Hands On Hartford (formerly Center City Churches) provides direct services to people in need. It promotes civic engagement and volunteerism by bringing together agencies, volunteers, congregations, community organizations, donors, and businesses to make a significant impact on the community. Pairing up with Huntington Learning Centers to provide supplemental education services seemed like a natural extension of this work.
In September, you announced a five-year partnership with Huntington Learning Centers. How did the project come about?
In concert with our team here, we determined that it made sense to look at revenue generation ideas. After some internal analysis, we came up with focusing on supplemental education services. There were a variety of franchises in that market and we reached out to several of them, some of whom I had had a relationship with because of my work at Community Wealth Partners(or Social Franchise Ventures). From that, and from a series of conversations over a course of several months, we honed in on Huntington. It was a fantastic fit for our organization and leveraged our core organizational assets and allowed us to go into a program area that seemed like it would be stable over the long term.
It was, frankly, fast and furious here, and we had a board who had a firm appreciation for the need to grow revenue. We have a history of managing expenses really well, as well as a history of delivering programs effectively. Clearly in today’s economic times, even if you’re doing those things well, revenue can still manage to fall. So we needed to really focus on areas where we could increase revenue that were in line with our mission. The board was very thoughtful and did quite a lot of due diligence as we moved through this process, but worked in an incredibly timely and thoughtful manner to get things done. Without them, obviously, this wouldn’t have happened. It was a good partnership and the timing was right.
How exactly does the franchise generate revenue for Hands on Hartford?
Supplemental education services are a piece of the No Child Left Behind Act, and that has been around for quite some time. They fall within the parent choice model—parents, if their children are in a Title I school, have a choice, or might have a choice, for them to take advantage of additional tutoring services that are outside of the board of education or whatever the school system is delivering. Through the program, funds flow from the federal to the state to the local municipality here in Hartford. We have some 25,000 students in school, and about 20,000 of them qualify or are in Title I schools and are participating in free or low-cost lunch, which are two factors that determine whether a student has access to these No Child Left Behind funds. Despite the large number of students, dollars don’t flow directly based on the actual need. So in the Hartford area, there are dollars to provide services for about 3,500 kids.
That’s actually a pretty small number compared to the number who need services.
I’m sure that’s true in most urban areas, if not across the country—the need, in terms of dollars for education, far surmounts the actual number of dollars available. . . . Parents apply to have their children take advantage of the supplemental education services, but application in and of itself is no guarantee that they will receive services. I believe in every district, in every area, they do it differently. In Hartford, they evaluate each application or each student based on [his or her] need and they rank students based on that need. The students with the greatest need—the lowest test scores—have access to the first 3,500 slots.
So we market our Huntington franchise to parents, students, teachers, principals, and the administration in general to ensure that they know about the services that we’re offering, about the quality of the services, and about the program that we deliver. What’s nice is that arguably Huntington has the best program in the country, in terms of ability to improve student achievement. They’ve been the longest provider of supplemental education services (SES) in the country. In some urban markets, third-party groups have evaluated all of the SES providers and in multiple cases, students who participated in the Huntington program showed the greatest amount of improvement. Improvement is measured by grade level or grade level equivalent, so students who participated in the Huntington program, whether it be in numeracy or literacy, improved over a grade level relative to some peers. It’s pretty exciting. It’s nice to be a nonprofit that is highly respected for delivering a high quality of service and then partner with a franchise who is highly respected for exactly the same.
They’re over 30 years old and you’re just hitting 40 this year, so that probably made it more appealing for everyone to feel like there’s long history here.
