Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Playable City of the FutureKaBOOM! has a good thing going. Since 1996, KaBOOM! has built more than 2,500 playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods across America, most financed by FORTUNE 500 companies. It has helped communities build another 13,000 places to play. The DC-based nonprofit has attracted an avalanche of favorable attention, and it has won over high-profile supporters, including First Ladies Hilary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama. KaBOOM! estimates that it has helped 7.4 million kids.

For Darell Hammond, the group’s founder and CEO, who has used his smarts and charm to build an organization of about 100 people with an annual budget of about $27 million, it wasn’t enough.

KaBOOM! has a big vision: All kids get the childhood they deserve, filled with balanced and active play, so they can thrive. That means every kid should be able to walk to a great place to play.

“Simply gearing up for another 200 playgrounds wasn’t going to do it,” Hammond says.

KaBOOM! was producing outputs (playgrounds, satisfied sponsors, engaged volunteers, a strong nonprofit brand) but its desired outcome (a world where all kids get to play) was receding.

So KaBOOM! is changing. It’s still building playgrounds, with corporate sponsors. Those projects pay the bills, and help thousands of kids each year.

But Hammond and his colleagues have decided that they need to drive broader social and behavioral changes around play. They want cities to compete around the idea of “Playability” so they can attract young families. They want kids to get away from their screens. They want recess in every school and play opportunities on every corner.

All of which is well and good, but who’s going to pay for it?

Most likely, not the big companies — Dr. Pepper Snapple, Disney, Home Depot, Jet Blue, Carmax, Foresters and many more — who, to their credit, have financed KaBOOM!’s past efforts.

What happens, in other words, when a nonprofit decides that doing good — incremental change — is not good enough?

Darell Hammond HeadshotTo find out, I went to see Darell Hammond at the KaBOOM! purple-and-orange headquarters on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. I’ve known Darell for years — we served together on the board of Net Impact — and I blogged about his effort to scale up KaBOOM! in 2010. Back then, KaBOOM! had created an Internet platform to disseminate its model, encouraging local communities to build their own playgrounds using its free resources. It worked, up to a point: Many thousands of  communities took advantage of the platform but “when we peeled back the onion, they were mostly middle and upper-income communities,” Darell told me, with disarming candor.

Darell’s story is inspiring. One of eight children, Darell and his siblings grew up at Mooseheart, a group home for about 250 kids, on a rural campus west of Chicago run by the Moose fraternal organization for kids whose families can’t care for them. He dropped out of Ripon College (which later awarded him an honorary doctorate), interned with the Chicago Park District, worked at nonprofit CityYear and started KaBOOM! after a Washington Post story, under the headline No Place to Play, described the deaths of two children who climbed into a car and suffocated after they locked themselves in.

KaBOOMplaygroundKaBOOM! grew rapidly. Companies hire the nonprofit to build playgrounds in poor neighborhoods, for donations that range from about $100,000 to as much as $500,000 per playground. In return, the businesses get a feel-good day-long event for executives or front-line workers (“team building”) along with local media coverage, video for their website or photos for an annual report. Neighborhood leaders who work on the project build social capital and, of course, kids get a place to play.

This fee-for-service model generated double-digit growth for KaBOOM!, getting the organization to $20 million in revenues in less than 20 years. That’s impressive. About 90 percent of nonprofits operate with budgets below $1 million and only 24 of 2,100 social-impact nonprofits founded since 1970 raised as much as $20 million after nearly a quarter century of operation, according to a study by New Profit Inc.

Some years ago, though, Darell was challenged by Bill Novelli, a KaBOOM! board member (and the founder of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and ex-CEO of AARP), to take the organization to the next level–not by constructing more playgrounds, but by making play available to millions more kids. Darell embraced the idea. In a 2013 essay in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called When Good is Not Good Enough, Darell, Bill Shore of Share Our Strength and Amy Celep of Community Wealth Partners argue that nonprofits need to do more than provide short-term relief; they should aim to develop big plans to tackle the root of social problems.

