EPIP’s 2018 National Conference theme, “The Road Ahead: Leadership in Uncertain Times,” positioned the advancement of equity through a lens of collaboration: collaborative visioning, collaborative leadership, and collaborative action. We agree that tackling the depth of deep-seated injustices requires multiple solutions from a variety of collaborators driven by a shared objective.
As the oft-quoted African proverb states: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” In education philanthropy, we share a collective sense of urgency to find the appropriate solutions to mitigate the achievement gap. Yet, we each concentrate our time on pursuing distinct but complementary missions. How many of us find ourselves wishing we could team up with other organizations to share collective learning and coordinate our efforts?
The first collaborative funding model in the country focused on increasing college graduation rates, the College Completion Innovation Fund (CCIF) was launched in 2015 by Graduate NYC (GNYC), a joint initiative of The City University of New York (CUNY) the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE), and the Office of the Mayor of New York City, that aims to increase college completion rates across the five boroughs. The development of GNYC was in of itself a model and catalyst for collaboration, as it brought together the two largest urban educational systems in the country—CUNY and the NYC DOE—which collectively serve more than 1.3 million students. GNYC observed that significant philanthropic resources were being dedicated to college access work in New York City, while college completion rates remained largely unchanged. It recognized a unique opportunity to create incentives for, and build capacity within, colleges and youth-serving organizations to invest in, innovate, and scale the implementation of promising practices related to its mission of degree attainment.
The CCIF emerged from GNYC’s ongoing partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which generously offered a 1:1 matching grant of up to $500,000 to encourage participation from other funders supporting college completion work. GNYC manages the activities of the Fund and provides general oversight, having secured the participation of more than a dozen different funders who responded to the challenge of cooperative grantmaking.
In our brief history, we have learned much about the opportunities and challenges of a collaborative funding model:
- Unsurprisingly, group decision making is tough! After an early decision-making meeting, we realized that each funder was considering the proposals through different lenses and with different priorities in mind. The result of this misalignment was that funders were often talking past one another, so to speak. It is necessary that each participating foundation has its own allotted space during the grantmaking process in which to identify and share its funding priorities with the rest of the group, so that the group as a whole can explicitly determine by consensus which priorities it will emphasize during the decision-making process. Furthermore, an impartial facilitator is essential in steering the group to consensus with regard to shared priorities that emerge during discussions. GNYC took the lead in identifying a facilitator who has expertise in the college completion space, but wasn’t directly connected with either the applicants or the funders in any significant way.
- Having a dedicated staff member to oversee the operations of CCIF was fundamental to its success. GNYC designated a project manager to perform key functions such as drafting and publicizing the request for proposal for each grantmaking cycle; guiding each phase of the application process from start to finish; maintaining regular communication with grantees to ensure optimal project implementation; and providing professional development, networking, and evaluation opportunities, as well as other ongoing means of support.
- Being part of a group allows participating organizations to foster close working relationships with peer funders and benefit from the latest research and trends in the field. Two CCIF funders learned of new ideas that were of particular interest to their respective foundations, and went on to fund projects related to those ideas outside of the CCIF.
- The ability to pool funds and share risk is highly favorable for investing in new, untested ideas as well as for leveraging larger grants. For example, one of the pilot programs funded during the 2018 Grantmaking Cycle is a partnership between three organizations that are located in close proximity to one another and will carry out their work collectively. It is unlikely that this type of innovation would traditionally be funded by an individual foundation, as it required joint planning time in order to be developed. Not only was this provided to the organizations as part of GNYC’s support of the proposal writing process, but the inherent structure of the CCIF grant supported a collaboratively-executed proposal. CCIF funders were more inclined to take risks on this type of project, as they knew that GNYC would also provide technical assistance in order to ensure its success.
How does the work of the CCIF benefit the field overall?
More effective decision making: The CCIF improves the decision-making capacity of the college access and success field in a distinctively meaningful way. The unique alliance of funders, practitioners, CUNY, and the NYC DOE is a formula that yields stronger decisions being made to benefit the field as a whole. CUNY and NYC DOE officials share real-time information about what is occurring within their respective institutions, which informs the collaborative on how to make more relevant funding choices, and where to focus their efforts.
Increased funding for the sector: The CCIF continues to attract new, dynamic foundations to the college completion sector that have not previously focused on higher education initiatives. For example, the Altman Foundation has traditionally supported K-12 education and college access. The CCIF has provided the foundation with an opportunity to learn more about the postsecondary institutions that students supported by its access grants are matriculating to.
Best practice dissemination: The funded projects develop tools and recommendations regarding key strategies that GNYC collects and shares with others engaged in comparable work. For example, this resource on leveraging text nudging on behalf of college success programming provides other organizations with an easy-to-follow guide for starting texting campaign with their own students, rather than starting from scratch.
Systemic change: The public-private partnership that forms the basis of the Fund enables possibilities for policy and practice changes throughout the CUNY system and across the college access and success sector. For example, based on the CCIF pilot conducted at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, The City College of New York was able to make several major campus-wide changes that will impact more than 13,000 students annually. These include establishing a protocol for digitizing student records, enabling staff to give students precise and timely advice on what they must do in order to graduate the following semester, switching to “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” graduation application procedures, and establishing a stronger connection between core/pathways advising and major advising.
We hope these lessons—from which we continue to learn and grow—may inspire others to consider the potential rewards of collaboration. While the structure of the CCIF grantmaking process does not constitute the simplest possible approach, we are inspired by the depth and breadth of approaches toward pursuing educational equity that it engenders.
Interested in learning more about funder collaboratives? Check out the following resources!
- Collaborate for Greater Impact (GEO)
- Funder Collaboratives: It’s Not Always What You Think (Exponent Philanthropy)
- Funder Collaboratives: Why and How Funders Work Together (GrantCraft)
Want to learn more about efforts to improve college completion rates in NYC? See some of the links below!
- Graduate NYC Public Report On The State Of College Completion In NYC
- The Power of Pooled Funding to Increase College Graduation Rates in NYC
- Center for an Urban Future’s Degrees of Difficulty Report
About the Authors
Melissa Herman is the Innovation Fund Director for Graduate NYC, where she manages all aspects of GNYC's flagship project, the College Completion Innovation Fund. This includes guiding the Advisory Board through the entire grantmaking process and overseeing the CCIF’s Peer Learning Community, comprised of personnel from its grantees.
Desiree Vazquez Barlatt is Program Officer at The Teagle Foundation, where she manages grant-making for select programs, including College-Community Connections.