Author Archives: John

Collaboration in times of economic downturn – challenges for foundations, business and the public sector

I spoke about the foundation’s response to economic downturn in a previous post.  My colleagues from other foundations have been talking about the fact that the economic downturn and scarce resources will create an urgency for nonprofits to “figure out ways” to merge and collaborate better.  On January 13th Cleveland’s WCPN public radio show called, The Sound of Ideas held great conversation on a topic called When Charities Can’t Afford to be Charitable.

The concept is great and I support my respected colleagues comments.  I once heard it said, “Everyone wants collaboration, but no one wants to be collaborated on.”   In my work at this foundation,  I have seen redundancy in programs in both nonprofit and public sectors,  many of which have received grants from us.    I see an awful lot of waste in private and taxpayer dollars, but I must be careful not to appear the perennial town crier.  I, like many foundations and their board members,  like to consider ourselves social innovators on the lookout to support like-minded  social innovators and social entrepreneurs.  After all, that’s what the philanthropy industry is supposed to promote.  The  fall 2008 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review an article called Rediscovering Social Innovation by James A. Phillis, Jr.; Kriss Deigelmeier, & Dale T. Miller describe what many foundation directors, program officers and their boards hope to be in their service to the  community,

The underlying objective of virtually everyone in the fields of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise is to create social value (a term we define later).  People have embraced these fields because they are new ways of achieving these larger ends.  But they are not the only, and certainly not always the best, ways to achieve these goals.  Social entrepreneurs are, of course, important because they see new patterns and possibilities for innovation and are willing to bring these new ways of doing things to fruition even when established organizations are unwilling to try them.  And enterprises are important because they deliver innovation.  But ultimately, innovation is what creates social value.  Innovation can emerge in places and from people outside the scope of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise.  In particular, large, established nonprofits, businesses, and even governments are producing social innovations.” p. 89

I can think of one crisis in particular our foundation has taken on and has asking for community leaders  to explore innovative ways to better serve the needs of the medically uninsured and under insured in our community.  I have discovered that is a huge task and one wrought with landmines.

In 2008 the foundation provided funds to facilitate conversations and strategies to address the growing number  of uninsured and under-insured people in the county.  The foundation paid a consultant to assemble representatives of “established nonprofits, businesses, and even government” with the purpose of providing an “idea mart” to see if we could come up with innovative solutions to the crisis at-hand.  The conversations continue but I observe a decrease in interest and engagement especially when the conversation gets a little too close for comfort.

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You see, I think we at foundations do a good job of convening meetings and encouraging people to submit themselves to be collaborated on!   It is clear to me however that convening people who represent long-standing institutions often with a history of relative financial stability,  go into protective mode very quickly when it becomes clear their entity is being critiqued.  Too often, the jobs in public health institutions, federally funded agencies and nonprofit organizations develop around an administrative personality.  In these cases, I have found very often that critique of the organization and perhaps a questioning of its relevance is interpreted as a criticism.  The individual in charge of that agency becomes defensive; feeling vulnerable to the exposure that peer-to-peer conversation can produce.

I have learned that making collaboration work depends in  great measure to sustaining urgency.  Urgency is fueled by passion – a passion that derives from visiting places like the Lorain Free Clinic or, emergency rooms at the charity hospitals.  It is a passion that derives from knowing people for whom the economic downturn is proving not just a misfortune but a disaster.  Any healthy human being to wants to “do-something” when one touches that level of suffering.

A person with a sense of social entrepreneurship and the funding to support innovation, will by nature want to ask, why the system seem to not be working well and how can a constituency be served better.  The response  means more than just convening the meetings.  The convener must have  the expertise (in-house or external) to keep the conversation and going and to keep the participants focused on the passion and urgency.   Foundations typically hire consultants to take on that task.  Although consultants do their jobs very well, it is my experience that “hiring” the consultant removes the foundation one step from the center of the activity.  If the foundation convenes the meeting to address and urgent problem, then it is my opinion that the foundation  (or collaborative of foundations) should try to maintain a visible role and presence in the conversations.  If not, the sense of urgency may dissipate.  I believe fully that foundations can serve to keep passion buoyant in rational civic discourse.

Too often, people come to meetings, agree on the urgency of the problem and are sincere in their desire to find solutions.  They come willing to contribute and discuss.   Few come prepared to really think about giving up they way they have been doing things.

The public health disaster in our county is a good example.  The county which is 25 miles west of Cleveland has a population of  280,000.   There are three separate public health entities – two city agencies Lorain City Health Department and the Elyria City  Health Department as well as the  Lorain County Health District.    These entities were created in the 19th century when the cities of Elyria and Lorain were rapidly increasing in population due to the need for labor in the steel industry, auto industry, shipbuilding and manufacturing.  Immigrant labor poured into the region.  Public health agencies were created to address the reality of contagious diseases.  The hospitals, (primarily charity hospitals run by orders of Catholic religious women) were created to deal with chronic disease and tertiary care.

Today, the cities are emptying out as the industries that sustained families have left the area.  The second and third generation of the immigrant families have left town, or move to subdivisions that were once farms outside the towns.  The cities now have families and elderly who live at or below the federal poverty level.

As we explore ways to reinvent health care delivery in the county, one of our questions has been, “In an age of technology and rapid information exchange, are three separate public health offices really necessary and relevant?”  We agree, they continue to serve medically indigent populations in very specific state funded programs, but in most cases they deal with people suffering chronic disease – something public health agencies were never really created or equipped to do.  Also what is the role of a public health agency when down the street, Walgreens (“America’s Online Pharmacy”) offers patients in-store clinics.  If you can come up with enough cash, you can be seen and treated by a health-care affiliate and given a prescription for your illness and pick it up at the in-house pharmacy conveniently located next to the health clinic.

Walgreens clinic

In the case of the health care coalition the foundation convened, the catalyst was the sense of urgency around the news that the Lorain County Health and Dentistry – which provides significant health care to medically uninsured or underinsured – did not recieve a $700,000 operating grant from the Federal Government.  The charity hospitals gave compelling evidence of the number of patients flooding their emergency rooms to treat the uninsured.  The Nord Mental Health Center, which treat patients with mental and behavioral diseases. reports a steady increase in the number of new patients requireing services, attirbuted in some measure to sresses associated with the economic depression.

The health situation is in crisis but after a year of conversation, it was difficult to get people to really change the way they did business.  In particular, it was hard to have the public health agencies roll-up sleeves  with the charity hospitals to explore possible innovations in combining  services.  Perhaps this can be attributed to the realization that such a move would constitute the elimination of the public health service system as it is currently structured.  Similarly, the Nord Behavioral Health Center, which is a nonprofit agency with almost 85% of its revenue channeled through the Lorain County Board of Mental Health has undergone convulsive administrative challenges with board members spending tax dollars to sue each other.  Conversations to explore how the charitable hospitals could take over many of the emergency services and need for in-patient beds is too threatening for people to contemplate.  So, after the initial good-faith effort to talk, the parties go into protective mode.  The desire to collaborate is threatening when one realizes one is about to be collaborated on!  Meanwhile people that need the services are hampered by services that are difficult to access which is why people still flood the emergency rooms when they need health care.

The Fund for Our Economic Future is a collaboration of virtually all the grantmaking institutions in Northeast Ohio.  For more than four years FFEF has gathered regularly to address the need for economic transformation in the Northeast Ohio region.  Aside from is main function which is to pool funds to provide early stage venture capital for organizations that promise to create new businesses for the region, the Fund has hosted several meetings of “stakeholders” to provide a strategy for how the region can move out of its economic stasis.  The first was the incredibly expensive and nominally productive engagement with AmericaSpeaks which evolved into the highly productive and provocative arm of the Fund called Advance Northeast Ohio. Aside from pushing the public to engage in conversations about how to move the economy forward, Advance Northeast Ohio, the fund, as well as several foundations funded the production of a study demonstrating the cost inefficiencies in doing government in NE Ohio.  The document is called, Cost of Government Study for Northeast Ohio.  Subsequent feedback from the larger community in NE Ohio shows that citzens want to see more collaboration among government agencies.   Few know how to get there.   All realized there are too many separately  incorporated towns  and small cities in the region, each with very expensive infrastructure.  These towns developed in the mid 1800’s when transportation and communication infrastructure were primitive and it made good sense to have government pockets serve scattered populations.  Today is makes no sense whatsoever to have separate jurisdictions when collaboration and shared services would probably result in costs savings to taxpayers.

Unfortunately, getting public entities to change their administrative structure (which would mean eliminating some jobs) or, to give up power (probably the MOST guarded treasure for elected officials) is practially an impossible task.

As long as tax dollars and State and Federal monies continue to support these organizations, there is little incentive for people to change.  The reality is that the economic crisis may result in drastic cutbacks that will force agencies to close and services to be eliminated.

