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Our Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal

Posted by Social Venture Partners Portland

To celebrate our 20th Anniversary, we bring you a series on the history of SVP Portland. Part 1 focused on the first ten years. This is Part 2, which covers 2010 to 2020.


by Chris Hart, SVP Partner

The year 2010 was a significant turning point for SVP Portland. While the organization had been ‘doing good’ since its founding, then Executive Director Mark Holloway shared “I had a feeling in my gut we could be doing so much more.” Over a lunch discussion with a Board member, Mark’s ‘gut feeling’ was bolstered when she shared that she had similar thoughts. Inspired by Jim Collins & Jerry Porras’s “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal” or BHAG in Built to Last and Good to Great, Mark and the Board took up the challenge to aim higher, and kicked off a BHAG discernment process.

The question posed to Partners was:

What would our organization and impact look like in ten years if we decided we were truly going to make a difference on something that matters deeply to us?

A task force of Partners researched community needs and evaluated SVP Portland’s strengths and opportunities. They narrowed the options to four potential focus areas:

  • Ready for Kindergarten
  • Ready for Third Grade
  • Ready for College or Career
  • Social Factors for Thriving

After soliciting input from Partners, conducting an environmental scan, and receiving direct feedback from community leaders, the new goal was officially announced in April 2011:

Our Community Goal: Ensuring that all children in the Portland metro area enter kindergarten with the foundation for learning and life success.

In a statement announcing the Community Goal, Mark shared, “We believe it is our responsibility as a community to ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive. For ten years, we have been harnessing and leveraging the best of our Partners — resources, brain power, passion, and connections — to alleviate the struggles of our kids and youth. Over the next ten years, we’re going to catch them early before the challenges become barriers. Our goal is to ensure every child in Portland is ready to thrive by kindergarten with positive parenting, books in hands, and early intervention of obstacles.”

And thus, SVP Portland set off on a bold new path with a specific, focused community goal, the first SVP affiliate in the international network to do so. The power in a BHAG is that it provides a clear and compelling target for an organization to rally around. It is purposefully ambitious with the understanding that there is only a 40-60% chance of attaining it.

From 2011 through 2018, SVP Portland made significant progress while adapting to changes in the environment and learnings along the way. Initially, the early childhood community did not have a shared goal nor a coordinated strategy for impact. SVP helped co-create a focus and aligned action by co-convening the players interested in collectively serving more children and families and advocating for systems change.

After years of focused investing, it became clear that even “Ready for Kindergarten” was too broad of a goal, so SVP’s Goal Strategy Team — composed of Investor and Community Partners — strategically narrowed it to “Access to Preschool”.

While there were many specific accomplishments along the way (several noted in the graphic above), the most impactful was uniting early childhood players who shared a commitment to priority populations and investment in community-driven solutions.

When asked if identifying the BHAG was the right decision, Mark emphatically answered yes, and said that we would never have gotten so far without it. This audacious goal gave SVP Portland the opportunity to step up as a leader in the community-wide effort to ensure that all children have access to high-quality, culturally-relevant early learning experiences. It also led to SVP being more responsive to Community Partners needs, the reality for families they were serving, and the systemic racism responsible for so many of the disparities in outcomes for young children in our community.

The most impressive outcome of this work was the passage of the Preschool for All ballot measure in November 2020. From current Executive Director Lauren Johnson and Mark’s reflection on the outcome, “Our victory is not just a victory for the children and families in our community. It is a victory for grassroots policymaking that we originated and supported with United Way’s Early Learning Multnomah. It is a victory for parent accountability, which we started in the Ready for Kindergarten Collaborative. It is a victory for ‘patient capital,’ which, takes ‘savvy, instinct, grit, flexibility, and persistence.’”

The decision to evolve from a broad-impact organization to one with a singular focus was in and of itself a bold change for SVP Portland, and it has paved a new path that several other SVP affiliates have followed. Prior to having a strategic focus, former Board Chair Larry Fox described SVP’s community impact as “failing broadly, one success at a time.” The adoption of a BHAG had, and will continue to have, significant implications for SVP, the early childhood system, and, ultimately we expect, child outcomes in Portland.

Next month, we’ll continue the story with the plans for the future and the role social justice and racial equity have played in SVP Portland’s history.

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