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Game-Changing Philanthropy Through Funder Collaboration

June 12, 2014

Headshot_bossiere_corvingtonPhilanthropy has spent decades focused on achieving good outcomes with not enough to show when it comes to population-level impact on intergenerational poverty. It's clear that to achieve better results, we need to change the way we do our work.

As we ask nonprofits to collaborate to ensure better alignment and more secure hand-offs between and among programs, we funders have got to be prepared to do the same.

Fortunately, there are a number of foundations that have already figured this out. In Springfield, Massachusetts, the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation asked a dozen fellow funders — banks, insurance companies, family foundations, and the local United Way — to align their grantmaking with the goal of ensuring that every child in the community enters fourth grade reading at grade level. Thanks to those efforts, the Funder Collaborative for Reading Success has supported a variety of tutoring, afterschool, and summer learning programs.

In Iowa, the ten foundations in the Education Funders Network have agreed to jointly fund an early reading initiative, starting with a summer learning push that is being rolled out this month in communities across the state. In Arizona, the state's leading philanthropic organizations have joined with public agencies and more than five dozen community nonprofits to create Read On Arizona, an effort aimed at improving language and literacy outcomes for children from birth through age 8.

These efforts give lie to the social-sector adage that "collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults." Together, these foundations are pushing through the discomfort that comes with yielding control of the agenda and are diving into the messy work of shared accountability and elevated expectations.

What's more, they're directing their energy toward one of the biggest problems our nation faces: the fact that four-fifths of children from low-income families have not learned to read proficiently by the time they finish third grade.

This is a problem with grave consequences. Third grade marks the point where the curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. Children who don't reach that critical milestone often struggle in the later grades and are more likely to drop out of high school. Too often, even in good schools with effective teachers, these are the children least likely to succeed, because they are too far behind when they start, miss too many days of school, and lose too much ground over the summer.

This is a problem that lends itself to collaboration. It's a problem that should unite funders pushing for more robust early learning opportunities with those working to increase graduation rates. It also fits into the two-generation approach to lifting families out of poverty, and it aligns with efforts to improve health, identify learning disabilities, and empower parents.

And this is the problem that drives our work in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. The campaign put a stake in the ground in 2010 that we would increase by 100 percent the number of low-income students reading at grade level by the end of third grade. Launched with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the campaign now counts more than two hundred donors and investors in its network.

About a dozen of these funders invest at the enterprise level, enabling us to build a backbone organization that supports technical assistance, policy development, and communications with the goal of improving early literacy. Others bring a particular focus or expertise to our work, such as the health determinants of learning, successful parenting, or dyslexia.

The majority of the funders involved in the campaign are spread across the country, working in more than a hundred and forty communities. Each of these cities, counties, or towns has developed a cross-sector coalition and a plan of action to support early reading. They're focused on improving school readiness, reducing absenteeism in the early grades, and offering summer learning opportunities for children from low-income families. Engaging parents in their children's early learning and healthy development is another key element of the overall strategy.

Crucial to sustaining the campaign's efforts is the steadfast commitment of local funders who understand the context, history, and changing dynamics of their communities and plan to stay actively engaged through the inevitable bends in the road. In most cases, a local foundation or United Way is part of the community coalition, while in others — the Rogers Family Foundation in Oakland, and the Davis Foundation in Springfield come to mind — family foundations are leading the way.

Davis began its work with the Funder Collaborative for Reading Success in 2010, even before the launch of the GLR Campaign, after executive director Mary Walachy realized she was constantly telling nonprofits to partner and collaborate but not actually doing the same with other funders. Today, the collaborative meets regularly to consider proposals and make grants that strengthen and advance early literacy skill development in children from birth to age 9. While Davis plays a convening role and is an active member, it does not control or direct the collaborative's decisions.

Read On Arizona uses a different model. Launched in 2012 by the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, the Helios Education Foundation, and the Arizona Community Foundation, the initiative employs a state literacy director who works in partnership with the state Department of Education, the Head Start Collaboration Office, the First Things First early education initiative, and local philanthropic partners.

The Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, led by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, is supporting coalitions in five communities and an attendance initiative in seven school districts. In Iowa, funders decided to focus on grade-level reading after consulting with our nationwide campaign and with the six Iowa communities involved in our network. Rather than pool their money or create a new entity, they will co-fund the work, issuing their own grants to align with common goals.

These foundations recognize that to achieve different results, we need to do things differently. That means more than adopting new strategies or rewriting grant guidelines. It calls for real alignment of purpose and directing more money to what works. And it requires collaboration.

Conceptually, most people agree that working together is the right thing to do. But when limited time and resources enter the picture, collaboration often falls down the list of priorities. Even its most ardent proponents will admit that when it comes to issues of identity, recognition, and crafting and sticking to a shared agenda, collaboration is no easy road.

It takes courage and a lot of perseverance to achieve what these local and state funder collaboratives have done. They are stepping up to a big challenge and bringing together businesses and government agencies, local and state philanthropy, individual donors, and national foundations.

They realize what so many others do not: Collaboration is not an add-on to the work we do. It is the work.

Leslie Boissiere is chief operating officer and Patrick Corvington is a senior fellow at the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

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