Tony Cipollone, president of the John T. Gorman Foundation, brings a track record of success in fighting the root causes of poverty in Atlanta and Baltimore. (Photo by C. Parrish)
Tony Cipollone, president of the John T. Gorman Foundation, brings a track record of success in fighting the root causes of poverty in Atlanta and Baltimore. (Photo by C. Parrish)
At 7:30 a.m. on a cold morning in Freeport last week, it was standing room only for those who came to hear Tony Cipollone discuss his targeted approach to breaking the cycle of poverty in Maine.

Cipollone, the first executive director of the John T. Gorman Foundation, which was started by L.L. Bean's grandson to address problems associated with poverty in Maine, successfully used strategic approaches to help transform disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore and Atlanta during his two decades at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In Maine, Cipollone is working to bring business leaders and non-profits together, pulling in the same direction to focus on the critical levers to reduce poverty and its impacts.

The key role that business and non-profits can play in Maine is to focus on improving family stability overall, Cipollone told those attending the Leadership Unplugged breakfast meeting hosted by the Maine Development Foundation on November 21.

Improving Family Stability Essential in Maine

Using data analysis that reveals key transition points in a child's life (such as third grade, when those who do not meet literacy levels become four times more likely to drop out of school later) and research on what works to effectively reduce poverty, combined with "hundreds of conversations in all Maine counties," Cipollone identified four strategic priorities for the Gorman Foundation to focus on in Maine:

• early childhood education
• helping vulnerable older youth transition into stable young adulthood
• working to help stabilize disadvantaged families so their children are less likely to fall behind
• and working to allow low-income seniors to stay in their homes as they age

To those ends, the Gorman Foundation is granting funding and working in partnership with others to intervene in what Cipollone characterized as "a continuous loop of lousy outcomes that disproportionately plague far too many of our disadvantaged and vulnerable Mainers."

Stress related to not having enough money to pay the bills or save money for lean times creates a family atmosphere where it is more difficult for young children to succeed in school than it is for children from stable families, said Cipollone.

"These are the families that are also likely to have the toughest time caring for an aging parent who needs their support in order to remain at home," he said.

"We know that poor children who do not academically succeed by age 8 are likely to fail in later years and are far more likely to become that older youth who struggle to become successful and independent adults."

"And poor, struggling older youth who don't get opportunities to successfully connect with education and employment are far too likely to become the new generation of parents without prospects and resources to adequately provide care for the new generation of kids."

The Economic Implications of Doing Nothing

The impacts of poverty affect all Mainers, socially and economically, said Cipollone.

In Maine, there is an 18-percent graduation gap among low-income youth who have access to free and reduced lunch and those who don't, he said.

The data show that disadvantaged youth are more likely to be homeless or to end up in the costly criminal justice system and are less likely to go on to post-high school education, he said.

"In rural Maine counties, the rate of youth who are 16 to 24 years old who are not working and not in school can be as high as 19 percent," said Cipollone. Similarly, parents in the same areas have the hardest time in the state finding jobs that pay enough to successfully provide for their families, he said.

"Of the 150,000 working families in Maine - that's those that rely on salary and wages for their income - more than 9,000 of them are living in poverty, in spite of being employed, making it far more difficult to meet basic needs or have resources that can tide them over during tough times."

"And we know that among our seniors, those with the lowest incomes struggle the most," said Cipollone.

In Maine, 44 percent of seniors are living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is 10 percent more than the rest of the state's population, and more than 12 percent are living below the poverty line ($11,670 annually for one, $15,730 for two in the same household), according to Cipollone. Again, the highest numbers are in rural areas, which creates additional challenges for providing housing, transportation, health services, and social interaction.
This is what the data shows, said Cipollone, and the gaps are visible and unacceptable. The data also provides direction on how to tackle those problems, which are entrenched but not unsolvable, said Cipollone.

"There is no reason why a child born today to a young, low-income single mom in Machias ought not to have the same opportunities to succeed as a child born into a Falmouth family. There is no reason that an 18-year-old who is in transition from foster care ought not to have the same opportunity to be mentored and supported through college or into the workforce as my child or yours. And there's no reason why parents working two and sometimes three jobs ought not to have the opportunity to gain enough economic traction to avoid having to make critical choices between things like child care and health care.

"If Maine is to thrive economically, and maintain the vibrancy, stability and social fabric of our communities, we believe that trying to level the playing field, to close the opportunity gap for those who are most at risk, it is one of the most important things we can do," said Cipollone.

How to Close the Opportunity Gap?

Under Cipollone, the Gorman Foundation is starting to measure the success of projects undertaken by other organizations that Gorman funds using a data-based framework. Instead of focusing on counting the numbers of people served - a typical measure of the success of a grant-funded effort - the Gorman Foundation measures whether anyone is better off as a result of the programs they have funded. They also train organizations in the same Results-Based Accountability framework, so that the success of different programs can be effectively compared and trends across time can measure improvement.

"We want to measure it. Did it actually make a difference to people? Are people that went through job training programs actually earning more and employed in year-round jobs? Are kids in literacy programs reading better? Are youth that are being mentored graduating at higher rates? Are rates of senior financial abuse declining as a result of outreach and education efforts that we support?"

"These are the kinds of results that tell us that we are moving from doing good to making a difference," said Cipollone.

Strategic Financial Investments . . . in People

The next and crucial step, said Cipollone, is to put the data in aggregate, then tease out specific priorities (such as literacy) that can reveal the physical locations where help is needed most and where strategic investments are likely to have the largest impacts.

"For example, if we want to improve reading proficiency by the end of third grade, and we do, this aggregated data should help us identify communities that fare the worst," said Cipollone.

Similarly, aggregated data will help the Gorman Foundation identify high schools and community colleges that are having the toughest time keeping high-risk students and having them move on to become successful, working adults, said Cipollone.

Partnerships and New Ideas

In spite of the general knowledge that poverty, education, family instability, homelessness, and crime are related, attempts to address those problems tend to focus on just one issue, often with limited success because of the complexity of the problems.

To address that, Cipollone said the John T. Gorman Foundation increasingly looks for opportunities to get multiple programs and organizations to combine and coordinate their efforts.

Cipollone also announced a new fellowship program that will bring in experts to work with partner organizations in the Results-Based Accountability framework, with the goal of individual organizations working more collaboratively, tracking the success of their efforts, and honing their approaches to addressing poverty.

"We need partners, collaborators, co-conspirators, to help change the world for our most challenged kids," said Cipollone.

Maine has the unique advantage of a small population size that allows us to wrap our arms around the problems, he said.

"We have a culture of relationships that is so essential for successful collaboration. That is something I have seen in few places. In Maine, we can move the needle and close the opportunity gap for those who need it."