As foundations look to encourage collaboration, they might do well to read a great new book by John Kotter, Professor Emeritus at the Harvard Business School.  Dr. Kotter does a great job describing how business loose their sense of urgency.  The same applies to public and private entities when they begin an initiative to make change in society.

In addition to Dr. Kotter’s call for groups to understand the role of Urgency in social interaction, a recent article in the December 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review, called Which Kind of Collaboration is Right for You by Gary P. Pisano and Roberto Verganti.  This is a great article best described by as side script that says, The new leaders in innovation will be those who figure out the best way to leverage a network of outsiders.”   The authors describe four modes of collaborative innovation which are:

The Elite Circle in which one company selects the participants, defines the problem and chooses the solutions.

The Innovation Mall where one company posts a problem, anyone can propose solutions and the company chooses the solutions it likes best.

The Innovative Community where anybody can propose problems, offer solutions and decide which solutions to use.

The Consortium Which operates like a private club, with participants jointly selecting the problems, deciding how to conduct work and choosing solutions.

Each of these models have correlates in the public sector.  I will end this post with a quote from the article in question.  Although it is directed to companies, I suggest foundations that urge collaboration read it with an eye to their  admonition that non-profits and the public sector figure out ways to merge and collaborate.  It is – no doubt – easier said than done.

All to often firms(foundations?) jump into relationships without considering their structure and organizing principles – what we call the collaborative architecture.  To help senior managers (read public officials and nonprofit leaders?) make better decisions about the kinds of collaboration their companies adopt, we have developed a relatively simple framework.  The product of our 20 years of research and consulting in this area, it focuses on two basic questions.  Given your strategy, how open or closed should your firms network of collaborators be? And who should decide which problems the network will takle and which solutions will be adopted?”   p.80

I am encouraged by the fact that many people I make reference to in this post continue to come to the table to discuss the issue because they do have the best interest of the community at heart.  The fact is this economy is only beginning to reveal the hard choices and sacrifices we face as a community.   People are meeting that challenge overcoming a fear of the unknown.

Family Philanthropy – How to Respond in the Economic Downturn

Imagine yourself a trustee of a charitable foundation. It is your job to collaborate with 11 other trustees to decide how to distribute charitable funds to organizations that have requested your support. In a typical year you would have $1 million to distribute but the requests this year amount to $2.5 million. All the organizations have proven themselves to be effective in contributing to the social and financial well being of some of the poorest citizens.  Your job is to choose how to distribute those dollars.

Your decisions will be informed by written analysis provided by competent program officers who have conducted all the “due diligence” on the organizations making sure the administration is solid, that the board is contributing to the operational expenses and that the financials are in order.

The meeting begins and you are informed that due to the economic collapse, the money you have to give out is reduced from $1 million this quarter, to a mere $350,000. You know that some of these organizations and the great programs they deliver will receive much less funding from you than in prior years. Other organizations will not likely survive because your past grants gave a credibility to them that enabled them to leverage funds from other foundations and some governments.

Included on the list are: The Second Harvest Food Bank (read their intro page)

Also, there  are several requests to support alternatives to failing public schools like those described in my favorite HBO series The Wire.

Given the crisis in education in public schools and knowing that each year thousands of  young people are lost, do you consider the request from  schools like those of the  Cristo-Rey network that are transforming the lives of children and families in inner city neighborhoods.   These schools like other faith-based receive no State support and will not survive without private individuals and  foundation support.  The total requested from four of these schools is $125,000.

In the Health and Social Services areas, there is  a request from  Providence House that provides a shelter for homeless women and their infants. They need a new roof on the building which costs $150,000.

Then there is the Youth Arts Program for schools.  Without the support of the foundation they will have to cut their artist in residency programs in schools.  Children in seven targeted  public schools will NOT get any exposure to art curriculum unless they get at least $50,000.

There is the Free Clinic, serving the needs of the ever-expanding number of medically uninsured and underinsured.   They have asked for $50,000 to assist with a pharmacy respository that will provide desparately needed medicines to those in need, especially the alarming number of uninsured patients with clinical mental illness.

Their counterpart, the Federally Funded Community Health Center lost out on a $700,000 federal grant they hoped to secure and must now ask for $250,000 to help them get through a cash flow challenge.

There are many other worthy organizations on the list.

So, how do you make your decisions?

Direct all money to the Second Harvest Food Bank that will provide another six months of food to hungry families? What about that great faith-based schools which over the past ten years accepted children from failing public schools and in one year provides remediation that gets them to grade-level reading and math. Ninety-eight percent of their children go to college whereas their friends who remain in the public schools drop out or fail to graduate and never get to college.

Do you direct all money to the free clincs to help the unisured.  What happens next year when they ask again but at increased levels?

Trustees at the foundation I work with will be faced with very similar situations when we meet. This will not be the first time difficult decisions are to be made, but the current economic climate has made it even more difficult.

Family foundations function under a  set of rules established by the Federal government and the Internal Revenue Service.  The States Attorney General has the duty to make sure the charitable institutions are registered and that they are complying with the federal regulations.  The State Attorney General has the power to revoke the charitable status of an organization.  If you are interested in the federal rules and regulations on foundations and nonprofits Marion Freemont-Smith’s book, Governing Nonprofit Organizations: Federal and State Law and Regulation,is by far the most comprehensive.

Briefly, the  government allows families of wealth to establish foundations as charitable entities .  Instead of going to the government as taxes, this money is invested in with managers and typically include a mixed portfolio that inclues equities (stocks) and fixed income (bonds).  Whereas taxes would collect the dollars and direct them to general funds for immediate needs, foundation dollars are invested with the hope that they would earn between 10 and 17% interest on the principal.  Rather than congressional representatives appropriating laws that will spend tax dollars, family foundations are overseen by  citizens who serve as stewards of these funds.  They are charged with allocating those funds, just as congressional representatives approve laws that allocate funds for many projects, including bridges to nowhere 🙂

The IRS is very specific about how these foundation funds must be directed.  For the most part only agencies that IRS determines to be charitable entieis are eligible recipients of foundation dollars.  There are exceptions for individuals but in all cases, the funds must be used for charitable purposed or to benefit the community at large.

As stewards the trustees must abide by the government rule that requires of minimum of 5% of the interest earnings on the endowment must be “paid-out” for the benefit of the community.  So, a family foundation with $100 million dollars must pay out an  minimum of $5 million year on a rolling average of three years.   Ninety-nine and 44/100% of family foundations I know take their job VERY seriously.  Distributing $5 million responsibly to worthy institutions is a complicated endeavor.  Doing it well requires time, research analysis.  There are a few stories of foolish and/or ignorant foundation trustees that misappropriated funds for their own enrichment.  The press loved those stories which resulted in an expensive and public witch hunt against foundations and people of wealth headed by a federal bureaucrat named Dean Zerby serving as  Sancho Panza to the quixotic and self-aggrandizing  Sen. Chuck Grassley.  Fortunately most legislators have realized the value philanthropy plays in this country and the punitive legislative responses by Sen. Grassley have subsided for the moment.

One useful way to understand how philanthropic decisions can be made by trustees of family foundations or by individuals for that matter is the Philanthropy Toolbox which I believe was developed out the Center on Philanthropy at University of Indiana.   The toolbox is really a spectrum of philanthropy that categorizes types of philanthropic giving.  I used the following slide show to demonstrate the types of giving.

Philanthropy Toolbox

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: civicfabric philanthropy)

The categories serve as headers and we “plot” all grant requests under each of the categories to get a sense of where the family is directing its giving.   This exercise allows the trustees to see where they have concentrated their giving over periods of time.  Of the organizations I described above, think of where you would place them among the categories within the toolbox.  The try to determine which request and category on the spectrum would give one organization priority over another.  Now you have entered the world of a family foundation trustee.

All the requests that come to the trustees for consideration are organizations that are doing great work and having positive impact on the lives of people they serve.   Decisions as to where to allocate funds and why can be personal and vary from one individual to another.  What makes foundations exciting places to work is that each person shares his or or reason for making the decisions they do.  the others listen to their points . Some agree and some don’t.  Debate is likely to ensue.  At the end of the meetings decisions are arrived not by secret ballot but by consensus.  On other occasions, I have described board meetings to be similar to deliberations by congressional delegations either federal or state.  Trustees are usually people of varying backgrounds and even level of wealth.  They range on the political spectrum and have deeply held passions.  Representatives from one generation often have points of view and interests that differ from their parents; so in many ways their portraits reflect the diversity of opinion, character and even race that one sees among citizens serving in elected office.  The image of foundation trustees as a homogeneous club of bow-ties and boiled wool is simply not true.  It is a miniature version of any civic organization gathered to enhance the common good.

