Tripling the reach of one’s service in just four months — from 500,000 to 1.5 Million — would be impressive and rewarding for anyone. But for TalkingPoints, a non-profit with a multilingual tech platform that helps teachers communicate with families in any of 100 languages, scaling rapidly was a response to an emergency situation. Without TalkingPoints, some of the nation’s most vulnerable children and their families might not know about resources to keep them fed, healthy, and learning after pandemic-related school closures last spring.
TalkingPoints was founded to help teachers connect with families — especially low-income, immigrant and refugee families who might not even speak English — because we know that family engagement drives positive academic outcomes. Even before the pandemic, TalkingPoints’ impact was clear:
96% of TalkingPoints teachers surveyed said they saw positive changes in student performance, behavior and attendance. In a separate survey conducted by WestEd, 87% of all TalkingPoints families surveyed and 100% of those whose primary language was not English reported that they were more involved in their child’s education after using TalkingPoints.
When schools across the country started closing their doors because of the new coronavirus, we were concerned that information for critical human needs (food, healthcare, etc) might only be available in English. We also knew that distance learning would not work without strong teacher-family communications. Teachers and families needed TalkingPoints to overcome language barriers.
Deciding to make TalkingPoints free for Title I schools and districts serving our country’s neediest families was easy, as was opting to make the already free version for teachers more robust. Driving growth wasn’t the hard part either — word-of-mouth fueled demand among teachers and districts reflecting the increasing need as more schools closed. The challenge was in scaling our operations quickly and efficiently and in raising the philanthropic funding to do so. These were challenges we were eager to undertake because we understood the very real, human need. How many families might go hungry if we failed?
Our already powerful sense of mission became urgent and gave the entire team razor-sharp focus. (This was especially important because, like so many workplaces, our office also had to close during this time and we were all working from home.) It also forced us to prioritize ruthlessly as we repurposed the entire organization around our COVID-19 response. This included:
- Establishing a COVID-19 webpage with resources for schools, teachers and families;
- Adjusting in-app content development to focus on distance learning;
- Shifting organizational resources to support onboarding at scale via webinars, an expanded resource center and extended support chat while hiring a flexible customer support staff team;
- Accelerating hires (both full-time and contractors), across engineering, customer success, implementation/onboarding, and user training; and,
- Seeking emergency response funding and re-negotiating vendor contracts to increase support and manage rapidly rising costs.
We had to be nimble. Scaling capacity under tight timelines meant running a tight ship with increased levels of communication and frequent touchpoints. Every morning started with stand-ups and check-ins for our COVID-19 taskforce team and those focused on partnerships, implementation, and fundraising. As a result, we were able to scale to achieve tremendous growth between March and June of this year, including a 10X increase in the number of daily sign ups, 8-10X growth in conversations volume (approximately 500,000 messages each day). We are now reaching more than 1.5 Million families, three times as many families as we did at the start of the pandemic.
We achieved this growth through teachers telling teachers, via word-of-mouth. They saw the difference it made to be able to communicate with families, meeting them where they were, through readily available technology they already owned (their mobile phone), and, in their own language. Recently, when we surveyed the teachers and families currently using TalkingPoints, 98% of TalkingPoints teachers and 94% of families said TalkingPoints’ support was very helpful during the COVID-19-related school closures. Teachers have repeatedly written to us calling TalkingPoints a ‘lifesaver’ during a critical time. This is particularly meaningful when you consider that TalkingPoints families are among the most vulnerable in the country. Two-thirds of them qualify for a free or reduced price lunch.
We learned a lot of lessons during this time, especially with regard to scaling quickly. Some of them are best practices we had already implemented or that had been recommended to us. Others were lessons learned the hard way. Either way, they are worth sharing here in case others find them helpful:
- Focus: Rally around a simple, tangible goal that can unify and motivate the team.
- Be ruthless: Use that goal to prioritize. We were single-handedly focused on serving high-need schools, districts and teachers and making sure TalkingPoints was in the hands of those who most needed it.
- Be nimble: We made it our top priority to listen to our educators and families and what they needed, and to meet those needs considering that all schools were now virtual. We had to drum up new, novel ways of reaching our community, such as webinars, and develop content to support remote learning.
- Be action-focused: We used quick check-ins and frequent touch points – including daily reporting of data and COVID-19 specific dashboards — to keep everyone on the same page. We were quick to anticipate staffing needs and leveraged our networks to expand our team, many of whom we have now welcomed as full-time team members
- Remain connected to your mission: We knew we were asking a lot of our team, particularly during a difficult time when we were all having to respond to major changes in both their personal and professional lives. Our team had no difficulty stepping up because we understood the importance of our work and the difference we were making in families’ lives.
Crises have the potential to bring out the best in people and this proved to be true within TalkingPoints. The team rose to the challenge so that we could triple our reach in just a few months. The increased capacity we developed and the “muscle” for scaling we built will both serve us well as the pandemic continues and more schools turn to TalkingPoints this fall. We also hope that schools’ investment in family engagement during this time will continue to pay dividends even in a post-pandemic world when all schools re-open their doors and children and teachers are once again reunited in the classroom.
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