In the late 1990s, reviewing its efforts, the Wallace Foundation in New York City found the work it was funding often ended when grants it had provided ran out.
It also found that a key challenge its grantees faced was “not just a lack of money but also a lack of knowledge about how to make progress on the big issues they were working on,” says Edward Pauly, director of research and evaluation at the foundation.
“We thought the foundation could do more to achieve broader and more useful benefits for nonprofits and society,” he says.
So in 1999, the foundation revamped its grantmaking strategy.
Funding and evaluation
Having funded a broad range of issues, the foundation decided to focus only on three – strengthening leadership of public schools; strengthening after-school programs for school-age youth by building city-level supports; and attracting more people to participate in the arts.
And it decided to combine its funding with trying to fill “knowledge gaps” that were blocking the efforts of its grantees to make progress in addressing those big social problems, Pauly says.
Filling those gaps involves listening to leaders in the field and leaders of grantees and potential grantees working on the issues the foundation cares about, looking for opportunities to test the most promising potential solutions, and finding ways to “harvest knowledge about what works and doesn’t work,” he says.
The foundation also uses requests for proposals to select qualified researchers once it has developed plans for gathering relevant knowledge on priority issues it has selected based on its discussions with leaders in the field.
“Our consultation in listening to field leaders helps us understand both the topic and what the most promising innovations might be, and knowledge gaps that are preventing progress,” Pauly says.
In addition to getting grant support, groups the foundation funds “understand they will be part of a learning process resulting in publication of findings from all the grantees,” he says.
Evaluations and other studies assessing grantees’ work, he says, are prepared independently and objectively.
The foundation’s biggest focus for the last 10 years, for example, has been strengthening school leadership.
With $1.3 billion in assets and annual grants totaling $50 million to $60 million, the foundation has made large, multi-year grants to urban school districts and organizations such as groups that train and support new school leaders.
Simultaneously, it has commissioned research on those efforts.
In 2004, for example, the foundation issued and posted on its website a report, “How Leadership Influences Student Learning.”
Visitors to the website have downloaded the report tens of thousands of times.
“Since then, there has been a real elevation of awareness and interest and understanding of the importance of effective school leadership,” Pauly says. “Now there is bipartisan support for the [Obama] administration’s focus and the focus in many communities on making sure the development of effective school principals is included along with the focus on effective teachers in efforts to improve public education.”
And the website of the U.S. Department of Education includes that report and other Wallace Foundation publications as sources for key topics.
“Leadership was not on the radar 10 years ago as part of school-improvement efforts,” Pauly says. “It’s a significant contribution.”
Early in 2009, in releasing a study on the cost of providing effective after-school programs, the foundation also created an online “Out-of-School Time Cost Calculator.”
The online tool lets visitors to the foundation’s website plug in information such as their geographic region; the amount of time each day, week and year they offer their out-of-school program; and the age of kids in the program.
The calculator then gives visitors the median costs of 100 high-quality programs, as well as costs for programs in particular percentiles, and provides resources that give factors that cause programs to be in a particular cost range, such as offering drama or sports activities.
The idea, Pauly says, is to help groups offering out-of-school programs address “how to budget and think about cost drivers they want to manage to connect available resources with the goal of serving kids with high levels of quality.”
A year-and-a-half after the foundation released the online calculator, he says, it still is being used 300 to 400 times a month.
Lessons for funders
Wallace, which spends $3 million to $4 million a year on research and evaluation, or seven percent of its grantmaking budget, has found that leaders and nonprofits working on the issues it addresses “don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Pauly says.
“They are eager to apply lessons about what works,” he says.
The foundation also has found that, to address many of society’s biggest challenges, a lack of money “is only part of the problem,” he says.
“It’s the knowledge gaps that continue to block our progress,” he says. “By harvesting lessons from grantees, and making them widely available, we can do something about that.”
Other foundations looking to address big problems should, like the Wallace Foundation, “ask their grantees about knowledge gaps that limit their effectiveness,” Pauly says. “What is it you don’t know that, if you knew it, you’d be able to make a breakthrough?”
When nonprofits and foundations “can talk about the knowledge gaps,” he says, “they can often figure out how to make progress.”
Taking that approach does not necessarily require a lot of financial investment, he says.
Foundations, for example, can talk to experts on the issue at a local university, or ask local nonprofits to develop an idea for a promising approach they might test, or partner with a nonprofit in another region that has figured out how to make progress on the issue and then work with a local nonprofit to test it.
“Always think about financial needs and knowledge gaps, and listen hard to nonprofits on both topics,” Pauly says.
Foundations can pick from a range of approaches to do that, such as synthesizing ongoing research and sharing it before final reports are available, or providing practical products such as the cost-calculator.
Focusing on what a foundation can do to address the problems it cares about with the resources it has or can tap is the key, Pauly says.
“That’s something all foundations can build into their work,” he says. “We don’t think there’s a single solution or recipe. It really begins with listening to find the knowledge gaps and to find creative ways to address them.”