The Big Lift Collaborative

Fall-Winter 2014
Project Type
Full team
Project Focus
Cost Analysis,
Organization Type
Children, Youth & Families,
Government or Public Services


The Big Lift is a collective impact initiative, formed by San Mateo County’s top government, nonprofit, foundation, and business leaders to improve the county’s children’s ability to read at grade level by third grade. The initiative’s primary goals are: to increase the percent of children ready for kindergarten and reading at grade level by third grade, viewed as the key to long-term academic and economic success, from 58% to 80% by 2020; to provide two free quality preschool years for those who can’t afford to pay; and to develop outcomes focus with data and true accountability.

Big Lift has secured a $10,000,000 matching grant from the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and $500,000 in donations from the Kellogg Foundation and Race to the Top, as well as financial support from the San Mateo County Office of Education, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, United Way, and the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2). One hundred and forty participating organizations are now committing resources to this plan.


San Mateo County is in the top one percent of affluent counties in the nation, yet 42% of the county’s children are not reading at grade level by third grade. This number rises to 60% for Latino, African American, and Pacific Islander children. The costs to the community are far-reaching with outlays for special education, remedial education, juvenile justice, social welfare, substance abuse, criminal justice, incarceration, etc., as well as lost tax revenues from unemployment and lower wage jobs.

Big Lift’s budgets for the first two years of its plan are $3,200,000 and $7,100,000 respectively, and the ongoing annual budget after completing the rollout to all school districts is $50,000,000. To sustain the plan, major funding will be required, almost certainly from the public sector.

Project Objectives

The Big Lift asked an ACT team to help build a return on investment model for spending on early childhood reading in San Mateo County. The project focus was to provide a financial foundation for efforts to raise additional funding to reach the goal of 80% of children reading at grade level by third grade.

Project Overview

The project consisted of four phases:

  • Literature review to determine what research was available to build on to create a local ROI model
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Creation of an ROI model
  • Use case scenarios and story development

Key Recommendations

- Model development:

  • Continue to focus on highest-risk students to retain the current cost-benefit ratio
  • Conduct regular updates to the student mix in order to maintain model integrity, as the model is highly sensitive to the characteristics of the students
  • Modify cost structure as the program grows
  • Maintain the model as newer data becomes available so that it remains useful

- Messaging:

  • Keep primary message focused around the community benefits of the BigLift, as a cost-benefit ratio projection is only a baseline for most people
  • Focus on the children first and then the cost-benefit ratio

Final Report Outline

  • Overview of the project and approach (literature research)
  • Model findings and limitations
  • Messaging (strategy session and business community interviews)
  • Recommendations and next steps