing on Mission

All families deserve to live in a safe community with ample job opportunities, great schools, and abundant opportunities to play, but we currently have inequitable distribution of services, resources, and opportunities for low-income families. This inequity serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty that threatens our nation's economic future. As we inspire cities to embrace Playability and implement Play Everywhere ideas, we need to ensure that play is used to address inequity, not exacerbate it. As walking and biking have taken off in cities across the country, they have tended to benefit those with means. For example, of the 70-plus miles of bike lanes in our hometown of Washington, DC, zero are in Anacostia, the part of the city with the highest concentration of poverty and kids in poverty. Consistent with our mission, it is our responsibility to ensure that cities do not follow a similar path when it comes to play.

Driven by our mission to improve the lives of kids growing up in poverty, we are impatient by nature. Our goal is to make societal change happen in the next decade, not the generations it has taken to gain traction on walking and biking. To get there, Playability requires a different approach to philanthropic partnership.

We need partners who:

  1. Are comfortable with a long-term horizon
  2. Support a flexible strategy that can respond to a changing environment and isn't locked into a rigid approach
  3. Want to see the best ideas emerge from cities rather than dictate how change should happen in communities
  4. Support action-oriented research that encourages experimentation
  5. Are willing to seek and measure behavior change that can lead to a range of positive social outcomes, rather than determine success based on a singular outcome

Partnerships of this kind are not easy, especially because the business of philanthropy is so risk-averse. It is easier to stick to what you know and do well, even if it cannot achieve scale. It is safer to fund small, tangible projects than to provide significant flexible resources that have the potential to achieve society-level change.

At KaBOOM!, we are fortunate to have partners that do not shy away from a challenge and encourage us not to rest on past success. We invite others to join us to ensure that all kids get the childhood they deserve filled with balanced and active play, so they can thrive.

net impact conference, playability, play equity, play everywhere