The economic crisis is placing pressure on State, Federal and local governments budgets that have not been seen since the early 20th Century.  Scarce resources may place pressure on family foundations in the cross-hairs of government and question whether they and their endowments should continue to exist.  This is a challenging question that was discussed recently at a conference at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.  One of the sessions addressed the role of family philanthropy in a democratic society.  It is worth listening to the panel moderated by my colleague Lance Lindblom, Director of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

If you were to be part of the decisionmaking on the board, you would be reminded that the Federal government requires a minimum payout of 5%.  You and board could make a decision to pay well beyond the 5% minimum to meet the needs of the community in times of economic distress.  Of course one would need to balance generosity with prudence.  Anyone who creates a foundation must be an optimist by nature.  Doing so assumes that a carefully managed endowment will grow and will remain as an asset to draw upon to help those in need and, at times, support innovative and creative programs that challenge the status quo.  The two brothers Eric and Evan Nord who established the Nord Family Foundation were men of profound optimism and faith in the community.  They were known to say on many occasions, when the times are difficult the foundation has a responsibility to make sure it does not cut back on grantmaking, but be extra careful about directing funds that will have the greatest impact on the community.  Most importantly, the funding should challenge the larger community to give what they can – personal giving – that will help their neighbors.  With that in mind, I anticipate some of our grantmaking in the future will be challenge grants that will require others to give of themselves in either money or time.

Your decision to choose one group over the other is neither right nor wrong. Just the fact you bothered to read this far into the blog reflects your own interest in philanthropy and giving. Your thoughts of giving to benefit the lives of others honors not only those you consider, but yourself.  I leave you with a quote by Thomas Jefferson

The good opinion of mankind, like the lever of Archimedes, with the given fulcrum, moves the world.

Philanthropy and the Games We Play – virtue redux

A few years ago I met with a school superintendent of one of the districts in the county.  We had lunch at a now defunct Friday’s located on the periphery of a dying mall in Elyria, Ohio.  It must have been in the early spring because the school year was coming to an end and the results of the State standardized tests were revealed.   As we talked about potential funding projects within the district  we were interrupted with greetings from a group of about five other men who had just finished their meal and were on their way out.  The men were superintendents from other districts and of course knew the man I was with.  The greetings were hearty and the topic immediately focused on the test scores. ” How’d you do Larry,” said one of the guys.   The guys were comparing the scores.  They were talking the same way they would about a national football, baseball or basketball championship.  The guy with the poorest results  withstood the jousting.  It was all good fun ending with chortles and high-fives.  The guys left the restaurant.  Larry looked at me and said, “John, these tests are just a big game but we have to play it if we want to survive.”  The comment struck me as tragic.  Here was a talented creative man stuck in a system he knew was not serving its purpose and yet – there he was.  More tragic was the thought of  individual children who are the afterthought in this  system that makes fetish of statistics and numbers.

That was my first glimpse into the public school system which, like many of our public institutions,  has a disproportional number of people suffering cynicism and an overall loss of virtue. In college, I  took it upon myself to read all of John Updike’s novels. Fast forward thirty years and in that restaurant in Elyria; over my “calorie conscious” club chicken salad,  it occurred to me I was living an Updike chapter.  Wikipedia tells us that Updike describes his subject as “the American small town, Protestant middle class.”    Joyce Carol Oats says,

JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art.

Suffering was  my sense in the restaurant that day.  I knew instinctively I was experiencing the first of many Updike-ian experiences in Ohio.  Too many good teachers and their students suffer because we are stuck in a game that is about quantifying learning in ways that are totally incapable of capturing that elusive topic.  Yet in an effort to please authorities and follow the law, people get stuck in a looping game.  No wonder the entire teaching profession is suffers from a malaise. Unlike the novels, I cannot find the comic relief in reality so I turn to film to find it.

We all play games.  In philanthropy, the game with grantees goes something like this.  “Last year we asked for $50,000  but the foundation gave us $35,000.  This year we really need the $50,000 so should we ask for $65,000?  It has been my experience that when we get into the game, we loose sense of our values and loose the ability to have honest conversation.  If we play that game too long, we risk loosing our moral compass.

I am writing about the games we play having just spent the holidays watching the entire five seasons of the HBO Series, The Wire.  I  would make this required viewing for anyone intending to engage in charitable work in any urban area of the United States.  This incredibly well-written and acted series validates the analysis of Dr. Kuserow which I published. in a previous post “Philanthropy and Class- What are We Thinking.”   The Wire provides a glimpse into the workings of urban drug rings, police homicide and drug units, the venality of city government and the cynicism and hopelessness of urban public schools.  The series hired local people to act in the film with the leads carried by professional actors.  The result is a more violent but realistic  portrayal on film of what Updike conveys in literature – “…the general sense of doom of American expansion and decay.”  If Bach had put this series to music, the recitative would be, “It’s all in the Game.”

Let’s look at the first group – the  police department.  The Baltimore Chief of Police has gotten word from the Mayor to reduce the alarmingly high crime statistics.  The high numbers of homicides and felonies in particular jeopardize the Mayor’s ambitions to win the upcoming Gubernatorial election.  The Chief and his Deputy Chief for Operations are good bureaucrats and realize that their fealty to the  Mayor will position them for promotion.  Their own ambition increases the pressure on their subordinates – the district directors and the cops on the street to make the crime stats go down.  The cops and their officers realize the futility of the strategies used to combat the drug wars in the city.  They know their tactics of arresting street pushers is pointless since the suppliers and kingpins elude arrest.  People are murdered with impunity.  The Mayor demands a decrease in the stats, the Chief and the Superintendents know their orders and tell the cops  they must comply.  The cops play a game to keep their jobs.  The “game” devolves into a cynical game of beat the chumps.  Authority looses all respect.  The cops change the  stats and the “system” appears to improve.  The game is called jukin’ the stats.  Check out the meaning of Jukin’ to understand the depths of cynicism.  On the ground, nothing changes.  In  the third this episode of the series only one cop has the courage to stand up and tell the leaders the truth.  This is how that session goes – beware, the language is strong!:

A British friend of mine once stated, “In the U.S. when your legislators make a law they think the whole affair is ‘done and dusted’ ” once it is signed.   The Urban Dictionary defines the term thus –

When something is “done and dusted”, it’s not merely created or accomplished, it’s also polished and cleaned up after. Nothing else is needed, so it can be considered “case closed”.

In our case, the Feds made the law (No Child Left Behind) and case is closed.  The Congress wrote the law, the President signed it.  People were reelected.  The States were left with implementation.  With no money.  The result has been a system that demeans professional teachers, opens the doors to venal and ambitious personalities that will use reporting to gain recognition, access and ultimately rewards in terms of professional promotion.

In series three of The Wire one of the sharpest police officers leaves policing to become a teacher in the Baltimore public schools.  There he is faced with kids from the same corners he busted their older siblings.  He learns quickly bring the attitude of the corner into the classroom.  The game is how to get around real learning, to test authority and ultimately assert oneself in a world of chaos.   Check out this clip –  I love these kids. I don’t know how many times I have seen classes just like this in my travels around the country.

B-5 “And I’m an Audi 5000!

Eventually the teacher “Mr. Prezbo” figures out these kids are not going to learn seated  in rows  reading from outdated and used textbooks.   He senses that and realizes they can learn the material but he needs to do that by opening the learning process from their experiences.   The superintendent pressures him to teach to the text. He argues they are not learning. He is told that if he wants to keep his job he must use the text. He figures out that these “corner” kids live a life of gambling and play dice in the streets. Using their experience of the game he find out they understand probability. Here is a great scene.

But save the best to last. Now into the semester, with progress made, the first-year teacher is called to a general meeting with the school principal. She describes the terms in which teaching will take place during the remaining weeks of the semester.  Compare this dynamic with the first scene in the police headquarters.

Anyone I know who has seen The Wire agrees that the directors capture the reality of  public education in most schools in urban areas in the U.S.  It is a portrait not only of Baltimore, but New York, Cleveland, Boston….the list goes on. It is a sad and tragic case that the system is allowed to go on. Clearly there are successful classrooms and good students. The reality is those successes take place because of dedicated teachers and typically have nothing to do with the added “rigor” the legislators and designers of NCLB intended. What we have created is a sense of doom in our public schools.

I think it is the role of philanthropy to speak out against the games. Funding programs we know work. Finding and supporting teachers who are making a difference in classrooms despite the system – not because of it – remain the challenge.  It is interesting to me that Al Sharpton and Joel Klein wrote and article for the January 12, 2009 Wall Street Journal entitled “Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap – it is not acceptable for minority students to be four grades behind.” They tell us, “Genuine school reform, you stated during the campaign, “will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn from students and teachers . . . about what actually works.”

Much like the cops on the corner or the teachers that work with the kids day in and day out, the truth will come only if we are humble enough to listen and open to learning.  Doing so can open individuals to virtue.

