Big Thought, a Dallas-based educational nonprofit, is launching a new division this year to provide professional development, curriculum design, technical assistance, and more to other nonprofits and organizations.
Called the Big Thought Institute, the new branch will offer a suite of consultation services based on the nonprofit’s evidence-based best practices. The team says it’s how they plan to implement these programs that will make the new Institute “uniquely effective,” specifically through a social and emotional focus, experiential learning, and community-centered partnerships.
“We obsess over design, ensuring that our work is research based, our staff is well trained, and that we are evaluating and enhancing our work year after year,” Big Thought wrote in its 2020 briefing, adding that the Institute will take these evidence-based best practices and share them with other groups.
The new division will be led by Senior Director Greg Macpherson, who says his goal is to engage clients across the country and reinvest those profits into growing the learning opportunities Big Thought already provides.
“It’s a way for us to share our best practices and key learnings from more than 30 years of doing this work, while generating revenue that can be reinvested into Big Thought’s core programs benefiting the youth and communities where we work,” he told Dallas Innovates. It will also be a way to share insights, learnings, data, and reports with other organizations.
Big Thought Institute will be where internal program research and evaluation work happens, so Macpherson plans to use it to improve his own team’s work, but also on a macro level—advancing education, access to opportunity, and ultimately, creating more equitable conditions for more youth and communities.
“Our vision for the Big Thought Institute is to share our expertise with organizations across the country that are looking to create unique learning and development experiences in their communities,” Byron Sanders, Big Thought’s CEO, says. “Our ability to bring learning programs to life is wide-ranging.”
Big Thought was founded in 1987 by Edith O’Donnell and Mitch Jericho as an affiliate of Young Audiences. In its early days, the group brought arts and cultural performances into classrooms, but later took on the Big Thought brand in 2004 as a way to reflect its enlarged scope and vision around serving children, educators, and families.
It’s now a national model in arts education, out of school time systems, summer learning, and juvenile justice intervention. The goal is to impact and improve the learning of kids in marginalized communities through a number of implementations, including:
- Making youth equal partners in its programs to make the systems more effective and programs established with a racial equality lens.
- Advocating on issues and policies around racial and economic equity.
- Raising awareness of creativity as a workplace skill.
- Scaling best practices through the Big Thought Institute.
- Designing the Big Thought headquarters into a youth-friendly, creative environment.
- Designing and implementing school models with creativity and youth agency at the core.
Sanders also points to projects the team has done outside of Big Thought, like providing professional development courses in social-emotional learning, producing a STEAM-based curriculum for Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and supporting another organization to create a city-wide learning system (locally, with the Dallas City of Learning).
It is that momentum and appetite for the work being done that Sanders says organically led to creating the Big Thought Institute.
“As our work in learning systems, arts education and social emotional learning has become more well known, we have been contacted by all different types of organizations—from cities, universities, companies, school districts and other nonprofits—looking for someone to help them create their learning-based experiences,” Sanders says. “We’ve already been sharing our expertise in curriculum design, professional development, and program design. The final decision to make Big Thought Institute an official department that would do consulting came as a function of our strategy.“
For now, the Institute, to Sanders, is an acknowledgement that Big Thought needed to scale beyond its own programs to maximize its impact on society. It’s still currently in the development stages, with the goal to officially launch this spring or summer. But the work is already beginning, with several projects already completed or in the process of completing for clients in Texas and beyond.
As for Big Thought’s core operation, Sanders says he and his team will continue working to close the opportunity gap, equipping youth in marginalized communities with the tools they need to succeed.
“The importance of creativity in all its forms, embedding social-emotional development in multiple sectors of society, reframing how youth-serving institutions view youth voice; all of these are ideas that manifest as methodologies,” he says. “Big Thought Institute is critical way for us to spread the ideas in meaningful ways to affect the systems affecting the youth we’re called to serve in our mission.”
Alex Edwards contributed to this report.
Get on the list.
Dallas Innovates, every day.
Sign up to keep your eye on what’s new and next in Dallas-Fort Worth, every day.