Absolutely—this is no fly-by-night opportunity. We were the first Huntington nonprofit franchise, and frankly, if you look at the model, it is a perfect fit for nonprofits. The services are almost exclusively delivered in urban areas and they are targeted at students who often receive other services from nonprofit providers. So it’s a very good fit, and it really strengthens our position in the Hartford market. Several years ago, we partnered with the Hands On Network—we were actually an organization called Center City Churches. We are now a Hands On affiliate and with the affiliation, we changed our name to Hands On Hartford. That was the first case where we partnered with a national organization to bring some of the best of what’s offered in other parts of the country to our local market and it was really exciting to be able to do it again. Students in other urban markets have been able to take advantage of Huntington supplemental education services and students didn’t have access to them in Hartford. So it’s a direction we’re trending in with every program, and this is true at all nonprofits; the pressure is on to deliver greater impact and outcomes. We are absolutely dedicated to doing that, and this partnership with Huntington allows us to do so in a cost-effective and smart way.
How does it complement your existing programs in the schools?
Hands On Hartford was founded 40 years ago and there were two areas of focus. One was supporting education of students in this urban area and the other was delivering basic needs to those folks who need them the most. We still operate a soup kitchen and a food pantry and we deliver over 115,000 meals a year and we expect to see that grow significantly over the course of the next twelve months. We still operate in-school programs—we bring volunteers into schools after school hours to mentor, to read with children, to help with homework, to tutor in an informal way. We also deliver a variety of other services, including basic nutrition services. We started a backpack program here, which puts child-friendly food in the hands of children on Friday afternoon, so they will have nutritious food over the weekend.
We also deliver several other services in the schools. We have a program where we support families who are on the cusp of neglect—it’s a prevention-based model, where the schools point out children and families who are having issues with tardiness or attendance. Evidence has shown that if an elementary school child is having trouble showing up on time, that’s a solid indicator that there might be other problems at home. It’s a voluntary model, so the school reaches out to parents and says, “Hey, we notice that your child is coming in late on a regular basis. Hands On Hartford provides a variety of services to help families just like you cope with the challenges of living in an urban area in a down economy.” We work closely with families, so we have several licensed social workers on staff who visit with those families on a regular basis, help connect them with a variety of services in the area, and help ensure that that child gets to school on a regular basis, so there is no greater concern around neglect.
We offer a variety of services in schools, from very high-level tutoring to very sophisticated supports for parents and families in general. Adding a very targeted, measurable, high-end tutoring program fits in line with our mission like a glove.
This is an absolute first for Huntington Learning Center, the city of Hartford, Hands On Hartford, and the national Hands On network. Does it feel like there’s a lot riding on the project’s success?
I think it’s incredibly exciting. As an organization, we’re not scared away by the fear of being a leader. We signed the franchise agreement, I believe it was in late August, and it’s clearly already a success. Ultimately it’s a success if these students show the significant improvement we expect. Outside of that indicator, which will prove itself out over the course of the next few months, we have negotiated a franchise agreement that’s mutually agreeable, we have launched a separate for-profit entity, hired 17 staff members, and started delivering services over the course of just three months. . . . I think it shows what this organization can do and shows our commitment to serving students in the best way possible, and that’s what this partnership with Huntington is. We expect a full return on our initial investment in the first year, and there is significant room for expansion in the coming years.
Do you think it’s something that other Hands On affiliates are likely to replicate?
It is something that other affiliates and other nonprofits around the country can replicate. As I said, it’s incredibly well-suited to nonprofits that are working with youth in urban areas. . . . Organizations that have similar goals or a similar mission to Hands On Hartford should really evaluate it. . . . What’s so nice about that is that Huntington is bringing all of its experience to bear, and the beneficiaries are marginalized students. You just don’t see a large for-profit entity doing that very often. This gives me such hope that we can make a really significant difference.
I am very open to speaking with other leaders around the country who have an interest in this approach. I have a strong belief that social enterprise is a powerful tool that most nonprofit leaders should be evaluating as a way of doing business, regardless. Working with a franchise might be the best of both worlds, because it allows a nonprofit like us to take advantage of all the systems and processes that are in place so we don’t have the burden of creating them ourselves. But it allows us to tap into a market that we’re aligned with.