Communications for Good and COVID-19

To communicate is to be human — to share conversation over a pot of coffee with a coworker, embrace a loved one in a hug, share a meal with a group of friends. As I keep the news on in the background while I’m quarantined like so many in my home, the commercial breaks seem like a surreal trip into another lifetime — where people are dancing together at parties, picking kids up at school, listening to a presentation in an office. Now, more than ever, we are seeing how effective communications practices can keep us connected, even when we are physically apart.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons I have learned about effective communications through a racial equity lens at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation remain even more relevant today. How we respond to this pandemic as funders is critical — not only in how we choose to use our resources, but in the ways we choose to communicate.

This is About All of Us, Not Just Some of Us
Americans tend to default to an individualism cultural model — meaning that we think that what happens to us is the result of our individual actions, not larger systems and historical systems of oppression. We see this playing out through the hoarding of food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and baby formula, or politicians putting big business in front of the needs of those suffering the most in this crisis. When President Trump incites vitriol like using language such as the “China Virus” he is buying into racism, xenophobia, and Sinophobia that divide us. He is also reinforcing this idea of individuals from a community of color being the root of this virus, instead of tapping into the idea that our own health and wellbeing depends upon the health of others.

The Message Matters, But So Does The Messenger
There are a multitude of reasons why a group of community organizers might hear a message differently if it were to come from a young person of color versus me, a white woman working at a philanthropic organization. These reasons may include lived experiences, proximity to challenges at hand, relationships and credibility in communities, and many more. The same principle remains for communicating in the wake of this pandemic. Now is not the time for funders to insert their agendas into every news story, or distribute press releases as normal. It’s time to lend our support to the messengers and our grantees — credible sources on what we can do as a society to diminish the effects of this virus. At Nellie Mae, we have been organizing resource and support opportunities for communities throughout the region, and also working internally to shift our practices to provide more support to response efforts. For those interested in sharing the facts, the CDC, NIH and local departments of health are good places to start.

Listening More, Saying Less
Effective communication is not a one-way street. We all know that this crisis will have profound impacts on the sustainability and viability of many schools, districts and nonprofit organizations in our region. As funders, we have to figure out how we can support our grantee partners during this time by listening more, asking them how we can be of support, and following their guidance. Additionally, we need to take it upon ourselves to be proactive, bold and decisive in our communications around flexibility surrounding grant requirements, lightening the burdens that so many of our grantee partners are feeling at this time. We’ve already seen powerful examples of this from funders like the Barr Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

Funders, this is our chance to use the many resources we have at hand — our money, our networks, and our communications — to support the communities we seek to support. After all, we’re all in this together.

Nominations are Now Open for the Lawrence W. O’Toole Teacher Leadership Awards!

We all know that teachers are amazing people — after all, they are the ones shaping the minds of our future world leaders!

At the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we’ve had the chance to see the impact of many individual educators, but have also seen the powerful force of teachers working together and advocating for innovation outside of their individual classrooms. Our O’Toole Awards are meant to recognize those educators who have not only led innovations in their own classrooms, but have served as leaders, advocates, and champions for equitable, student-centered approaches to learning at scale. Last year, we honored 12 amazing educators from across the region who are doing things like serving as student-centered coaches, leading professional learning series, and creating video series around student-centered learning.

This year, we are again asking the public to nominate teacher leaders who are advocates for student-centered approaches to learning. We’ve also been doing some work internally at Nellie Mae to learn about the ways that student-centered approaches to learning can address inequities in education. This has been part of a bigger process at the foundation to assess our organizational strategy through the lens of racial equity. So this year, we are also asking teachers how they are addressing inequities, including racial inequities, through their advocacy of student-centered approaches.

From now until April 27th, we’re accepting nominations for our Lawrence W. O’Toole Teacher Leadership Awards. We’ll select up to 12 winners from across New England to receive grants of $15,000 each to use to advance student-centered approaches to learning at scale. Award recipients will be recognized at an award ceremony in Boston on November 2nd. To nominate a teacher (even if it’s yourself!) read more about the process here.

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.