Emergency Aid Lab Forum 1 MAY 1-3, 2017 - airlie, VA

The Challenge

It is estimated that more than three million students in the US leave college each year due to a small (under $1,000) but time-critical financial crisis.

College affordability is an increasingly formidable challenge for many students from low- income backgrounds. Research shows that an unexpected, relatively small personal financial crisis—such as a car that needs repair or a medical emergency—can cause a vulnerable student to drop out of college. Providing modest (<$1,500) but timely financial support to these students can often create the necessary path through the crisis and enable them to graduate.

This type of funding, referred to as emergency aid, is a one-time payment to bridge a temporary financial gap due to an unforeseen event. Despite the effectiveness of emergency aid in helping vulnerable students to graduate, the approach is not well understood or effectively administered. Seventy percent of higher education institutions in the US offer emergency aid; however, few have an established program or methodology to ensure that the aid has maximum impact and reach.

To help address these challenges, Reos Partners is pleased to launch the Emergency Aid Lab (EAL), with funding provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates FoundationThe EAL seeks to achieve a “new normal” of effective emergency financial aid across a critical mass of higher education institutions in the US. A key objective is to create a credible and user-friendly playbook of best practices for effectively implementing emergency financial aid on campuses. The playbook will be co-created, tested, and continually evolved by an engaged community of practitioners and partners.

Our Activities:

  1. Building a vibrant EAL Community of Practice - a peer-to-peer community of emergency aid champions keen to share learnings and continuously evolve emergency financial aid best practices. The community includes forward-thinking institutions, key stakeholders, and experts in emergency aid and innovation.
  2. Working in depth with the EAL Innovation Cohort (a subset of the Community of Practice) to fast-track the research, design, and implementation of emergency financial aid innovations on their campuses.

Our Outputs:

A codified set of tools and practices - "The EA Playbook" - that will include the elements of "what" is needed and the "how" of implementation.

Gathering in Airlie for our first EAL Forum

EAL Forum 1 marked the kick-off of the initiative. Members gathered in Airlie Hotel and Conference Centre near Washington, DC for three intensive days of perspective-sharing, relationship-building, and collaboration.

Objectives of EAL Forum 1:

  • To build a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities of financial emergency aid (EA) - based on diverse perspectives
  • To bring together and capacitate a community focused on advancing EA around the country.
  • To identify, develop, and build commitment to key priority areas that will advance EA.

Forum Agenda

Day One: Exploring the Current State of EA

  • Introductions and Object Sharing Circle
  • Working Systemically, Collaboratively, and Creatively
  • NASPA Landscape Analysis of Emergency Aid Programs
  • Current State Synthesis Report
  • Progressive Dinner

Day Two: Looking Below the Waterline

  • Looking at EA using systems lens
  • Exploring challenges and opportunities
  • Education Online Community onboarding
  • Developing approaches to address key challenges (LEGO Serious Play)
  • Report back and coaching

Day Three: Convergence

  • Finalize work on key approaches and present
  • Clarify roles and commitments
  • Innovation Cohort working session

Day One

Exploring the Current State of Emergency Aid

Participants were asked to introduce themselves and share an object that represents for them the current state of financial emergency aid in their own institution or the field in general. Together, the story of the objects helped to paint a fuller pictures of the current state of emergency aid from diverse perspectives.

Some of the objects shared:

