Insights & News

Learning the Part: Foundation Roles in Regional Partnership

A Mini Case Study

Postsecondary education is a key factor in positioning a nation for success in a globalized economy. But even in a state like California, which has a historic commitment to college access, far too many students capable of earning a degree don’t complete one. This is a statewide challenge, but it is felt particularly keenly within populations and geographic regions that have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education. For those communities, the data reveal deep inequities in rates of appropriate college preparation, enrollment, and graduation. We can no longer afford this loss of potential.

While private philanthropy alone cannot change this pattern, we believe that it has an important role to play in helping frame this challenge in terms of regional culture change. Foundations can be in a unique position to incentivize local entities to move beyond institutional boundaries and take a whole-system view. One of the most effective ways to significantly impact longstanding patterns of inequity is through genuine cross-sector partnership that is goal-driven and committed to mutual accountability. That’s easier said than done, even when everyone agrees on the vision.

Private foundations have a mixed history of engagement as true “partners” in such endeavors. Good partners need to listen to one another and to be clear about what they plan to contribute and receive as part of the bargain. Particularly when the foundation is from out-of-town, local residents and institutions can be rightly skeptical about its motives and degree of genuine investment in someone else’s home region. Trust is critical to any partnership, and it takes time to establish and test it in practice. Too often, foundations can be in a hurry to get to results, and impatient to move past relationship building to action. But as our foundation and others have learned, that’s a process that needs to continue to be renewed and refreshed throughout the life of the initiative.

This is the story of the College Futures Foundation’s first adventure in engaging in a regional partnership related to our mission. We share it in the hope that others might benefit from our experience. Mindful of the history of other philanthropic place-based initiatives, we knew we would have a lot to learn. And conscious of the power imbalance implicit in any interaction between foundations and grantees, we were committed to a candid back-and-forth process that underlies any successful partnership. But we knew that intention would not be sufficient to guarantee a mutually-beneficial working relationship.

Nearly nine years ago, the Foundation embarked on a significant shift in strategic direction, providing substantial support for a regional partnership to promote a local culture of college attendance and completion in California’s Coachella Valley. That effort, known as Pathways to Success, has received $1 million per year for scholarships in addition to significant funds for core operations and technical assistance as well as substantial in-person advice and support from Foundation staff. We recognize that all participants see these things somewhat differently, but in our view, Pathways to Success has not only met our expectations but also shows promise for future similar endeavors.

The regional rate of college going and completion has significantly improved. Local high schools are paying more attention to ensuring students see themselves as college material by completing appropriate coursework and being encouraged to apply for all available sources of scholarship support. Local employers are offering summer internships to build students’ job skills and encourage continued college enrollment. Perhaps most important, a growing cohort of recent college grads is returning to the region to inspire their younger brothers and sisters to follow in their footsteps.

There’s a natural impulse now to move quickly to “scale up” that initial success in other regions across our home state of California. Before doing so, however, we decided to dig deeper into the Coachella Valley story to provide a more nuanced picture of the dynamics of our first regional partnership. Was this a unique experience? What did our partners value in our relationship? What should we have done differently? (We can only share part of the story in this brief format. Those who would like to read more can access a longer study upon request.)

We were also acutely aware of just how difficult it can be for a Foundation to receive candid feedback on its own behavior, particularly when it has been a major funder of the work in question. To help us conduct that inquiry, we contracted with Tom David, a participant and evaluator in multiple philanthropic initiatives over the past 30 years. We asked him to analyze the Foundation’s role in this partnership. In addition to developing a longer case study, he identified five factors that characterized our approach to partnership, synthesized from his confidential interviews with our key institutional and individual partners.

While none of these five elements were articulated in advance as part of a theory of change for the initiative, they capture the implicit principles that guided how we do our work. We would like to share highlights of those elements below to help stimulate similar discussions in other foundations. When we examine our work through the lens of practice, aided by the perspective of an experienced outside observer, what were the success factors in this instance that might inform our future work?

The Foundation helped frame the issues in a different way.

Building on our history as a provider of scholarship dollars with a focus on increasing college attendance among low-income students, we expanded our aim to promoting a regional culture of college going and completion. We also nudged local players’ definition of the kinds of students who were potentially scholarship material—not just the A students, but all students who had the ability and motivation but not the financial means. We also chose to work with the local economic development agency to frame college attendance and completion as a benefit to regional economic development, not just to individual students.