I am happy to report that my superintendent friend retired from the system leaving behind one of the most dynamic schools in the county. The project we discussed involved implementation of the Universal Design for Learining UDL developed at the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in Winchester, Massachusetts. The foundation provided the support and worked closely in fostering healthy relations between the colleagues in Massachusetts and Ohio.   He made UDL the required approach to learning for all teachers in every building in the district.   By focusing on UDL and linking UDL, with Co-Teaching and appropriate use of technology, this district has had an excited teaching core and children of all abilities engaged in learining. Incidentally their test scores have gone up too.

Foundation Support for Independent Schools – new opportunities for public school education

The publicity about the Obama’s choice of the Sidwell Friends School shed light on the apparent contradiction of those who support public schools but elect to send their children to private schools.  I am sure this fact makes the Obama’s and others like them feel a bit defensive when attending parties.  In Oberlin, Ohio where I live, people who send their children to the independent school are literally shunned by those who keep their children in the public system.

One of the great challenges facing Independent schools, and the foundations that support them is how to make the excellent quality of education available to those outside the walls of these relatively small institutions.  The winter 2006 edition of Independent School, published by the National Association of Independent Schools gave voice to a growing number of members who struggle with perception that independent schools are institutions only for the elite. In an environment where the gap between wealthy families and poorer families grows, fewer middle class families are able to afford private school education. The quality of Independent School education, such as the institution I send my children (Lake Ridge Academy) can not be disputed. In fact trustees of  foundations tpically send their children to independent schools places like:   Noble and Greenough School, Heathwood Hall, Buckinham, Browne and Nicols and others of pedigree based on a history of quality education. Read the mission statments of any of them and compare that aspiration to those of public schools.  This reality presents an unease because these same trustees approve grants that try to improve the quality of public school education.  We all know that undertaking can have pockets of success but due to the enormity of the task of reform  rewards are elusive.

Faith-based schools such as Epiphany School, Nativity Prep, Arrupe Prep as well as non-denominational charter  KIPP schools. supported by the foundation I serve, offer the quality education that rivals the atmosphere, academic dicipline and values of  higher priced independent schools.  However these schools are expensive to maintain and require constant funding from private sources.  The State simply will not fund these entities.  In the case of KIPP and Charter Schools, the national discussion is typically met with a vitrol accompanied by public policies that keep State funding to a minimum.  Tacitly, the policy carries a hope  that charters will fail and, like apostates, will someday realize the waywardness of their action and return to the public school system as we know it.    That system of course is failing millions of children in the U.S. daily, but there remains no strategy to address that reality.

How can one make the quality of Independent School education available to families of the middle class and even children of low-income families has remained elusive.  D. Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School in Cleveland  suggested, “The benefits of having the broadest possible exposure to students with other backgrounds, races, ideas, and experience must be part of that education, and must include children from families in the bottom 50 percent of the socioeconomic tier.”

How can an independent schools do that when the availability of scholarship monies is limited? Technology provides answers.

Independent Schools can make better use of web-based technology to break down the walls of their institutions and make their curriculum available to a larger number of students.

The Harvard Crimson reported an innovative adaptation of SecondLife™ at Harvard University in 2006 whereby students at the Harvard Law School will co-learn with students at the Harvard Extension School – linking a divergent student body in a cooperative learning process.  Independent Schools can and should do the same thing with outreach to public schools.  Foundations can support these activites.

SecondLife offers very tremendously exciting  opportunities to explore how the quality of independent school education may be open to others who cannot afford a typical four-year education.  What can that look like? Check out the site that explains how Secondlife works for educators.

Independent schools can and should explore the possiblity of creating their schools in Secondlife and inviting their professors and other educators to work with selected students in a virtual envorinment.  This is particularly true of the children in the lower 50% of the economic tier Mr. Lowney mentions.

Phillips Exeter Academy is known for the Harkness Table.  This seminar-styled approach to high school education was developed in 1931 and invites young people to share thought together in a collaborative learning experience.  Why not re-create a Harnkess Table in Secondlife whereby children from schools across the country could benefit from this educational style and interact with students who typically will not have access to these inistitutions of privilidge.

The Burton D. Morgan Foundation in Hudson, Ohio funded one of the first business/entrepreneurship programs at the high school level to Lakeridge Academy.  The teachers developed a very fine curriculum which serves the 20 or so students in that program.  I can imagine a very interesting project where, for example students from the business/entrepreneurship at Lakeridge Academy participated in SecondLife with students from the E-City program and the related Entrpreneurship Academy or E-Prep in Cleveland. (E-Prep received a start-up grant from The Nord Family Foundation and continues to receive yearly operating support s0 I disclose my interest and passion for this great school). A project of this type would expand the number of people who share in the curriculum and widen the perspectives on what entrepreneurship means in the suburbs and what it means on “corners” in Cleveland.

Foundation should consider funding these types of projects as a means of opening quality education they can (and often do) provide their own children and to talented and able children attending failing public schools.

I have had the priviledge to get to know some of the people at The Center for Institutional Technology and Academic Computing (ITAC) .  This institution is currently supporing several innovative uses of Secondlife in the educational settings including pioneering work in the high school curriculum.

Although SecondLife has been tremendously successful in higher education, the potential for its use in high school settings has been thwarted because SecondLife restricts its users to a minimum age of 18.  Students under that age are pointed The Teen Grid.  It is the hope of many educators that someday soon, SecondLife and its creators at Linden Lab will  allow for less restrictive use by high school teachers.

Another very interesting organization to watch for application for Independent schools is the work of the remarkable Aaron Walsh at MediaGrid at Boston College.  This organizations provides high quality virtual environments that rival those of expensive interactive games.

Foundations that restrict themselves only to supporting projects in public education are selling themselves short by not opening themselves to exploring these new ways to blend independent school and public school education.  It is my experience that most independent school faculty would welcome this innovation to expand their educational mission to those outside their walls.

It is time the philanthropic sector open itself to this important discussion with colleagues from Independent and Public Schools.  For those unsure about all this, may I suggest reading a report published by the MacArthur Foundation’s and the Digial Youth Resesarch at U.Cal. Berkeley.  Great reading!

Foundations as Convenors for Civic Discussion – another case study

It is becoming common for foundations  to serve an important function in the communities they operate.  That function is convening “stakeholders” or “community leaders” to discuss issues and in particular  – thorny issues.  They can do this for several reasons.  As funders of nonprofits, they have an interest in collaborating with colleagues who may need an audience to advocate with government officials and other stakeholders for the populations they serve.  The nonprofits typically are recipents of government funds and, as such, are players in a larger network of fiscal exchange that include private and “public” dollars.  (I define public dollars as those raised through taxes).  City and/or state agencies distribute these tax dollars to nonprofit collaborators tying them to the cohort involved.

The “thorniness” arise when discussion opens to critique the way in which the various iterations of public dollars flow and exchange among the entities.  Too often critique is mistaken for criticism and agency directors can revert to defensive postures.   This is particularly true when entrenched entities and the ways  they doing business are suddenly open to public scrutiny.

Business leaders  have an interest in the communities served by nonprofits by dint of living in the same community but also having a direct or indirect financial investment in that community.  The private sector may sneer at the way government entities function.  We suggest that it is healthier for the community to bring that critique to a common ground rather than lob salvos at an agency that might raise and individuals ire.

Foundations play a unique role in this civic environment.  If they call the meeting most people will come.  There is the power of money and the high probability that good food will be part of the deal  inevitably an incentive for people to attend the meetings.  If the meetings are choreographed carefully ahead of time it is very likely that the intellectual discussion will provide enough nourishment to sustain the conversations.

I propose that family foundation’s might have the advantage over community foundations and corporate foundations in this arena since they are inurred from “interests.” Community Foundations must raise money from the community and therefore must be careful not appear endorsing a position that could alienate a (funding) constituency.  Similarly corporations must be somewhat risk averse to issues that could result in a public relations (PR) controversy.  Of course there are exceptions to my broad comments.  Community foundations can and have taken a lead role in conferences that are meant to be conciliatory. Case in point – the Cincinnati Community Foundation’s initiative to address racial tensions in that city a few years ago was a national model and the Pittsburg Foundation‘s efforts (in collaboration with the Heniz Endowment) to address thorny issues in the public schools.  The Columbus Medical Association and Foundation is a national model for convening stakeholders around the crisis of health care in that city.  The Cincinnati Health Foundation is another standard for how to engage a community around this critical issue.  With far fewer resources than our colleagues in Columbus or Cincinnati, we explored their methods as we embarked on our own response.