  • Ripped dollar bill – represents for every dollar we need in EA, we have about 25 cents.
  • Band-aid – EA acts like a bandaid and sometimes it's not enough. We need other help to address the larger issue.
  • Tic tac toe board – Even if you play it right, sometimes you just can’t win. You can try your best to get EA, but something will likely get in the way.
  • Cell phone – I am constantly receiving emails about students in crisis. We're communicating as best we can but it's not systematic.
  • Rubics cube / puzzle – There are a lot of moving pieces. It requires dedication and persistence to get the pieces to work together.
  • Receipt – We need proof that the student has a need.
  • Staff ID – I run programs for those who are at-risk, homeless, from foster care. My passion is to serve students in need.
  • Paper clip – Like EA, this is designed for one function, but has many purposes. With a bit of pressure, it can be manipulated, linked with other paper clips to make a chain.
  • Calendar – We produce and sell this calendar to raise funds for EA every year.
  • Anti wrinkle cream – Far too little and far too late!
  • First aid kit – There are different sizes of first aid kits for different situations. The same should be true for EA.
  • Stevie Wonder live album – No two people look alike at his concerts, all the stories about favorite songs are different, just like our students' stories.
  • Ear buds – powerful tool or useless if not connected with the person who wants to use them.
  • "Collapse" by Jared Diamond – This book charts the collapse of societies because they do the same thing over and over. We need to challenge assumptions, how we work, who our students are.
  • Helping hand - 95% who receive EA at our school stay enrolled in that semester.
"It can be a little overwhelming. There are so many things at play, how do you start?"
"Hearing about the different situations gets my thought process going. I know a lot about this now, so I can contribute to the solutions."

Introduction to Working Systemically, Collaboratively, and Creatively

The importance of taking intentional detours. Joe McCarron (Reos Partners) introduced tools of the social lab approach: Creative Process Framing (Diverge-Emerge-Converge) and U-Process (co-sensing, co-presencing, co-creating).
Monica Pohlmann (Reos Partners) shared the Four Ways of Talking & Listening, which participants practiced in pairs.
Amelia Parnell, Amy Geist, and Omari Burnside (NASPA) shared key learnings of the NASPA Emergency Aid Programs Landscape Analysis.

Voices from the Field

While there is growing agreement on the key puzzle pieces of a robust emergency aid program, practitioner tested guidance on how to put them all together on campus is not yet widely available. Over the past few months, Reos Partners conducted dialogue interviews with over 20 champions in the emergency aid field across the US to gather their perspectives. The synthesis is organized into 28 key questions raised by interviewees, which are sorted into categories inspired by the 10 components of a robust EA program as outlined in NASPA's Landscape Analysis (link included above).

Forum participants reviewed the synthesis report and shared their thoughts about what was missing, what was surprising, and what were the key questions that most resonated with them.

Most important questions:

  1. How to create a student support system that addresses needs holistically and sustainably? [20 votes]
  2. How to evaluate the value/ROI of....[12 votes]
  3. How to better understand student needs and context, particularly low income, first generation, and minority students? [9 votes]
  4. How to better leverage data to improve the timeliness and effectivness of EA programs? [9 votes]
  5. How to provide better staff training around cultural competency, empathy building, and equity? [9 votes]
  6. How to build a campus culture where empathy, cultural competency, and equity inform policy and EA practices? [8 votes]
  7. How to understand and reconcile different definitions of emergency? [7 votes]
  8. How to ensure we are giving EA to the students that need it most? [7 votes]

Most surprising:

  • No common language or definition for EA.
  • A 2-year college doesn’t experience stigma the same way a 4-year college does.
  • Senior level admins blaming students for their situation, and that’s problematic.
  • If they don’t have the money, they don’t have the money. I'm surprised at focus on financial literacy.
  • Opinions or perceptions came up instead of data.
  • Undocumented students may not want to self-identify.
  • Cultural competence – these things target sub-sets of students. It’s not that they are the only ones who are not good at financial planning, they just can’t get away with it… it's a "blaming the victim" thing.
  • There's a mental model that everyone should be able to take out loans.
  • The population of students we are talking about already have resiliency and skills to getting resources they need – we don’t build on that? Empower them to use resources they already have.

What's missing:

  • No student interviews were conducted. We need to get their input to expand on the content.
  • What are the current internal systemic processes that lead to emergency financial situations? How are institutions causing crises?
  • Outside organizations that are allies and champions of EA.
  • There's an underlying assumption that people who need EA are lower socio-economic. That’s not always our experience. Some are okay one day and not the next. That is something to look at.
  • Faculty of voices - they often have the most direct relationships with students.
  • Best practices for small, private institutions.
  • Ideas around long-term financial health for students (eg. debt burdens, debt to income ratio after college).
  • Institutional mission – is this a central part of your institution’s mission? Are you included in the budget? If not, how do you make it so?
  • How do we partner with external entities for raising funds without jumping through hoops? It costs us more to get money than helping those who need it.
At the Progressive Dinner, Sarah Bauder (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) spoke about how the EAL came to be and the greater vision around supporting college student success.

