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Moving the Needle: Learning, Doing and Looking Ahead

December 13, 2013

(Sherece West-Scantlebury is the president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. This post originally appeared on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy blog.)

Headshot_sherece_westWinthrop Rockefeller's arrival in Arkansas in 1953 was a major event. That a member of one of the wealthiest families in the world had moved to one of the poorest states in the country was a big deal. The press was understandably curious and asked about his plans. "I've got a lot to learn and a whole lot more to do," the state's future governor responded.

Decades later, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation continues the governor's "learning" and "doing," often at the same time. On the learning side of the equation, we've done two things this year that we feel are worth sharing.

The first was a retrospective on the first five years of our Moving the Needle Strategic Plan. Developed in 2007, Moving the Needle was based on close to one hundred conversations with policy makers, grassroots community leaders, business leaders, youth, and national experts on community change. Those conversations, combined with our research on best practices in economic development, social justice and closing the achievement gap, formed the framework that has guided WRF's investments for the last five years. Moving the Needle 2008 – 2013: Looking Back Going Forward is our best effort to tell the story of the short-term impact of our investments.

The second notable thing we've done this year is partnering with NCRP to look at how our strategies and practices align with our goals, the impact created by the Moving the Needle agenda, and the quality of WRF's partnerships with grantees. To that end, NCRP developed and deployed a comprehensive appraisal tool based on its Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best and recommendations from Real Results: Why Strategic Philanthropy Is Social Justice Philanthropy. Former and current grantees, applicants that did not receive funding, and stakeholders such as government representatives and peer institutions participated in the assessment.

Through this process, we gathered data on how our partners view both the impact of the Moving the Needle strategy and the way we go about meeting our mission. The full report, NCRP Assessment of Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, provides all the details. But in short, NCRP found that:

  • Our partners understand and support the Moving the Needle Strategic plan and grantmaking approach.
  • Many grantees and stakeholders see specific signs of progress in Moving the Needle, especially in the areas of education and immigration.
  • Our partners view WRF as a highly effective funder, partly because of open, accessible foundation staff and a strong sense of shared purpose.
  • We demonstrate a consistent commitment to rural communities and resident engagement.
  • We are viewed as an effective partner, and we use our convening power to foster non-competitive relationships among our partners around the state.

Lest we get too full of ourselves, it was also clear that:

  • If we are going to see the needle move more significantly in Arkansas, there needs to be additional investment in community change and economic development in the Delta.
  • Open and accessible staff does not always mean a more efficient process. We should strive to create more timely feedback loops on the "paper-work" parts of our relationships.
  • We should expand our willingness to provide core support and capacity development for resident engagement and community organizing.
  • Leadership development is a critical component of our strategy and worthy of additional investments.

After nearly twenty years in philanthropy, I've learned there is a thin line between navel gazing and strategic assessment. Navel gazing (we've all done it) takes data, gives it a thoughtful review, and files it away. That is not our plan. WRF has already begun to build better internal systems and recalibrate its grantmaking strategy in response to feedback from our partners.

Internally, we've committed to tighter response timelines and using technology to better facilitate the transactional aspects of our relationships with grantees. On the strategy side, we incorporated the findings of the assessment into the development of Moving the Needle 2.0, the strategic plan that will guide our work for the next five years.

WRF is a small foundation with a huge mission. Our ability to positively impact the opportunities of low-income Arkansans is directly related to our ability to cultivate and sustain partnerships. It's not enough for us just to "do well"; we also have to be "do well by others" if we are going to have strong partnerships that enable us to achieve our action agenda.

A regular, methodical, third-party inquiry -- how are we doing? does it make sense? what do you think? -- is a critical part of the learning we must continually engage in to make sure that all our "doing" is actually making a difference.

How do you think we're doing? Feel free to share your comments and feedback below.

-- Sherece West-Scantlebury

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