At the February 2008 Board meeting The Nord Family Foundation made a grant of $100,000  to the Community Foundation of Lorain County to initiate a community engagement and planning process to improve access to health care for the uninsured and under insured. (A great snapshot of the Lorain County Health statistics are found at the Public Service Institute) The initiative was a response to several critical factors.  The two charity hospitals Community Health Partners of Lorain and the Elyria Memorial Hospital are reporting approximately $20 million and $12 million in uncompensated care each year.  In addition to the two charity hospitals, the Lorain County Health and Dentistry is a beacon of hope for the scores of  medically uninsured and under insured in Lorain County.  LCHD had applied several times to receive funds from the Federal government to receive support as a Federally Qualified Health Care Center (FQHC).  Unfortunately it is considered a FQHC look alike because it has all of the services but does not get the Federal Funds.  The requests were turned down several times because demand exceeds supply of federal funds.  Equally disturbing was the increased pressure from the charitable group Lorain Free Clinic (headed by a remarkably talented and passionate executive director Paul Baumgartner)  to meet the increased demands of serving the rising number of medically indigent people in a county with staggering job loss and poverty.

Adding to the complexity is the aggressive move of the Cleveland Clinic Family Health satellite offices in Lorain and Elyria which is perceived as skimming the full-pay insured patients from the other two hospitals and FQHC.

So, when LCHD received a turn down of a $700,000 federal grant we sensed the community needed help.  A convening was in order!

We knew the task was enormous, but the urgency of the situation demanded a response.  Funds were used to support the work of the Altarum Institute of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in partnership with the local Public  Services Institute of Lorain County Community College. The overall project is currently referred to as Health Care Lorain County.

Upon approval of the grant, a Steering Committee was formed to provide community leadership for what became known as Health Care Lorain County. This ten-member committee has been chaired by the Executive Director of the Lorain County United Way and includes high-level representatives from the two main hospital systems, a local health departments, the Lorain County Medical Society, a local business leader, two nonprofit healthcare providers, a Lorain County Commissioner, and the President & CEO of the Community Foundation of Lorain County. This committee came together for a strategic planning retreat facilitated by staff of the Altarum Institute.

In preparation for the retreat, the Public Services Institute (PSI) conducted a basic environmental scan using existing data sources, to help define the prevalence and nature of the problem and to identify unanswered questions to inform future data needs. PSI and later United Way of Lorain County and Community Foundation staff also conducted one-on-one interviews with all members of the Working Group (key stakeholders, including members of the Steering Committee) to garner their expertise on the issue and input into the planning process. This compiled information was then presented at the retreat, to assist the Steering Committee in determining a shared understanding of the problem to be addressed, and to begin identifying project objectives and benchmarks for success. The Steering Committee developed into a highly dedicated group of community leaders with expertise and interest in the topic at hand and a commitment to serve the health care needs of the community. Meetings continued throughout the year, and included large stake-holder meetings  to continue data analysis, fine-tune the project direction, and determine the best steps for action.

After more than a year of meetings, the following conclusions were made:

  1. There is a need to continue exploring this very complex issue of providing quality health-care to medically uninsured and under insured people in the county.
  2. There must be a new technology infrastructure put in place to facilitate data sharing.
  3. There is a desire to provide every citizen a sense of a medical home.  People desire a relationship with a personal health care provider rather than an impersonal institution.
  4. The community needs to explore open-source charts so every patient can have an online chart that will follow him or her to their port to the health care system. The Cleveland Clinic’s remarkable on-line health record called My Chart is a great example of what an electronic health portfolio for medically under insured and uninsured could look like.
  5. There is a need to examine how health dollars currently flow into the county.  There are tremendous inefficiencies and possible duplication of effort among  three distinct health departments (Elyria, Lorain City and Lorain County Health) which draw most of their funding from federal and state programs.  These departments which were established initially to address infectious disease in the earlier decades of the 20th Century, are not equipped to handle comprehensive chronic care that the majority of the population needs.  Competition from for-profit clinics such as Walgreens raise questions about the place of these health departments in a 21st century health care model.
  6. The economic pressure necessiate collaboration between the two charitable hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic.

I am pleased to report that the undertaking has the active engagement of Senator Sherrod Brown and House Representatives, the Honorable Marcie Kaptur and Honorable Betty Sutton. The project has taken on a life of its own and stakeholders who would have otherwise had no incentive to come to the table have and continue to do so.  Their is consensus among the stakeholders that the large number of medically uninsured and under insured is a case of tragedy of the commons.  The response requires a willingness of leaders to listen, learn and possibly give up power in the years ahead.  That is a threatening prospect, but and genuine possibility.  It is a conversation that would not have taken place were it not for the foundation’s willingness and financial commitment to step in and assume a leadership role.

We do not know at this point where the effort will end up.  We do know that others have agreed to chip in to pay the costs to continue the facilitation.  It is our sincere belief that this effort will have positive impact on the access to health care that every family in this country deserves.  If nothing else in a age of disease resistant microbes, increased mental illness and poverty access quality health care and drugs is a public health issue that should concern all citizens.

So the challenge for any foundation deciding to take on a major effort in convening, you must determine{

  • what role you want to  take
  • have flexibility built into the expectations you have for the outcome
  • know the level of risk you  will tolerate (the outcome could result in stakeholders walking away from the table) and
  • be honest about much staff time and money you are willing to put into the effort
  • look for innovation outside the conversations so to better inform the conversations
  • be willing to stick with it – conversations of this magnitude can take year
  • We are making good progress with our effort. I admit to frustration about the ponderous pace the effort can take. It is my sincere hope that our stakeholders will embrace innovation in thought to explore interactive maps such as those developed by the Cincinnati Health Foundation, as well as virtual environments like those featured below that become places to test their theories.

    Doing so will encourage even wider and broader horizions of possiblities.

    Should the project work well, there can be nothing more rewarding than knowing you have created a space where citizens can leave their official interests at the door and collaborate as colleagues challenged with solving an enormous social problem.

Collective Intelligence and the Zoo – a challenge for educators and philanthropy

I have posted previously on the foundation’s support for non-formal science and art education programs and their role in education.  Today I had the priviledge of visiting the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo buided by one of its most impressive Directors, Liz Fowler.  Liz is one of those rare and inspirational directors whose love for the organization is infectious.   The Nord Family Foundation provided a grant several years ago to support a Distance Education program when distance education was still on dial-up networks.  I was really pleased and stunned to see how far this museum has come in developing quality broadcast of its distance education programming.  While I was there today, I learned about the plans for the Zoo to expand its space but also its education programs for the Elephants.  There is a cool video about the Plans for Elephants.  As I toured the facility I had the opportunity to meet the staff at the Zoo’s Hospital and their office with links to the Ohio State School of Veterinary Medicine.  Dr. Lewandoski provided me with a tour of the surgery unit for animals.  The zoo provides window in the surgery units that allow any child an opportunity to view the procedure.  An interpreter provides and explanation of what is happening during the operation.  Interestingly, the zoo staff rigged a webcam to one of the overhead lights allowing a webcam to broadcast the event as the Vet see it.  At this time, the broadcast takes place internally.


As I moved I watched zoo education staff provide animated lessons about animal science to classes of children from some of Cleveland’s inner city schools.  The children were completely engaged with the lectures that were accompanied with hands-on experiences.  As I watched I wondered what would happen after the students returned to their classrooms.  Was there anyway to follow-up to keep the student’s engagement with the teacher and/or subject matter alive?  Did the students have portfolios or an opportunity to write about what they saw, to use blogs?   I met staff who are profoundly knowledgable in their subject area and they exude excitment about science and animals. Did the zoo use blogs to allow these people to keep touch with any of the students through a blog?  As I watched these experts, I looked at the teachers who sat at the back of the room who were also enjoying the subject matter.   Did the zoo open it’s curriculum to these teachers so the teachers could use a wiki to shape their own science programming and allow these “expert” to become co-teachers on the child’s learning process.  The answer was no.  The zoo simply does not have these tools.  The majority of teachers do not know how to use them.

What a waste of resources.  At a time when the schools are pushing for innovation, the resources are lying all around us.  The State school system lacks a coherent strategy for linking the many tools that are available right now, to the many many resources and expertise of institutions such as the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, The Great Lakes Science Center, The Lake Erie Nature and Science Center and many others like it just in the Cleveland area.  How many other institutions of this type across the country are underutilzed simply because the State’s do not know how to adequatly train teachers on use of something as relatively simple as the suite of services available through Google for Educators. How much philanthropic funding supports these programs year-after-year without providing the tools to bring these resources into the core of learning in public schools.

A place like the Cleveland Zoo is a place where K-12 educators, as well as Colleges and Universities focus on science and can introduce young people to biology, animal sciences, chemisty and math….all in one place.  The educators I have met at these institutions are more than willing to join in developing curriculum through an effort of collective knowledge.  I am particularly excited about this concept having listened in part to a conference called Program for the Future One of the most compelling presentations was by Thomas Malone from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  This slide show on Collective Intelligence points the way for people who are trying to figure out what P-16 councils can really mean for igniting educational achievement in their communities.