Day Two

Looking below the waterline

It was a beautiful morning, so we headed outdoors with the goal of further getting to know each other. Through a socio-gram activity, participants arranged themselves along a spectrum to represent where they live, where they're from, length of time in a EA-related role, and introverts vs. extroverts. We also explored the different types of innovators in our group - disruptors, bridgers, and receivers - highlighting the value of each and how they complement each other.

"Our work together in EAL is about being both on the dance floor (doing the work) and on the balcony (observing and reflecting on the work)."
Joe McCarron (Reos Partners) shared frameworks that describe the nature of complex problems (dynamic, social, generative) and approaches to address them (systemic, collaborative, creative/experimental).
Systems Thinking Iceberg - This helps us step back and identify patterns related to a problem, the structures related to those patterns, and the beliefs and worldviews that perpetuate the structures. What’s radical about working through this activity is that it helps us identify our own mental models—how we think about a certain issue and why.
Seashore Analogy - defining the scope of our system
Participants split into groups to discuss case studies presented by members of the Innovation Cohort. Using the Systems Thinking Iceberg, they identified key patterns, structures, and mental models.

Challenges and Opportunities

Participants found partners for their paired walk to reflect on the following questions: What mental models are alive in me? What mental models do I need to let go of to have the greatest impact?

“In order for us to co-create the future of emergency financial aid to support college student success, what are the key challenges we need to address?” Teams self-organized around the challenge that they had the most energy for.

Jessica Fan (Reos Partners) introduced the EAL Community Engagement and Knowledge Sharing strategy. Kimberly Phillips (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Courtney O'Brien (Context Partners), and Jamira Burley (Context Partners) onboarded participants to the Education Community Online Platform.
Rapid-Cycle Prototyping with LEGO Serious Play
Picasso - a creative genius at work.

Lessons in Creativity from Picasso:

  • The creative process is a hunt - not a projection of something already seen or known in one's mind.
  • Be willing to let go - Don’t get too attached too early. We are watching Picasso destroy as willingly as he creates.
  • Be bold in proposing new solutions

Participants got in touch with their creative side as they used LEGO to prototype solutions to their teams' challenge. They created individual models, then were asked to combine them into a single approach - with half the pieces! Some struggled at first, but soon everyone was adding/removing blocks, listening, pitching, and experimenting together. It was a great mixture of collaborative energy and thoughtful discussion.

Rules of LEGO Serious Play:

  1. Everyone participates
  2. If you don’t know what to build, just start building.
  3. There is no one right way to build.
  4. Your model means what you say it means.
  5. Always tell a story referring to your model.

In the following videos, teams describe prototypes of their solutions, important questions, hypotheses to be tested, next steps, the EAL vision, and people who need to be involved:

Holistic Approach

(Due to technical issues, LEGO model video could not be uploaded.)

Internal Communication

Measuring Effectiveness

(Due to technical issues, LEGO model video could not be uploaded.)

National Common Application for Emergency Aid

Defining Emergency

Funding and Resources

External Communication

(Due to technical issues, LEGO model video could not be uploaded.)


(Due to technical issues, LEGO model video could not be uploaded.)



The previous day was about challenging assumptions and embracing co-creation. Teams ended up with promising ideas, but also many new questions. It pushed many outside their comfort zones and left people feeling tired, nervous, but also excited.

Day three began with a martial arts-inspired energizer led by John Griffin (Reos Partners), where participants re-connected through leading and following their partners' movements. The teams then dove into advancing their previous day's work by creating action plans and clarifying commitments.

