It almost always comes as a surprise to people: as rich a country as the United States is, the one thing there never seems to be enough of is funding for nonprofits. This is especially true for youth-serving organizations, which have big jobs to do and, because young people soon become young adults, limited time in which to do it. That puts a special burden on such organizations to target their efforts in the most efficient and effective way. And yet, as Danielle Scaturro, director of the New York City-based Edna McConnell Clark Foundation’s PropelNext initiative, notes, "too many youth-serving organizations lack the resources to operate strong programs grounded in evidence and to use data for ongoing improvement."
Launched by EMCF in 2012, PropelNext provides unrestricted funding over three years to youth-serving organizations whose programs are promising but not yet fully formed or codified, along with an equal investment in expert coaching, group learning sessions, and a peer-learning community. The idea, according to the foundation, is that through sustained work and engagement, grantees will "enhance and sharpen their program models, implement robust performance management systems, and develop organizational cultures that facilitate and practice ongoing learning and assessment," thereby boosting their impact on young people's lives.
Earlier this summer, PND spoke with Scaturro about the initiative’s progress to date, and — as EMCF prepares to spend down its assets over the next decade — what she and her colleagues are doing to sustain the work of the initiative into the future.
Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us a little about PropelNext — what was the problem it set out to address, and how is it different from other EMCF-supported initiatives focused on youth-serving organizations?
Danielle Scaturro: The goal of PropelNext is to help promising nonprofits transform their passion for serving disadvantaged youth into greater results and outcomes for young people. And the problem we're trying to solve is that in today's environment, there's ever greater demand for nonprofits to provide evidence of their effectiveness and show that they are achieving results. But, as you know, nonprofits often lack the resources they need to leverage the evidence and data they do have for learning and program improvement.
One of the reasons for that is the competitive funding landscape that nonprofits operate in. It doesn't necessarily position nonprofits well when they go to a funder and say, "We need help figuring out how to develop a more effective way to track our services and outcomes, or we need help to boost our evaluation capacity." So, we end up with this dynamic in which nonprofits feel they can't ask for support for these kinds of activities, and funders, with some notable exceptions, aren't in turn doing enough to support them. And what we've learned over the last few years is that by providing these resources, by providing tools and expertise in this area, it really can help organizations get a handle on these core data-related functions and put them in better position to achieve the kind of results they're hoping to achieve.
PND: The initiative launched with an initial cohort of fifteen organizations that committed to a three-year engagement, and it is now two years into an engagement with a second cohort of fifteen organizations. Why is three years the right length for this kind of engagement?
DS: We designed the initiative based on our research around capacity building, as well as our own listening to organizations we had worked with through EMCF's core grantmaking effort, what we call our Youth Development Fund. And what we learned from that research and listening was that it takes time to build an organizational culture that embraces learning and improvement based on the rigorous use of data. The work we do with our grantees is designed to position the leadership teams at those nonprofits to work across the entire organization, from frontline staff, to senior managers, to the board, and really embed good data practices into the organization. That doesn't happen overnight. The way it happens with PropelNext is that in the first year of an engagement with an organization, we focus on theory of change work, working with the organization to create a plan, design a pilot for the updated program or programs, build a data collection system, and introduce best data practices to the organization.
In year two, the organization does the pilot testing, it does the data collection, and it begins to shift the way staff members engage with each other around data. And the third year is an opportunity for the organization to bring all these things together, to refine the program further, and to really figure out what it needs to do to sustain this new way of working into the future.
PND: I thought it was interesting that you selected only California organizations for your second cohort. What was the thinking behind that decision?
DS: Like our grantees, PropelNext is evolving and trying to use data to learn and improve. Our first cohort was nationally oriented, and over the three years of engagement with those fifteen organizations we learned that there are both benefits and limitations to a national approach. So when we approached two funders in California with whom we had been in conversation and asked them to partner with us, they agreed and brought two others along. We decided it would be interesting to see whether concentrating our resources and efforts in a more defined geographic area might lead to more collaboration, greater peer learning among our grantees, and a strong network of leaders committed to this work over time.
Frankly, the narrower geographic focus also makes things easier for us in terms of in-person face-to-face time with grantees. And I have to say, the early results have been encouraging. We've put some of that data on our website, available here, and we're really interested in hearing from other funders, your readers, and anyone else who might be interested in exploring partnerships around this work.
PND: What kind of data are you collecting in terms of your own impact?
DS: We're doing a lot of things. One thing I would highlight is our work with Harder & Company, an evaluation firm based in California that is working closely with us to evaluate the initiative. With their help, we recently released results one year post-engagement from alumni grantees who completed the program, and we're also looking at the program delivery in California. And we've learned a lot.
The first is that we're really seeing a strengthening of program quality. All the organizations we've engaged with have used the opportunity to look closely at their offerings and figure out what really is needed to help disadvantaged youth succeed, and to fill some of those gaps to help kids get there.
We're also seeing that organizations are growing as a result of the engagement. They're serving more youth, and they're raising more money; the organizations are doing better work and getting better outcomes, and they're growing — we're thrilled to see them extend their work further.
Finally, we're also learning that organizations are taking seriously the embedding of a culture of learning and inquiry across their organizations, and that their decisions really are being guided by data in ways that they weren’t necessarily in the past. We’re hearing things from grantees like, "We're asking ourselves whether the data we collect answers the questions we have, and if it's not, what are the data we need to answer those questions?" This is exciting and demonstrates an internal transformation at these organizations that sets them up for greater impact. And, as I mentioned, we've put the evaluations on our website, including a report, Results on the Ground, which summarizes Harder+Company's findings to date.
PND: So what’s next?
DS: Our work in California is showing us the advantages of the regional approach, as I noted, and we're very interested in growing the initiative and doing the work in more regions around the country. When I think about EMCF's role as a national funder and the work we've done in California, I realize we couldn't have done it without co-investors. They are much closer to the local community and have relationships and local knowledge we just don't have.
When I think about the future, I also think about the fact that EMCF announced last year that it plans to deploy all its resources over the next decade, and we believe that PropelNext has the potential to continue on and become a vehicle for other foundations and philanthropists interested in fostering and supporting the development of a new generation of nonprofit leaders. So, we're very excited and looking forward to the next two to four years, which are really going to lay the groundwork for us to continue this work into the future.
— Mitch Nauffts