Tom Malone – Program for the Future Dec. 8

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own.
I think it is incumbent upon foundations to find ways to work among themselves to foster conversations across sectors that will tap into the collective conscience.  In this time of economic crisis (the State of Ohio has a projected budget deficit of almost a billion dollars), we need to make more effective use of the resources we have.  There will be resistance because this type of knowledge sharing is a trenemdous threat to those who have interest in guarding “knowledge” as they see it, (read, state education bureaucracies, Departments of Education, many School Boards, and Teachers Unions).  It will take conversations that phanthropists can convene, push and bring to the state and national agenda.  No one else will.

Politicians and Teachers Unions – thoughts for philanthropy

I live in Oberlin Ohio and due to my wife’s position as Director of the Cooper International Learning Center at Oberlin College we are active members in the life of the College and the town of Oberlin, Ohio. Located in corn fields about 27 miles west of Cleveland, Oberlin is a town that is rich in history and home to a college with a legacy of excellence in education.  It has a reputation for being liberal – sometimes on the fringe.  After and expensive “branding” campaign, the school adopted the term “FEARLESS” as its defining slogan.   Despite being ranked as one of the top 20 liberal arts colleges in the country, Oberlin College is located in a town with a public school system that has for many years struggled with low performance scores on state standardized tests.   In fact, it was ranked among the lowest performing in the State a few years ago.

The reasons are complex and rooted to some extent in a stratified economic and class system, which may seem odd for a town of only 4,000 permanent residents.  I referenced the social stratifications in my previous blog posting called “Philanthropy, Education and Class ‘what are we thinking, ”  With one of the best colleges in the country one would think that the public school system would excel.  Well, it has not.  Two years into his job, the visionary superintendent has had his challenges with a population that has taken him to task on his attempt to introduce a one-laptop per child into the schools as part of a larger goal to move the school to innovation in learning and technology.  That attempt was voted down in a school levy in 2006.  Most recently, the Superintendent has introduced the International Baccaulaureate Program into this district with approximately 1,200 students as a means of introducing rigor into the academic environment.  Starting with the lower grades, teachers have been trained on IB programs and eventually IB will be incorporated into the entire K-12 curriculum.  The townspeople have not been unanimous in their support.  The foundation I work with provided support to an organization that began a community voice project called, “Community Diaries” We started it around the laptop issue and with word-of-mouth marketing, we saw more than 500 posts in one month!.  When the levy failed, the discussions continued with some more strident voices nudging others out.  Today, there continues to be a lot of voices against IB, espeically from people who I surmise are from the miniority community.  ( The blog allows citizens to post anonymously). Even in this small town of 8,000 college students and permanent residents, running a school district is not an easy task.

As part of the 175th Year Celebration, Oberlin College has held a number of colloquia with speakers from around the country.  Tonight, Oberlin College was awarded the Harry S. Truman Foundation‘s 2008 Foundation Honor Institution.    Oberlin Alumnus Adrian M. Fenty class of 1992 was the featured speaker tonight.  Mr. Fenty is Mayor of Washington, D.C.  Mr. Fenty gave an impressive talk about his”…excitement about being back at Oberlin, his excitement for Ohio, his excitement for the District of Columbia and his excitement for the Nation for the hope he sense for the District and the Nation, especially with the President elect Obama.”  He was excited that Ohio was a “difference-maker in the national election.”  He was impressed with the Oberlin students who, in this past election led a county-wide effort to assist non-registered citizens any way they can to register for vote.  He was excited for the nation which has expressed its intolerance for the ways elections used to be done.  Voters realized that Obama kept a consistent message even early on and did not change his speeches or platforms to play to a base.  Fenty said, “If you campaign to your base, people realize you will govern to your base.”  People are at a point and realize that politics should be based on Performance and not Patronage.  He mentioned other leaders like the remarkable Cory Booker, in Newark (who I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing at a conference with Philanthropy Roundtable in October) ; Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, Gavin Newsom in San Francisco; and Byron Brown of Buffalo, New York and recently elected Governor of Maryland and former Mayor of Baltimore  Martin O’Malley, as examples of strong leaders who are focused and represent principled leaders who are determined to focus on performance and not patronage.

When the time for questions opened, I asked Mayor Fenty to talk about his number one priority – creating effective schools in the District of Columbia.  In my opinion, Mr. Fenty’s Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee is one of the most impressive leaders in American education.  He and Ms. Rhee constitute a team of public officials showing singularly strong and effective leadership by taking charge and changing a struggling public school district.  (I had the pleasure to meet Ms. Rhee when she was with Project REACH and spoke at Philanthropy Roundtable).  I asked Mr. Fenty the following question:

Your partnership with Chancellor Rhee has earned this team national recognition for innovation in transforming districts.  Was there anything you felt unprepared for when you took on this task of the appalling state of the district’s schools.  What did you learn from the experience and what advice would you give to mayors and leaders of smaller cities such as Lorain, Ohio; Elyria, Ohio and Cleveland?

Mr. Fenty answered, ” We learned early on that there was no mechanism in place for anyone to take decisive action.  Someone was accountable (the mayor) and had to take responsiblity for action.  People knew what the right thing to do was, but people in the system were so bogged down in the bureaucracy, they couldn’t act.  Too many people would shirk responsiblity and blame it on someone else or give excuses.  I would recommend to mayors of larger urban areas –  “Get Rid of the School Board.”  Too many people with agendas and interests (patronage?) are left to make decisions, then public hearings make it impossible for anyone to take decisive and critical action!  I (Fenty) passed the changes within 24 hours of being elected.  Decisions to close 23 reduntant and underperforming schools was made quickly and by fiat.

Second, you have to have a STRATEGY that is clear and concise.  Too few leaders have a strategy that has benchmarks for success along the way.  A good leader will roll-out that strategy early on and Chancellor Rhee did that.  Fenty is there to support her and do what it takes to make it happen.

Finally, “Get rid of teachers unions!”  Fenty said he agrees with and supports teachers organizing.  He has learned that teachers unions and especially their leadership are out not for the children but for ways to protect their jobs.  Their desire to protect their jobs has for too long shielded individual teachers from accountablity.  He quoted his Chancellor who says, ‘Adults have to be held accountable for student performance!”  In the union patronage system, too many people blame others or systems or tests ….anything but themselves for poor performance.  If they ask themselves if they might be the problem, then doors open to personal and professional improvement. ”

I was sitting next to the Oberlin Superintendent who, along with the rest of the audience was pretty much dumfounded by what he has to say.  Oberlin is a town that has prided itself in typical democratic platforms of the past and have been, in general supportive of unions.  The school district has had a highy politicized teachers union that some claim have contributed to the schools low performance.  I do not have children in the public system so I am in no position to comment on that fact.  My children(mine attend independent schools – we only have one chance at it and my children have been better served by private education).  Mr. Fenty’s comments left many uncomfortable.

I confess to some jubilation at Mr. Fenty’s comments.  In a future blog I will comment on the last days of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum project on providing the governor with ideas on how to introduce innovation in Ohio Schools and prepare students for the 21st Century.  In a final review of the process which, for the first time brought us the complete report of the other working group called Teacher/Principal Quality there were some concerns raised.  I asked whether a document which will be called

Preparing Students for Success in the Global Economy and Guaranteeing Quality Teaching and Effective School Leadership

and which is charged with providing a vision for innovation in teaching and learning. sould include language with specific langugage for legsilation that would clarify means for hiring and firing teachers.  The proposals also included legislative language eo ensure tenure for teachers.  My question was whether this document which is sponsored by a membership organization of foundations across the state should include language that is clearly an agenda item for the Ohio Teachers Union and their ongoing issues with the Ohio Department of Education.  I suggested that there was wide and varying opinion among foundations about teachers unions and their role in the future of public education.  Given that, I suggested the document which is well written and reflecting a lot of work, might be better suited as a separate piece without requesting sign off from foundations? A rather heated discussion ensued.  The word “anti-union” agenda was thrown out.  That experience helped me realized Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee’s bravery and leadership.

For too long I have heard too many people speak with me in my official capacity “off the record” about the entrenched system of patronage that keeps people in jobs for life in the public school system with little accountability.  Too many leaders have spoken with me in confidence of how difficult and self-serving many teachers unions are.  For too long, I have heard and seen retired teachers pulled back into the system as patronage, to be reinstated at 80% salary and benefits. the Cleveland Plain Dealer had a lead story this week “What Should Schools Do About Bad Teachers?” which describes one district having to pay $200,000 in legal fees to arbitrate a grievance filed by a teacher who was let go.  I have it on fairly reliable evidence that the financially stricken Lorain City School District spent over $700,000 in legal fees one year to address union grievances.  Mr. Booker of Newark urged the audience to read about Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial “Rubber room” where teachers who are deemed unfit for class, but not able to be fired, are relegated to a room where they sit all day and collect taxpayers dollars protected by unions.  It was announced the other day that the Governor of Ohio is facing a $675 million dollar budget deficit.  In the current fiscal situation cities and towns will face economic crisis.  This is a time for all people to examine areas where costs can be contained, where patronage can be dropped for real performance and where citizens will be presented with the real cost ovrerruns and waste in this entity we call public schools.  The economic crisis and a sense of true citizenship demands we do so.

