Inclusion and Adaptability: Two Keys to Funder Strategy Development

Justina Acevedo-Cross and Diego Arancibia

Over the years, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has formulated a number of grantmaking strategies that seek to improve the lives of children and families. In 2009, the Foundation set out to create a strategy to promote and expand high-quality summer learning experiences for students across California as a way to stem summer learning loss. With the project now in its final stages, we have had the opportunity to look back on what we have learned from the work, including important lessons about effectively pursuing a multi-year strategy with several partners involved, and how to build flexibility into an approach with a long-term goal.

Going into this work, the Packard Foundation knew from past experience that the best strategies are those formulated with grantees and partners. With that in mind, the Foundation turned at the onset to one of its partner organizations, the After School Assistance Providers Connect (ASAPconnect), which it had helped to create in its preexisting work in afterschool programs and policies.

A statewide organization designed to increase the individual knowledge of technical assistance providers so they can best support afterschool and summer programs, ASAPconnect was an obvious and valuable partner for helping to inform the framing of a new strategy for enhancing summer learning.

Thus, in developing a strategy, the Foundation was able to draw on ASAPconnect’s expertise in quality improvement, technical assistance, and knowledge of the struggles school districts face in developing and sustaining high-quality programs. As a result, the Foundation was able to clarify an effective strategy for strengthening the existing statewide expanded learning system of support for programs by including summer planning and design expertise as part of the offerings.

ASAPconnect was one of many partners at the table in building out this initiative. Engaging multiple perspectives means being adaptable — both in the planning stages and as the work unfolds. Issues that affect one partner or groups of partners can become everyone’s issues and may involve a course correction.

For example, another partner, the National Summer Learning Association, helped the group understand the importance of defining and designing high-quality programs rather than adopting a rapid expansion model that may minimize the focus on quality. And the Partnership for Children and Youth brought its expertise in communication and advocacy to the table to emphasize the importance of summer learning to combat summer learning loss.

These multiple perspectives made for a richer and more robust approach to the goal of promoting summer learning. As a result, the Foundation ended up with an integrated, three-pronged approach that included: 1.) support for 10 high-quality summer learning programs; 2.) a technical assistance infrastructure that evolved from ASAPconnect’s afterschool work; and 3.) a robust Summer Matters communication and advocacy campaign that heralded the importance and benefits of quality summer enrichment opportunities.

Looking back at this work, we found a key lesson about partnership and collaboration: once a strategy is determined and the work begins, all partners engaged in the strategy must be able to adapt to changes in the external environment. A change that seemingly affects only one can have implications for all. Communicating openly with partners and drawing on the unique resources and capabilities of all involved to adapt can be vital.

For example, in this case, technical assistance providers in the initiative discovered that a quality assessment tool, which was developed to help programs engage in quality improvement year after year and set focused improvement goals, was deemed too unwieldy by summer program directors and staff at many sites. It was through 10 programs’ testing and using the tool that solutions for how to adapt the tool emerged. Grantees worked with Foundation staff and other partners at the table to ultimately develop a more streamlined and user-friendly assessment tool. The continuous feedback loop with the 10 programs helped the Foundation and its partners learn quickly about what was and wasn’t working, and allowed an opportunity to make changes to the approach.

Additionally, the advent of Common Core standards in California meant competition for investment in education programs and professional development for staff that aligned with California’s new standards. In light of this, technical assistance providers realized they needed to find ways to help summer program coordinators identify areas of alignment with the Common Core so they could speak the same language as district officials. In facing this unexpected challenge, drawing on the compelling messaging of the Summer Matters advocacy campaign was crucial in helping program coordinators understand how to connect the dots between summer enrichment and Common Core academic standards.

And somewhat unexpectedly, the passage of California’s Local Control Funding Formula a few years ago allowed local school districts to choose to allocate more dollars to summer learning. This presented a new opportunity, and Summer Matters partners and ASAPconnect worked together to combine the campaign messaging and summer learning program successes to encourage other sites throughout the state to access new funds for their own summer programs.

Inclusion and adaptability don’t always make for smooth sailing. In the early years of this initiative, partners had to work to develop trust in the Foundation and in one another. The Foundation helped foster that trust by being clear about its multiyear commitment, listening carefully, questioning assumptions (its own and those of other partners), and being open to new ideas and adjusting the strategy based on feedback from grantees.

The Foundation gained trust by making sure funded demonstration programs knew that their quality assessment ratings were not used to make funding decisions. It also supported programs to narrowly focus on a few elements of quality that could be improved upon in a year, while at the same time helping to foster an overall spirit of continuous improvement. Simplifying these signals of success helped grantees understand expectations and set their work plans.

A successful strategy is rather like a successful relationship. Early on, partners plot a future course together. They learn to respect one another and speak truthfully. As time passes, they encounter roadblocks and setbacks — some mild, some potentially catastrophic. They will need to adapt. But if their commitment to one another and to their shared future remains strong, and the lines of communication remain open and authentic, they will be able to build something remarkable together.

Justina Acevedo-Cross is a program officer for the Children, Families, and Communities (CFC) program at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @justina_i_am.

Diego Arancibia is director of ASAPconnect.

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