By Rob Waters
What’s one big thing that young people from middle class or wealthy families often have that smart, motivated kids from poor families and inner cities usually don’t? The answer—in addition to money—is connections, a social network that gives young people access to influential adults and entrée to places of mentoring and opportunity.
The Thrive Foundation for Youth, a grantmaker based in Silicon Valley, wants to address that gap in a very Valley-like way: It is developing an app aimed at helping low-income youth expand their social networks so they can gain access to more adults and opportunity—along with the networking skills and confidence to use that access well. On behalf of the foundation, I’ve put together this account on how the foundation arrived at the idea of creating an app and how they’re developing and refining it.
The effort began almost two years ago. Thrive staff members wanted to go beyond simply choosing good organizations to fund; they wanted to help those agencies do a better job assisting and empowering the young people they served. They did it by applying design thinking—a widely used approach in corporate circles that has recently begun to g arner some attention in philanthropy.
In 2014, Thrive created an unusual staff position—“director of design and innovation”— and hired Cynthia Benjamin, a veteran management and innovation consultant who had worked at consulting firms such as Strategic Decisions Group, IMS Health and design-thinking pioneer IDEO. Benjamin brought her ideas on the potential—and limitations—of design thinking and began applying it to the foundation’s focus on youth development.
Benjamin and her colleagues rejected a hypothesis-driven approach—the kind she says is favored by typical consulting firms that may start a project thinking that they know the answer, and go forward trying to prove themselves right. Instead, she led the foundation in a deep design-thinking process aimed at learning about the lives, activities and needs of the young people and agencies they were supporting.
“In design thinking, you don’t go in with a hypothesis; you go in to learn,” Benjamin says. “You have no preconceived notions. I want to observe. I want to learn. I want to draw insights from what’s there on the ground.” With the collaboration of their grantees, the foundation embarked on an effort to identify the most pressing problems and needs that faced the agencies and their clients.
One of her first steps was to hire two young Stanford graduates, Michael Walker and David Zheng, who had started a firm called Millennial Design. They knew Benjamin from a design-thinking class she had taught as a lecturer at Stanford. They reconnected at a barbeque Benjamin and her husband, also a Stanford professor, hosted at their home in Menlo Park. When the opportunity arose, she called them up to see if they wanted to undertake a project—a classic example of the way social networking can lead to business opportunities for those who have access.
At that point, the project “was wide open,” said Walker. “They had this set of eight organizations all over the country serving disadvantaged youth and Cynthia had a strong feeling that this was a hot area for innovation and that we could be the guys to make things happen.” The Millennial team’s initial charge was to do research, define the needs of the agencies and the youth and search for some high-impact ways to help them.
For the next three to four months, Benjamin, Walker and Zheng traveled to Denver, Portland, Washington DC, New York and Chicago to visit Thrive-funded programs, hang out with the staff and clients of each agency, and immerse themselves in their lives. This was the “need-finding” stage (in design-thinking jargon), and the team was acting as ethnographers. Sometimes, Walker said, “We’d be a fly on the wall and observe people in their natural habitat. Other times, we’d hang out with the kids, shoot hoops, and get a view of what their day-to-day life is like.”
They made several trips to Denver to visit Colorado Uplift, a 34-year-old agency that focuses on mentoring children and teenagers as a way to help them overcome poverty and exposure to violence and trauma. Walker and Zheng connected easily with staff members and young participants, said Uplift President Gabriel Trujillo.
“They had young energy and started mixing it up with the kids and getting close to them right away,” Trujillo told me. “They asked questions, they sat back and watched and they also participated.” Trujillo and his staff also showed the designers an alumni database the agency had created—“like a mini-LinkedIn,”—that Colorado Uplift had created in an effort to stay connected to their alumni and community.
After initial research, Benjamin and the Millennial team identified a few trends and began to settle on which ones the foundation might be able to impact. They noticed, for example, that government systems and bureaucracies such as juvenile justice and social services have a major impact on the lives of participants—but realized these systems are too big and complex for Thrive to influence.
“We realized that staff were like brokers of opportunity and relationships so one thing that came to mind was creating a platform to help them do relationship-brokering better,” Zheng said. They also noticed that alumni of many programs appreciate the chance to stay involved and that staff members spent a lot of time cultivating those connections. In an effort to reach kids where they spend the most time, an online solution was inevitable—though the nature of the app was far from clear.
“If we had started out with, ‘Oh, we’re going to make a Facebook for youth-serving organizations,’ then we would have ended up with something just like Facebook,” Zheng said. “Instead, we started from the ground up, to make sure it fills a unique need for our users.”
The central idea of the Youth Networks platform—its unofficial working title—is to support the creation and expansion of social networks that enable young people to connect with caring adults who are interested in acting as mentors. There are many such adults out there. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the National Mentoring Partnership, some 44 million American adults who are not currently mentoring a young person would consider doing so—especially if they had a clearly defined way of engaging with a young person.
The Youth Networks app could provide that by enabling a potential mentor to invite a young person to a lecture or potluck, attend an open house, or join a tour of a research laboratory. And once connections were established, it could also allow young people to seek help for specific needs, like getting feedback on a resumé or or help preparing for a job interview. By providing a central hub where young people, agency staff members and community adults can connect with each other, the Youth Networks app will give less privileged kids the chance to develop the social networks and connections their more-affluent peers take for granted.
In December, when Thrive-funded agencies from across the country came to San Francisco for a convening, the Thrive team shared the then-current version of the prototype and got more feedback to further refine the design. With the basic prototype now complete, the Thrive Foundation will be exploring ways to build out the Youth Networks app and bring it to fruition. The foundation recently announced its restructuring under a larger entity, King Philanthropies. The foundation’s board is committed to following through on the innovation work developed by the staff and grantees.
For more information on Youth Networks, check out this presentation.