When one offers critique of unions and the way things have been done, one is readily shot down.  I have found that the experience of retort is not pleasant, filled with passion and bordering on unreasonable.   Just read letters to the editor when the press critiques unions.  It is deemed as having an “anti-union” agenda.  These are buzz words that the new political leadership in both the Democratic and Republican parties are beginning to see through and address.   I admire people like Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee who have taken such leadership. I think more people in the foundation and philanthropic sectors need to follow the lead and see through old systems of patronage and hold teachers accountable for performance.  We can be excited about the emergence of new and forward thinking leaders like Mr. Fenty.   Mr Fenty lives up to Oberlin College’s slogan…….FEARLESS!  Philanthropy should too!

Philanthropy Social Software and Multi-User Virtual Environments

The National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) held an annual conference in mid-November.  There was a gathering of some of the most innovative thinkers in figuring out ways to make use of technology to enhance education and nonprofits, but more importantly to introduce ways in which these technologies can make curriculum  and everyday computer use accessible to people who are blind, deaf or even cognatively challenged. It was tremendously exciting to be with people who are not only passiontate but practical in making the lives of the “dis-abled” easier.

What one sees in attending the conference and its Tech-Expo is the spectacular proliferation of new social media and its potential to enhance learning.  It is clear that these technologies have had unimaginable impact on companies in their ability to achieve efficiency and increased market share. Despite amazing advances in social media or “web-2.0” technologies, the global society is only beginning to see the implications of increased computer capacity and interconnectivity. In an impressive presentation by Gregg Downey eSchool News, we were introduced to the shift from the phase of Parallel Computing in which one computer server handles the information input of an organization or company, to the more exciting phase of Cloud Computing in which multiple servers share and sort information with unimaginable speed.

Despite this tremendous innovation pubic schools and the nonprofit sector lag behind pathetically. Philanthropy and program officers have a responsibility to be aware of these tools to seek out opportunities where investments in the application of these tools can, create greater efficiencies in nonprofits.

One of the main obstacles to philanthropy taking the lead here is too many programs officers do not realize the potential because they do not use them and/or have no idea of what is out there. Too many of us use the computer as that thing on which you get e-mail, go to websites, maybe read the paper and occasionally chuckle at funny YouTube videos – not much else when it comes to the tools. Shared learning is the primary attractions of social software to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Unfortunately, the sector has not thusfar done a good job of doing that but hopefully things will change soon.

Blogs, wiki’s twitters, and to some extent photo sharing such as Flickr are forms of shared knowledge with transforms into learning. Tagging is a means of coding that enables others to reference your area. If a program officer keeps a written blog on site visits and brings up issues of concern to the community such as “foreclosure” that blog can be tagged and others who have interest in foreclosure will be directed to that blog post and able to comment or share relevant information.  Similarly, if a nonprofit director keeps a blog about challenges to the organization, tagging is a way others can find you and, in an ideal situation, offer advice, help or assistance).   In many cases responses can come from around the world.  The power of these tools however is that, put in the hands of creative people, uses I cannot imagine can emerge. (For an extraordinary discussion on this topic, I recommend David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous).

Truth is however, this is a sector that does not know how to share information well.  Some foundations fund and produce research that is published in remarkably slick folders.  Large foundations such as Ewing Marion Kaufmann, to name one, do a stunning job producing documents on education and innovation.  Unfortunately, few high school teachers or even university professors can access this information easily.   I chose Kaufmann only because I had the pleasure to hear Dennis Cheek, Education Program Director, give a remarkably exciting presentation on use of Games in Education at a conference by Philanthropy Roundtable in November.  There is simply too much great research by foundations that is not getting out there.  The Cleveland Foundation and the Gund Foundation in Cleveland jointly published an important document on schools in Cleveland called, Cleveland Schools That are Making a Difference.   The document covers schools, private and public that are transforming the lives of students.  In my opinoin the document has not had follow-up primarily because what it takes to produce a great school cannot be easily accomplished within traditional public schools.  The tenents of making these schools work, despite having little or no State support is that they have administrative structures that threaten the way school has always been done.  A region-wide or even national conversation is simply too threatening to public entities especially those that have to deal with the political powers that hamper real progress in public schools.  A web-based discussion would be great way to start.  But we have seen in that a public blog on public schools can be too threatening to public school officials and school board members.  One experience was the Oberlin Community Diaries which opened a public blog for the town to discuss a tax levy for laptops.  The site had over 500 contributions in the first month but when conversation became threatening, most school board members shut out the conversation, the superintendent stopped participating.  School officials stated publicly that they would respond only to conversation in a school board meeting (Tuesday nights at 6 pm when many parents are unable to attend).  Later the school created its own blog.  It was readily transparent that conversation there could be controlled much easier and was therefore less threatening.   Control of information is an issue that policy makers and even foundations will have to address in years to come.  Information is power.  Few of us like to loose control of power, especially those who hold the purse strings.  That is another topic for another post, but if you want to jump ahead, Everything is Miscellaneous, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicolas, and Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky are great examples of how the new flow of knowledge is changing many presuppositions about the locus of knowledge control).

The NCTI offered a few great sessions on the Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE).  Herein lies another area program officers need to understand . These are immersive learning environments that have remarkable application to the health, education and business sectors. Despite the boom in the multi-billion dollar gameing  industry, few people in positions of funding responsibility understand the impact these and other technology tools have on transforming education, health care and the social environments in which we live. New organizations like Serious Games Director Ben Sawyer is a brillant and earnest advocate who merits serious consideration and note.  There is also Games for Change sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundations Journalism Program are informing nonprofits and schools on games such as Peacemaker, Free Rice, Budget Hero (to name only a few) because these environments provide important educational and collaborative tools for learning.  Games for Change  Director, Alex Quinn informed the audience that when former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor realized that more people knew the American Idol judges than the judges on the Supreme Court, she became a participant in the development of a prgram with Georgetown University called Our Courts. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer program is developing exciting uses of games to promote health not only with young people but for retired individuals. RWJ’s Pioneer program does have a blog that invites the world to submit their innovative ideas on improving health care and health care delivery.

A challenge facing the gaming groups is how to help teachers assess these learning tools to be included as part of a students overall learning portfolio. Chris Dede from the Harvard Graduate School of Education introduced the audience to the Harvard River City Project.  This multi-user enviornment includes features that will enable the participant to write, blog and chat.  These are features which put in the hands of creative teachers will be easily and readly assess-able to determine how the user understands the content.  The powers that be simply have to allow teachers to experiment with the tools and trust that with their intelligence and creativity the means to develop assessment tools will emerge.  Unfortunatly, the likihood of this happening in the nation’s public schools is not high at the moment.

In my work with the OGF Education Work group I recommended Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class. I suggest everyone in this sector should take the time to read it. particular interest is Dr. Christensen’s discussion of the role disruptive technologies are having in the way people learn in ways that were unimaginable before innovations in social networking.

The Pew Internet& American Life Project is producing important research on applications these games have in the lives of young people and their teachers.  All teachers, superintendents and administrators should read these reports carefully.  One day maybe public television and radio will dedicate a show or even a program on this topic which is of such profound importance to American education.

Philanthropy can have an important role in working to usher responsible and effective use of these important tools to a sector that if given the opportunity will make highly creative application of them to serve the larger society.

Philanthropy – Evaluation of Education grantmaking

The foundation has considered the importance of strategic grantmaking and the idea of having high impact. What does it mean to have impact when the average grant in education is around $25,000 to $50,000.

What do we know?

Private/faith-based schools have remarkable success with inner city kids. Remediation takes place within the first year; reading seems to be easier to remediate than math and science. In most cases adherence to one particular faith is not mandatory. Most schools welcome families of all faiths. Students thrive in an atmosphere that is safe, and has rules. This seems to be the case across geographic funding areas.

Public Schools pose a more formidable challenge when looking for impact, but the foundation has made significant inroads in shifting the direction of some of these large ships. The work of CAST in schools in Lorain County has generated enthusiasm, contributed to a change in discussion about delivery of curriculum to divergent learners. It has added to conversation in schools about brain function and development and its impact on curriculum. It is exciting to see small pockets emerging where teachers are eager to shift the focus from assessment of learning to a concept of assessment for learning.

