When a huge foundation initiative failed to show much progress, they brought in outside help to turn it around, completely revamped the project, and wrote it all up for the world to see.
Thanks to Sean at Tactical Philanthropy for reporting on the suprising candor of the James Irvine Foundation (EIN 94-1236937 Form 990) in publishing a paper dissecting its missteps in the largest initiative the organization ever undertook. Midcourse Corrections to a Major Initiative is written by Gary Walker, president emeritus of Public/Private Ventures (EIN Form 990), a Philadelphia-based think tank that focuses on social issues, which the foundation brought in as turn-around managers for the project.
The initiative arose in the late 1990s out of board interest in doing something about California's lagging performance of its K-12 students. It was an area that the foundation had limited experience in, because its charter prohibited it from making grants to public entities (including public schools). But the idea developed into an ambitious program combining community activism and after schools programs. Sponsor organizations in five California cities were to receive two million a year for five years to implement the project.
But even in the test phase problems arose with coordinating a project of such scope. As time went on, it became clear that participation in the program was well below expectations and results were not apparent. In addition, the foundation was experiencing tight cash flow because of the stock market crash in 2002-2003. When P/PV was brought in, the diagnosis was even worse:
- Costs of the program were well above the $1,000 to $2,000 per student for after school programs generally.
- Research results elsewhere were uniformly reporting that after school programs were proving not particularly effective, because of the limited time for teaching, difficulty in coordinating with school curriculums, and the limited impact on the students who had fallen behind due to lack of basic literacy.
The foundation made P/PV the manager of the program, which changed direction substantially to emphasize basic literacy tutoring for the students who needed it. Other components were dropped, like a summer institute, family outreach, communication technology, and advocacy. And the spending per city went from two million to $1.2 million per year for the remaining years of the program.
Needless to say, this did not go down well with the participating groups, but grantees in all of the five cities accepted the retooling plan, and four have fully implemented it. Final results are not yet in, but the initial indications are that progress is being achieved by the youths who were furthest behind in literacy.
What is noteworthy to me is how different the scale of this project was from the grants the foundation typically makes. I did a quick analysis of the size of the grants in the 2005 Form 990 (the most recent one available). For the most part, the organization favors grants in the $50,000 to $200,000 range in its target areas of arts and youth, with just a handful of larger grants. (Just as we saw recently with the Haas Foundation, the larger grants tend to be for large civic projects and production of television programs.) But with the CORAL program, there was a long-term commitment of over a million a year to not one but five different grantees.
I am an advocate of foundation funding larger scale projects, but the experience of the James Irvine Foundation demonstrates that the scaling up cannot be done haphazardly. In this case, it seems to me that the organization was willing to take on a project this size precisely because it was in an area where the organization lacked substantial prior experience. If they knew better what they were getting into, they probably would have been more cautious.
One critical factor in scaling up, in my view, is hiring an organization to serve as the general contractor for the whole project, the role that P/PV was eventually given. The general contractor would be more than an intermediary for subgrant distributions (this foundation and many others already do that). Rather, it would coordinate the implementation of the project. With this approach, the foundation could more easily hold the project accountable, which is difficult to do when the foundation staff is responsible for both implementation and evaluation.