They write:

The foundation on which many nonprofits are built is flawed and simplistic, focused on a symptom rather than the underlying set of problems, developed in isolation rather than as part of an integrated system, and organized to administer a narrowly tailored program or benefit rather than generate sustained, significant change for a person or community. As a result, change is incremental, not big or bold enough to make a lasting and transformative impact.

…We must look beyond short-term achievements that please funders, staff, and stakeholders but yield only incremental change, and instead hold ourselves accountable for the harder-to-achieve long-term outcomes that will ultimately solve social problems.

That’s easier said than done, particularly when business-as-usual works as well as it does at KaBOOM! About 90 percent of KaBOOM! current revenues come from companies. But, as much as they love KaBOOM!, it is hard to persuade them to fund advocacy on behalf of play. The same goes for the foundations or individuals who have supported KaBOOM! in times of need–for example, when the organization built more than 175 playgrounds in places damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

“They want to see the immediate results of the donations they make,” says Annie Binder, who manages foundation partnerships for KaBOOM! “Social change takes place over many years. It’s not something we can assess after 12 months.”

Put simply, building a movement is a lot harder than building a playground.

KaBOOM! is also struggling, understandably, to articulate what Playability looks like.

“What we’re trying to do,” Darell says, “is describe a world that doesn’t exist—playful communities where all kids benefit and thrive.”

KaBOOM! wants to spur cities to become family-friendly. It wants to develop benchmarks, so cities compete on a “Playability index,” just as they now do for WalkScore, which is widely used in the real estate industry. It wants to organize a “design charrette” to devise ways to transform a city’s built environment – its sidewalks, street corners, bus stops, laundromats, grocery stores and health clinics – to enable play everywhere.

Paradoxically, Darell and his colleagues now must persuade funders to get serious about play. America’s children, they say, are increasingly unhealthy, unhappy and falling behind. (The National Institutes of Health reports that the typical American kid spend about 3 hours a day watching TV, and another two to four hours in front of computer or video-game screens.) Play — physically active, creative, unstructured and social — is a powerful antidote to those problems.

Will KaBOOM! achieve its big goals?

Darell has a deep Rolodex, populated by politicians, cabinet members, CEOs and a few Silicon Valley billionaires. It will be fascinating to see if he can turn it into gold for KaBOOM!–and for the millions of kids who are missing out on the essence of childhood.

6 thoughts on “KaBOOM!: When doing good isn’t good enough

  1. Gail Nayowith says:

    Take a look at the article in the SSIR called “To Get to the Good You Gotta Dance With the Wicked”. Full-throated advocacy, scaled public policy, expert implementation and community engagement are at the heart of work on root causes.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      Thank you, Gail, for pointing readers to your story in SSIR.
      Two points you make very much rang true with me.
      First, you encourage donors (you call them investors) “to support advocacy, community engagement, and public education work, which they’re still somewhat reluctant to do, despite years of organizational efforts to show that without these kinds of strategies, most attempts to achieve big goals simply won’t happen.
      Second, you write that “wicked problems need clear and detailed theories of change.”
      Thanks again for the comment.

      Like

  2. Laura Asiala says:

    Kaboom is a great organization and Darell a man of great vision. I appreciate his desire–and drive–to “move beyond” but also want to note with appreciation that the reason he can become this big voice and move on this most important issue is precisely because he’s already delivered big! Addressing a symptom is also powerful and gives credibility to Kaboom to go to the source.

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    1. Marc Gunther says:

      That’s a great point, thanks, Laura. I don’t want to dismiss incrementalism — it’s true, as they say, that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” — I do want to encourage nonprofits and especially their donors to thing bigger, as Darell and his colleagues at KaBOOM! are doing.

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  3. emaibach says:

    Interesting story. For me, it begs the question: Is there an organization that develops and lobbies city and state governments to adopt model child well-being legislation? ALEC (Am. Legislative Exchange Council) is a highly effective model of the opposite — it develops and lobbies for legislation that harms children — so hopefully they have an alter ego. If not, one is needed.

    Also related to this story is Anthony Biglan’s new book The Nurture Effect (see: nurturingenvironments.org). He synthesizes decades of prevention research that can provide the basis of such model legislation.

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