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Research Questions

  1. To what extent are community members engaging in collective impact?
  2. How are the strategies for the four pillars being implemented?

The Big Lift is a collective impact initiative extending from preschool to third grade in San Mateo County, California. The collective impact effort consists of people and organizations from various sectors uniting to tackle a single, complicated societal problem — in this case, third grade reading achievement. The initiative is a partnership of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the San Mateo County Office of Education, and the County of San Mateo with the support of dozens of community organizations and school districts. Launched in 2012, the initiative aims to boost children's reading proficiency by the third grade through four different types of activities, called "pillars": (1) High-Quality Preschool, (2) Summer Learning, (3) School Attendance, and (4) Family Engagement. The first year of program implementation was school year 2015–2016, in which four school districts received funding and support from the Big Lift to implement the four pillars. In the subsequent year (2016–2017), three additional districts received funding and support.

The RAND Corporation is conducting a multiphase evaluation of the initiative, including an implementation study of the effort and descriptive analyses focused on the outcomes of children who participated in Big Lift programs. This report serves as the final report for the implementation study that focused on the collective impact design of the initiative and the Big Lift activity pillars. Results from key informant interviews, a survey about collaboration, and focus groups are presented in this report.

Key Findings

  • The Big Lift community leaders and partners participated in research activities such as interviews, focus groups, and a survey to better understand how members are engaging in the collective impact strategy and the activity pillars are being implemented.
  • Members of the Big Lift indicated that the initiative shares a common vision and purpose, and the environment in San Mateo County, California, is supportive and well suited for the level of collaboration needed to successfully implement a collective impact effort.
  • Community leaders and partners were proud that the initiative was launched and pillar activities were occurring. Necessary organizations and key partners within and across school districts were mentioned as being in place to help achieve the common goal of raising third grade reading scores.
  • As with any complex initiative, challenges exist. Community leaders and partners mentioned issues with communication, attracting and retaining a quality teaching workforce, and turnover among key members of the collaborative.
  • Another challenge surfaced by research participants was the large workload necessary to keep up with increased data collection. However, local partners did note they appreciated the data support they received from community leaders.
  • Financial sustainability of the initiative was the most frequently cited concern for the Big Lift community leaders and partners. Possible avenues to gain further financial support were noted to be engaging local businesses and involving legislators.


  • Several key informants noted that the initiative could benefit from a director, and other findings regarding initiative structure and communication support this recommendation.
  • Placing emphasis on filling key designated staff roles across the initiative would benefit the work of the initiative and build capacity — especially at a local level.
  • A long-term funding strategy will be essential to the longevity and efficacy of the Big Lift initiative.
  • The Big Lift should set up and share a central repository of key information that collaborative partners can access.
  • The backbone infrastructure should be clear and transparent about which elements of each pillar are nonnegotiable components of Big Lift participation and which elements are open to local flexibility and tailoring.
  • The Big Lift could benefit from better articulating a policy on admitting and (as applicable) supporting special needs and English-language learning students into its programs and ensuring that there is adequate staff, training, and supports in place to accommodate that policy.

This research was commissioned by the Big Lift and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) and conducted jointly by RAND Education and RAND Labor and Population.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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