Convening diverse organizations to enable collaboration and partnerships
An independent retrospective of the initiative was conducted by external evaluators. The study validated the positive impact of the facilitated convenings and identified quantitative and qualitative impacts. The impact of the initiative was also featured in a peer review article in The Foundation Review titled, “How to Encourage Sustainable Change: A Reflection on How Philanthropy Can Partner With Grantees to Build Organizational Capacity”.
100% of the organizations participating in the National Character Initiative Community Convening (the foundation’s team as well as the grantee organizations) have been positively impacted by the program.
Impacts that are a direct result of the convenings include:
Foster a culture of peer learning
- The initiative fostered such a powerful culture of peer learning that grantees continued to meet voluntarily after foundation funding ended.
- Four of the 5 Communities of Practice (CoPs) have continued to self-convene into 2021, learning together as they reopen for in-person youth development programming.
- The Policy CoP continues to meet, sharing resources and exploring opportunities for collective action. They speak as a unified voice to influence federal funding for youth development programs.
- Grantees in California’s after-school field aligned their grant-funded work under one common brand, the 360/365 Collaborative, unifying through a common framework for social-emotional learning.
- The Program CoP formed an equity task force that redesigned their respective programs to embed equity, develop equity statements, and conduct equity workshops.
- The Evaluation CoP developed common measures and instruments for use in program evaluation.
- Program CoP grantees worked together to develop tools that aided their programs’ transitions to virtual formats in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- One grantee now provides high quality SEL-oriented youth sports coaching services to the staff of more than 1,000 affiliates of another grantee.
- Grantees collaborated on a national communications project to promote social and emotional learning and positive youth development.
- The CEOs of the national organizations are actively seeking funding to continue the formal, facilitated Character Community convenings for a further 3-year period. They have already raised additional funds to support the ongoing convening of their peer group.
Context and challenges
The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, which closed in December 2020 after spending down its endowment, was established with a vision of a vibrant, productive, and sustainable California. Its recent work focused on education, the environment and organizational effectiveness.
The Education Program focused on helping young people develop the knowledge, skills and character to explore and understand the world around them, growing into caring, informed, and productive adults. The foundation supported students and educators in STEM education, character development and encouraged effective education policy.
When the foundation decided in 2008 to spend down its entire endowment, the field of youth character development was identified as a critical area, ripe for bold investments to strengthen individual organizations and the broader field.
The foundation invested $130 million through large, multi-year grants in 20 national organizations and the California after-school system to improve and sustain at scale the character development practices of adult staff and volunteers. The direct-service organizations involved collectively reach over half of youth ages five to 18 years old in the United States.
While the organizations had much in common, they also differed in their size, geographic scope, and specific content expertise and generally viewed one another as competitors.
The challenge was to support these organizations to become partners and allies, learning from one another and working together to strengthen the broader field of positive youth development. A “system of supports” was developed that included deep relationships with the foundation’s program staff, access to field experts, communications assistance, and training in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
However, achieving impact at the level of the portfolio and the broader field would require addressing barriers of mistrust and competition and fostering trusting peer relationships to enable collaboration and partnership.
The objectives were to:
- foster a culture of peer learning across the 24 grantee organizations in the portfolio
- build trusting relationships that enable collaboration on common challenges
- catalyse partnerships that would impact the broader field.
An initial facilitated Grantee Convening took place in 2016 as grantee organizations were finalizing their grant agreements. This facilitated process allowed participants to see they faced many common challenges around which they could learn from one another. They shared a vision for positive youth development and a mutual commitment to learning and impact at scale.
With participants requesting more facilitated convenings of this nature, the National Character Initiative Community Convening was initiated. Participants were grouped into five role-based Communities of Practice (CoP) – program, evaluation/research, strategy, CEOs, and policy.
A total of 56 facilitated meetings took place over the course of the initiative. There were 6 joint meetings of the whole community, 30 in-person peer group CoP sessions and 20 virtual sessions for either individual CoPs or the whole community.
Each grantee organization committed to sending the same core participants to all of the facilitated convenings. This created a consistent core group of 90 participants that connected and worked together over 4.5 years.
The initial convenings were focused on building trusting relationships and creating value for participants. Later convenings gave increasing attention to external, field-building opportunities, learning about diversity, equity and inclusion, and adjusting to urgent and unprecedented demands due to the COVID-19 pandemic.