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Program officer honored for innovative grantmaking

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By Ret Boney

Nancy Latimer wanted to be a teacher but, after indulging her maternal instincts with her own five children, she longed to create broader change in her community.

“I was more interested in systems change and larger-scale changes than the one-on-one of teaching,” she says.

That ultimately led her to the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis, where she spent two decades as a program officer, helping to strengthen rural communities, fight child abuse and ensure underprivileged children are ready for school.

In recognition of that work, Latimer, who retired in June, received the 2005 Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking from the Council on Foundations, a Washington, D.C.-based association of grantmakers.

“Not only did she create this program, but she also documented the success of the program so she can share it with other people in the field,” Evelyn Gibson, director of awards programs at the council,” Evelyn Gibson, director of awards programs at the council, says of Latimer’s initiative to fight child abuse.

After raising her five children, Latimer went back to school to earn a master’s degree in public affairs, and spent six months working in state government.

“That cured me of wanting to work in state government,” she says, but the experience would later prove invaluable in her foundation work, where she convinced the state to bring her child-abuse program to scale.

After graduating, she spent four-and-a-half years at the St. Paul Foundation before joining the larger McKnight Foundation, which has about $2 billion in assets and awarded $85 million in grants last year.

                        Nancy Latimer

Job: Retired senior program officer, McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis

Education: B.A., liberal arts, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.; master’s, public affairs, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Minneapolis

Family: Husband, George Latimer, former mayor of St. Paul; three sons, two daughters, eight grandchildren

Born: 1937, Oneonta, N.Y.

Hobbies: Reading, traveling; formerly gardening, biking

Currently reading: “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World,” by Jack Weatherford

Book to recommend: “When the Bough Breaks,” by Sylvia Hewlett

Inspiration: Husband, who started the first early-childhood department in St. Paul city government during his tenure as mayor.

Her first major project at the foundation was helping to create six independent foundations in rural parts of the state designed to boost their people and regions, a program that has received more than $200 million in funding from the foundation.

“We met many times and they decided their number one focus would be economic development and jobs,” Latimer says of the program, which covered all non-metro areas of the state. “The second focus was human services, but it was different for each of them depending on what they needed.”

Since the program’s inception in 1986, the six foundations have awarded more than $67 million in grants and almost $100 million in loans, have created some 26,000 jobs and amassed combined endowment assets of $118 million, the McKnight Foundation estimates.

A few years after Latimer wrapped up her work on the rural initiative, a board member showed her several newspaper articles about children who had been critically injured or killed as a result of child abuse, and asked how the foundation could help.

After researching the issue for nine months, Latimer decided to focus the foundation’s efforts on a middle-of-the-road approach and developed a program called Alternative Response.

“Not the treatment and not the mass communications,” she says.  “But right in the middle, with highly at-risk families who had not had their children taken away.”

The program, which works through county and community-based agencies, centers around services for the families, as well as “a little free money” for parents to do special things to bond with their children, like buy a birthday cake or visit the zoo.

Latimer built a rigorous evaluation component into the program, which started in one county and expanded to a second, and included an analysis of benefits to the families, a cost-benefit analysis and a control group of 100 families.

“We knew that if we wanted to make a difference on a large scale, we needed to prove it was successful,” Latimer says.

It was so successful in the initial two counties in reducing the number of repeat reports, reducing the severity of abuse and saving the counties’ money, that the state later took over the program and broadened it to all 87 counties through legislation.

Latimer, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, retired from the foundation in June as her energy began to wane, and now serves on a local board and spends time with her grandchildren.

But she still consults on projects for the foundation, including a program focused on youth in crisis.

“We have a real gap between minority kids and white kids in terms of achievements, juvenile delinquency and all those indicators,” Latimer says.  “We know it’s more effective to provide those services early.”

To do that, she recently helped the foundation launch its early-childhood initiative, which in part will create classes in nine public elementary schools for children under age five using highly-trained teachers, a well-developed curriculum and support for families.

The program incorporates evaluation, including a control group.

If successful, Latimer says, the foundation will take the program to the state for expansion.

“A lot of foundation people are afraid of working with bureaucrats because there is a lot of red tape,” she says.  “But I’ve found that’s really the way to get things done.  They can be really good if they think you’re on their side.”

Working with government, including enlisting support to take promising programs to scale, as Latimer has done, is important for funders, she says.

“The important part is for the public and foundations to be more aware of the common good, the way we used to several years ago,” she says.  “And be less concerned with individuals and individual achievement.”

Photo taken by Steve Neidorf

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