Irvine Foundation examines missteps

In an effort to learn from its “shortcomings” and warn other funders of similar pitfalls, the James Irvine Foundation has published a report detailing its decision to alter an eight-year $60 million program at the half-way mark.

In “Midcourse Corrections to a Major Initiative,” the foundation examines the internal and external issues that plagued its Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning, launched in 1999, as well as lessons learned in the process.

Nicknamed CORAL, the program aimed to boost the performance of low-achieving students in California in five sites.

In 2003, the foundation launched a mid-term assessment due to several precipitating factors, including low student enrollment, low ratings for programming, and increasing costs.

At the same time, the foundation had undergone leadership changes, a decline in assets and was focusing on standards and accountability, all of which forced the funder to take a hard look at the program and shift priorities.

Due to several “inherent challenges,” foundations often don’t make necessary mid-course adjustments to programs, the report says.

Reviews of ongoing programs generally are a lower priority than approving new grants, and staff working a specific program can have trouble stepping back to honestly assess its merits.

At the same time, social issues by nature are hard to measure and grantees usually are not enthusiastic about major changes to their programs.

And foundations face pressure to take risks in addressing social ills, and changes to those programs can be interpreted as a lack of commitment.

The report identifies six lessons learned during the life of the CORAL project that can be applied to other large initiatives:

  • Include a carefully constructed theory of change, interim outcomes and a system that will provide clear outcome data.
  • Carefully and critically consider the facts underlying the project.
  • Think critically about the capacities of the staff and grantee.
  • Intentionally plan for a mid-course review of the project.
  • Create built-in oversight of the project’s performance.
  • Carefully evaluate requests for more time, resources and help.

The Irvine Foundation plans to make CORAL’s final evaluation results public later this year.

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