By Nicole Harden, UWBA Vice President of Economic Success
It was 2009. We were in the middle of a housing market crash, individuals and families were losing work, and 1 in 4 Bay Area families couldn’t make ends meet. This was the environment in which United Way Bay Area chose to launch SparkPoint, one of mass layoffs, foreclosures and evictions, and tremendous financial uncertainty.
The Great Recession was a full-blown financial crisis across the United States that left many of our Bay Area neighbors in dire straits and presented challenges we knew we couldn’t solve alone. We reached out to the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, MD to gain insights on their Center for Working Families model which coordinates “key services at single, convenient locations, making these resources more accessible to individuals and families needing assistance.”
The idea was to build out a Collective Impact Model here in the Bay Area that could bring the co-located, integrated, and bundled services to low-income individuals and families.
Our first SparkPoint location launched in Oakland in collaboration with local community partners, including East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), Operation Hope, LifeTime Helps, the Women’s Initiative, and the Workforce Collaborative all working towards the same goals, under one umbrella.
We worked with partners that were from, and whose staff reflected, the communities we wanted to serve; while making sure this model was created with experts in the field, who not only knew financial concepts but knew them within the context of working with people experiencing poverty.
Our centers provided a wide range of financial services with a client-first approach – clients set their own goals and our coaches provide long-term support in achieving outcomes. Working together, we helped families in four main areas: income, credit, debt, and savings. SparkPoint services included:
Since implementing SparkPoint, 13 years ago, we’ve learned that while not all bundled services are equal, bundling services is incredibly impactful. We’ve also learned that achieving goals looks different for each family and it is not necessarily a linear process, but clients who do achieve ALL SparkPoint outcomes maintain them.
Additionally, we found that SparkPoint Community schools specifically improved the economic outcomes of whole families, making parents feel more engaged with their children’s academic journeys. The difference has been attributed to several factors like addressing immediate needs that alleviate financial stress, providing integrated services, and taking a holistic, student-centered approach.
Over the years, SparkPoint has changed in many ways, but our tenets and identity have remained steadfast. The truths that continue to guide our work:
We’ve built a network of over 20 locations across the Bay Area, proudly opening our most recent on October 12, 2022 at Community College of San Francisco.
To date, we have served over 42,000 people across all the centers in both post-secondary and K-12 spaces.
As we look ahead, we see growth in numerous areas, especially our basic needs programming. We recognize that it’s nearly impossible for people to move forward if their basic needs aren’t being met. This is even more imperative for students and families. This is why we are excited to be piloting SparkPoint in a second new San Francisco location this year – San Francisco State University – our first four-year institution.
Thinking on our role over the course of the coming years, it’s our job to ensure underserved communities in our region can access the services that will help them achieve their goals, and in doing so, we will be continuing the push to eradicate poverty in the Bay Area. We will continue to scale the SparkPoint program, working with the community through our ambassadors to ensure their voice and decision-making power remain central to our programming design.
Our hope moving forward is that SparkPoint not only continues to grow and be recognized for its amazing work, but that its impact continues to be felt by the community in a manner that creates generational change. Please visit our website to learn more about SparkPoint services and how you can get involved.