4 Ways To Avoid Getting Stuck On Policy Island

As I approach a career milestone in 2018–ten years as Director of Policy at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation — I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a grantmaker to support policy change towards student-centered learning. When I started this journey back in 2008, I came from a background of working directly with state policy makers. The intersection of policy and grantmaking was new both to me and the Foundation, and over the past decade I’ve learned a lot about how to navigate effectively in this space. In this first part, I’ll share four takeaways on collaboration between funders and grantees to achieve policy impact.

During my first few years as Director of Policy, Nellie Mae was focused on sharpening its definition of student-centered learning and organizing its grantmaking responsibilities. Awarded policy grants were almost always solicited by nonprofits working in a particular New England state or district to support a local project. My first takeaway comes from learning how to evaluate which state education agencies, technical assistance providers, or state-based organizations to fund.

If you want to create big sustainable policy impact, identify organizations with solid leadership who are committed to supporting your agenda, get behind them with your dollars, and stay committed. The value of developing and maintaining relationships with committed organizations with strong leadership can’t be overstated. The political context in a state can always shift (sometimes rapidly), and in those settings you need strong allies on your side.

Over time, larger partnership opportunities began to present themselves. Through our funding support of efforts like the Education Funder Strategy Group (EFSG) and within that the Partnership for the Future of Learning, Nellie Mae developed relationships with likeminded foundations — including Hewlett, Gates, Carnegie, and Rodel — who also sought to support education policy change for personalized learning strategies in service of deeper learning outcomes. My second takeaway was how critical these partnerships could be to strengthening our (individual and collective) effectiveness in the field.

A clear example of this came in 2008, when the Gates Foundation joined us as an early supporter of the New England Secondary Schools Consortium (NESSC). With membership from all six New England states (Massachusetts recently joined in December to make it truly a regional effort), NESSC has been key in developing regional goals to address achievement gaps and advance educational equity. Though Gates’ support was largely only financial and temporary, their three-year support was necessary tailwind for starting this project.

The benefits of these partnerships often extended far beyond the financial. My third takeaway was the value of having thought partners when attempting to tackle new and innovative work.

A great example of this has been our partnership with the Hewlett Foundation to support the Innovation Lab Network (ILN), a group of states committed to taking bold action to identify, test, and implement student-centered approaches to supporting deeper learning. Facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the network is comprised of a number of states across the country, including two from New England — New Hampshire and Vermont. Hewlett, as a partner in pushing policy change across a network of states, has been important not only in the funding collaboration but in thought leadership collaboration. I have worked closely with Hewlett and CCSSO in setting strong goals for the ILN and tailoring supports for states in different stages of the work.

Through our involvement with projects like NESSC, the ILN, and EFSG and as part of our membership in Grant Funders in Education, I have had the good fortune to work with strong foundation leaders with serious policy interests — Chris Shearer at the Hewlett Foundation, John Fischer at the Gates Foundation, and Matt Williams at KnowledgeWorks to name just a few. We have developed our own informal policy learning community. My fourth takeaway is while learning alone is good, learning together is better and more powerful. If you are working on a complicated issue such as supporting state policy and systems change to promote student-centered learning, get out there and collaborate with people.

As you can see, collaboration has been an increasingly key ingredient in the Foundation’s policy agenda. In part two of this blog series, we’ll take a look at some of the more technical takeaways to develop an effective policy grantmaking strategy.