As funders we are always looking for results—we spend most of our time evaluating grants to see if they fit in the Request for Proposal framework but not enough time to assess what happened post grant award. For United Ways and maybe community foundations as well donors want to know—what is the value-added? Why not just invest directly in a nonprofit organization and get the maximum impact for your dollar? As we looked to leverage our education investments, improve program effectiveness, build capacity and ultimately report outcomes to donors we established a partnership with our grantees over three years that included multiple year grants, shared measures, shared data tools and in many ways most importantly direct technical assistance to funded partners on how to interpret data, use it to tell their story and improve program effectiveness.
For us “community impact” included improving educational outcomes for children and youth, building organizational capacity and mobilizing community resources. The common impact measures included school attendance, report card grades in math and literacy, and developmental assets as measured by the SEARCH Institute’s Developmental Assets Profile (DAP). We also looked at program participation, grantee use of data and engagement with families and schools.
As one would imagine at first grantees were extremely resistant—yet another funder telling them they had to evaluate program effectiveness to meet the funder’s needs. And in some ways they are correct—what we tried to do differently was provide one on one technical assistance to each funded partner to enable them to develop their evaluation, monitor student success, improve program effectiveness and tell their story. At the end of two years this is what we learned:
- Of the 22 mentoring, out of school summer and /or tutoring programs we funded 15 made program improvements to more effectively support student learning. Examples include increased program wide and individualized supports in literacy and math as a result of using report card data, improved school attendance using incentives, and added or enhanced activities to promote specific qualitative assets as a result of DAP results
- Learning communities (that are a part of the full grant program) resulted in shared resources, best practices and improvements in family engagement
- Engaging with schools to promote data sharing and program alignment was challenging—it was often difficult to receive report cards and school attendance data
As a result in year three we will be working with school districts to facilitate the connection between schools and community services through data sharing, continue to support grantee learning opportunities, and work with the evaluator to better align student-level results. While we have seen positive trends in student results (math and literacy grades and school attendance) this lack of access to student data has been a barrier.
We are currently looking at what we will do for the next multiple year funding RFP in support of the educational success of children and youth—one thing we know for sure assisting grantees in how to develop evaluation systems, interpret data, and use it for program improvements is a critical partnership that over time, whether we fund a program or not, is a system-change approach with longer term benefits.
It is not “rocket science” but a good lesson learned—partnering with grantees (which by the way cost less than 10% over three years of the full grant portfolio) breaks down barriers, strengthens programs, builds capacity and most importantly improves student outcomes.
Sylvia de Haas Phillips is the Senior Vice President of Community Impact & Engagement at United Way of Pioneer Valley.