There are promising programs in isolated public schools that will address assessment of student performance such as the assessment for learning programs as well as programs that develop co-teaching. We see in these programs an attempt to bring to large public schools methods that have worked well in smaller, private school environments.

Structure of the school day

For inner city schools, a traditional public school day of 8-2:30 is not in place. In the Denver Street School, students are taught in blocks of 90-100 minutes as opposed to the typical 45 min schedule. This, teachers say, allows more time for challenged students to talk and reflect on the matter at hand rather than the typical – here’s the lesson, take it in, and report back to me on a standardized test and we will see how we do.

An environment that incorporates individual attention

In the National Association of Street Schools (NASS), each student has a faculty advocate who watches out for that youngster throughout the year. At Nativity Prep, Epiphany, Arrupe Prep and even the Urban Community School of Cleveland , the school days provide structured environments for students from early morning until the evening. All schools agreed that the after-school hours are when youngsters are most vulnerable.

Each of the schools incorporate into their behavior the reality that educational needs are not divorced from the social needs. For most of these schools the average teacher student ratio is 10/1. In the Cristo Rey model schools, young people who are teachers in training also serve the students by being available for them after the school day is over, for mentoring, coaching. The students live modestly and have little cost impact on the administration.

Respect for individual learning styles and adaptation

We have learned that whether it be in a small nurturing environment that a small private/faith-based school creates, or in larger public school classrooms, teachers know they teach better and students actually learn when the curriculum is adapted to the individual learning styles CAST has been phenomenal in helping teachers understand the link between brain research, and translating that into excited learning.

What we see on the horizon.

Using web-technologies students will develop electronic portfolios for their work which is open to each other (peers) for critique and discussion as well as with teachers. These educational portfolios contain the work that a learner has collected, reflected, selected and presented to show growth and change over time, representing an individual or organization’s human capital. The portfolios are not so much an instructional strategy to be researched, but more of a means to an end: to support reflection that can help students understand their own learning and to provide a richer picture of student work that documents growth over time.”

The Governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland has called for something like this in his very impressive set of Conversations on Education which include an appeal to “personalized learning.” People have yet to figure out what that means. As of 2008, there were no plans in place for the State of Ohio to implement electroinc-portfolios that could follow students throughout their careers (and also be used as a solid record should students transfer to another district or out of the State).

Islands of excellence

In a conversation with Mr. Geoff Andrews, Superintendent of the Oberlin City Schools, I talked about the wealth of learning the foundation has gained by funding a diversified portfolio of schools. After listening he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the foundation could figure out a way to bring all this learning and leverage it in one district somewhere and create an “island of excellence” that could serve as a model. I said, yes it would be great.

Two months later, my esteemed colleague Helen Williams, Education Program Director of The Cleveland Foundation informed me of legislation in the State of Colorado that would create just that. The Innovation Schools Act of 2008

The Innovation Schools Act is intended to improve student outcomes by supporting greater school autonomy and flexibility in academic and operational decision-making. The Act provides a means for schools and districts to gain waivers from state laws and collective bargaining agreements.

The suggestion could not have come at a better time. It is my hope that philanthropy can suggest the Ohio legislature examine this act and seek advice from experts to do the same in Ohio.

Philanthropy, Education and Class (what are we thinking?)

I would like to share a reference to an article I distributed to several Nord Family Foundation trustees a few years ago when it first appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2005. The article is by Adrie Kusserow and Professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at St. Michael’s College in Vermont.

It is I suggest a must-read for anyone in philanthropy or private institution that is involved with improving schools. We must be mindful of the values we bring to the table when hoping to improve schools. We must be careful to recognize the sources when our efforts are met with suspicion and even derision.

Professor Kusserow’s research focuses on the role of class in schools. The study is conducted around one simple word, “Individualism.” Members of three very different economic neighborhoods throughout the greater New York City area were asked to define that word in relation to their own identifications with that concept, and how that concept is reflected in how their children should be reared and educated.

Through my fieldwork in Manhattan and Queens, I identified two styles of individuals: a “soft” upper-middle-class individualism, which focuses on the cultivation and expression of unique feelings, thoughts, ideas and preferences and a “hard” working-class individualism which focuses on the cultivation of self-reliance, perseverance, determination, protectiveness and toughness. These two styles of individualism aren’t rigid boxes; people of all social classes can and do fluidly use each style. However the working-class Queens residents in my research learned more toward a hard individualistic style, just as the upper-middle-class Manhattan residents tended more toward soft individualism.

“Class,” she describes,

…penetrate(s) the core of our being, down to the way we hold our forks, tell our stories, console or discipline our children, talk to our neighbors, remember our pasts, or view our futures. Social class is not simply shown and taken off in the manner of a Harvard degree or a gold wristwatch, but lived in the flesh, held in the cells of one’s own self-image and one’s visions of life’s possibilities.

But as Harvard assistant professor of sociology Prudence Carter points out:

School is predicated on the values and practices of the middle class and so lower and working-class kids are automatically at a disadvantage.

Included in the middle-class values and practices of school are those of soft individualism. In a few of the Head Start programs I observed, for example, the clash of working-class hard individualism with the more softly individualistic middle-class educational culture often manifested itself with the lower-working-class children simply being silent, as if mystified by the fairylike teacher who moved around the classroom with a constant glow and smile, showering praise upon them. When these children scuffled with each other, I saw how confused they were when their middle-class teachers took them aside and asked them to explain why they wanted to hit each other and how it made them feel. Coming from families where they were used to being spanked, shamed, or simply ignored for fighting, they seemed bewildered by this new, therapeutic way of dealing with conflicts. Working-class children may also be flummoxed by some of their more softly individualistic academic requirements. “I tell these kids to use their imagination, and they say: ‘What do you mean? I don’t have an imagination,’” says O’Neil. “It’s so strange. I can see some stony old man not having an imagination, but a 12-year-old?”

When I read this article two years ago, I was part of a community discussion on the topic of improving the quality of the public schools in the City of Oberlin, Ohio where I live. A brief word on the town would help. Although it is a City by charter, Oberlin is a small town of about 8,000 people almost of half of whom are students at the famous Oberlin College. The town divides into three broad-stroke classes – there is the professional class mainly professors and college administrators, health care professionals, lawyers and a small gathering of business people. There is a large rural/farming and trades community, and there is an interesting community of poorer families many of whom are housed in public housing projects built in the 1960’s primarily for the African-American population at the time. The African-American community in Oberlin is by no means heterogeneous, although in the schools, reference to African-American children is (mistakenly) understood to mean, “poor”.

The catalyst for the topic was a proposed tax levy to introduce laptop computers to the public schools which, for years has struggled with low outcomes on the State Achievement Tests. The blog post called “Community Diaries” allowed people to post with real names or anonymously. Most, from what I read, chose anonymity claiming that if you used your real name, “What” you post would be tainted or less important than “Who” posted.

As I watched the conversation emerge, it was clear to me that there were distinct groups of interest reflecting their concepts of what schools are for, and how children should be taught. Laptops were clearly not appealing to those from lower economic classes. These people felt there was too little discipline in the schools and children needed to be more obedient. These were primarily from people who I would assume struggle from one pay-check to the next. Their seemed to be support for the laptop initiative from the professional educated community who felt this initiative would push the community forward to much higher quality education. There was one person whose posts reflected an eagerness to find out as much as possible and she later revealed that she was running for the school board. This woman self-identified as a person from “the townships” which are located outside the city in the farmlands.

The entries validate the study that Dr. Kusserow conducted but curiously, study was conducted in three neighborhoods in New York City which is a real City! Oberlin represents the collision of several conceptual approaches to education that are shaped and determined by class and which can account for radical differences we see in schools across the country. When schools are run by school boards comprised of local community members, the more homogeneous the community, the more likely it will reflect the cultural values and biases of its members. I share it with you for your information. It leads me to believe that trying to conduct a legislative fix to create schools that will prepare students for 21st Century skills; we may be at a point where local control of schools might be a thing of the past. The role of the web and social software will add increased pressures to communities that when threatened with change, will make efforts to shut it down.

I continue to refer to Clayton Christensen’s book, “Disrupting Class” He states at the outset of his book, “

“Further, we say disrupting class with some intent. For some, class will mean social class…for too long and in far too many ways, our system of schooling has best served those who hail from homes where parents were themselves well-schooled and who support their children with adequate resources and experiences. Class is also the venue in which most of our attempts at education take place. In many ways, what goes on in these classes profoundly affects social class for good or for ill. Our nation has embarked on a commitment to education every child. No nation has ever sought to do that. The societal stakes in improving our schools are high” p. v-vi Acknowledgments.

I think there is evidence in pockets of educational innovation that appropriate use of technology to support curriculum will possibly address how class is currently influencing the way learning and understanding is conducted in classrooms in towns across the country where local control can mean more than just governance.