Foundation staff brought unexpected knowledge to bear.

Foundation staff could contribute their personal expertise in ways that were viewed as genuinely beneficial by local partners. Staff provided advice on developing data systems to track student progress and inform program refinement. The Foundation had seen in other places that many students don’t collect all the aid they qualify for because they do not complete the Federal Financial Aid forms (FAFSA). Accordingly, they encouraged local leaders to promote FAFSA completion for all local students – not just those receiving their scholarships. While that technical knowledge was appreciated by our local partners, they also commented on the way in which staff engaged with them, including their ability to empathize and understand the perspectives of key players. The result was a sense of deep mutual respect.

The Foundation was careful to ground its theories in the local context.

Our initial decision to fund in the Coachella Valley was preceded by extensive due diligence, including face-to-face meetings with local leaders and funders, probing in particular for lessons learned from earlier local efforts to construct and sustain regional partnerships. We were also careful to take the time to fully understand the local ecology of educational institutions, existing scholarship programs, and potential intermediaries. Perhaps most importantly, we drew on our collective intuition to identify (and insist on) the involvement of those individuals who could best lead this effort and serve as the “Keepers of the Vision” for this enterprise over a multi-year period of implementation. Throughout the course of the initiative, local partners credited the Foundation with keeping up with changes in the local context, including shifts in leadership and partners’ financial ups and downs, and adjusting its input accordingly.

The Foundation was intentional about working across traditional institutional boundaries.

We believed that this venture would be more successful if it included involvement of partners outside of institutions of higher education. Our choice of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership as the fiscal sponsor was inspired by the potential of bringing business and education leaders together in ways that hadn’t been done before in that community. To achieve a truly regional perspective, we also engaged with all three school districts in the area as well as the local community college and the Palm Desert satellite campus of the California State University, San Bernardino.

The Foundation creatively leveraged the impact of its dollars and influence.

The reach of our scholarship dollars was multiplied by providing dollar-for-dollar challenges to existing local scholarship fundraising efforts. Similarly, we were able to facilitate a new level of mutual accountability among partners by underwriting the extensive and consistent collection of student data across the participating agencies. Foundation staff also connected key local partners to skilled consultants who could advise them on issues of governance, internal capacity, and long-range sustainability. Another instance of creative leverage was encouraging Pathways to Success to apply for funding from the Governor’s Innovation Fund, which has helped to extend its reach and influence with institutions in the Western portion of the county, including UC Riverside and the main campus of the California State University, San Bernardino.



Inevitable Complications

Lest this brief account leave the reader with the impression that this complex, multi-year partnership evolved without a hiccup, that was certainly not the case. Just as important as the success factors identified above were the areas where we learned valuable lessons from our mistakes that we will pay even more attention to in the future. As in any multi-year undertaking, key people come and go, and institutional relationships can be affected because of changes in leadership. A prime lesson from that experience is to do whatever it takes at the beginning of a relationship to ensure that commitments to the partnership extend beyond individual leaders to their institutions, including their boards.

It’s also tough to keep multiple partners engaged and motivated over the years. Some of the original scholarship partners departed, for example. A lesson we draw from that experience is the advisability of ongoing direct financial support to all key partners, both as a recognition of their contributions but also as a practical matter to subsidize the time of their representatives in participating in all the meetings and communications that provide the necessary glue for such a joint effort.

The College Futures Foundation’s first venture into a regional partnership has been rich in learning opportunities for all involved. It was important to make a substantial long-term (in this case ten-year) investment to allow the necessary time for culture change to occur. Our investment was also personal as well as financial. We needed to demonstrate a genuine commitment to listening to local perspectives and an openness to mutual adaptation as inevitable difficulties arose. The Foundation also had more to offer than just its grant dollars. Judiciously sharing external knowledge and contacts in a low-key collegial fashion was appreciated by local partners as “adding value” to the enterprise rather than trying to steer it from afar. Above all, one cannot underestimate the value of putting a priority on building and maintaining the type of trusting working relationships that characterize a true partnership.

We still have much to learn. As College Futures staff think about how to better support those focused on increasing college attainment and addressing inequities in their communities—and what it means for a foundation to be a thoughtful and effective partner—we hope to continue learning alongside our grantees and other colleagues throughout the state.


Read more about our program strategy here.