Individuals self-identified as champions of their challenge topic, committing to keeping the momentum going and testing solutions on their campuses. The five champion-led teams - Holistic Approach, Measuring Effectiveness, National Common Application for EA, Defining Emergency, and Funding & Resources - continued to refine their strategies and plan next steps, incorporating feedback shared by others.



Champions: Sarah Crawford, Zee (Zauyah) Waite, Joan Zanders


Champions: Lu Phillips, Adrienne Slaughter, Lorianna Mapps

National Common Application for Emergency Aid

Champions: Boyd, Shari, Despina, Mike Marino (active member)


Champions: Billy-Ray Davis, Governor Jackson


Champions: Mary-Alice Ozechoski (toolkit), Mike Nylund (national)

Final community check-out.

What is one key take-away from this meeting? What is a commitment that you are willing to make to continue the momentum?

"We’re not alone, we have a community. I have a whole new network of folks to reach out to."
"What seemed unapproachable at first is now approachable."
"Whenever we got too far from it, someone always remembered to talk about the student and their needs."
"We had great food downstairs, great food for thought up here."
"The amount of brain trust in the room and ability to work with each other to help students where they need to be; this is very personal to me."
"One size does not fit all. I can see there will be a variety of approaches to get to similar end goals."
"Space for deep thinking and reflection is too scarce and very necessary."
"I know I can definitely go back to campus and utilize this information."
"Inspiration from all of you who work on campuses. You inspire me to make the work we do better and more useful for all of you."
"Learning this process of sharing ideas opened my eyes. I gained knowledge and learned that it's okay to have different perspectives. This helps find solutions for people."
"My college has a good program, but we can do more."
"There is so much wisdom and knowledge in this room; I have made great connections to evolve the program on my campus."
"The passion that exists this issue; how nuanced how it is; no one solution will work for all."
"It's okay that we don’t have all the answers with the challenges we face in EA and it's okay to take this space to figure it out."
"How much creative confidence and entrepreneurial energy there is in this room."
"I have new appreciation for the complexity of this challenge and the passion everyone has to do great work for present and future students."
"Conversation has already been impactful. Many of us will go back to campus and look at EA differently and see students anew – we will already do something different that will impact someone’s life."
"We’ve had excellent leadership in this venture. The synergy of this group has moved the needle significantly on this issue. We’ve advanced further than we might realize right now."
"Struck by all of you – you get passionate people together, take a deliberate pause from busy lives, it’s beautiful what emerges out of it. Smile, laughter, singing."
"Yes we can. Wow, we got a lot done in short amount of time. Thank you for reminding me that there are people doing the head work and heart work. It's not just a job, but a vocation. It's more than rolling out coins, but giving hope."
"There’s a lot of chaos before we head in one direction."
"Never underestimate the power of post-its, LEGO, and markers for suspending disbelief. It's good to look at a problem differently."
"I am humbled by complete strangers who are committed to a life time of work together."

EAL Forum 1 has come to an end, marking the beginning of five initial workstreams led by passionate champions from across the country:

Holistic Approach

  • Champions: Sarah Crawford, Zee (Zauyah) Waite, Joan Zanders

Measuring Effectiveness

  • Champions: Lu Phillips, Adrienne Slaughter, Lorianna Mapps

Defining "Emergency" and "Emergency Aid"

  • Champions: Billy-Ray Davis, Governor Jackson

National Common Application for Emergency Aid

  • Champions: Shari Garmise, Boyd Yarbrough, Despina Costopoulos

Funding & Resources

  • Champions: Mary-Alice Ozechoski, Mike Nylund

These teams will be moving forward with their action plans over the coming months - testing assumptions and co-creating solutions with a new perspective of the emergency aid system. Reos Partners will continue to provide support throughout the innovation and community-building process. Two future EAL Forums are currently being scheduled for Nov 2017 and April 2018.

The Innovation Cohort teams met for an extra session to discuss next steps and learning agendas. Reos Partners will be organizing additional meetings and workshops to accelerate innovations on these campuses.

If you have questions about the Emergency Aid Lab, please contact Monica Pohlmann: pohlmann@reospartners.com

Changemakers have fun too!


Reos Partners

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