(Illustration by Mikey Burton) 

Adaptation in philanthropy is easier said than done. It requires funders to embrace a new way of thinking and acting. Philanthropy, moreover, lacks the kind of market-based feedback system that drives adaptation in the for-profit world. But the value of pursuing more adaptive approaches to philanthropy has become more salient in recent years. The Linked Learning initiative in California, we believe, offers useful insight into how adaptive philanthropy occurs in practice.

Linked Learning is a core investment of the James Irvine Foundation. Over the past decade, the foundation has invested more than $100 million in this initiative. The journey began in 2005, when Irvine started looking for ways to expand opportunities for young people in California—those from low-income backgrounds, in particular—as they make the transition to adulthood. To further that objective, the foundation fastened its attention on the Linked Learning educational approach, which combines rigorous academic work with career and technical education. (One of us, Anne Stanton, has overseen Irvine’s investment in Linked Learning. The other, Alison Powell, is part of a team at the Bridgespan Group that has provided research and consulting support for the initiative.)

The results are inspiring: Linked Learning participants graduate from high school and enroll in college at higher rates, and they earn more money in the workforce, than peers who have not benefited from this model. Linked Learning, moreover, is changing the California education system: What started as a pilot program in a handful of schools has evolved into a broad effort to tap $500 million in competitive grants from the state of California. All along, we aspired to achieve that sort of impact. But getting to this point required us to remain flexible and to adapt nimbly to changing circumstances.

Anchor Elements

Implementing an adaptive strategy requires a funder to follow certain core principles. The funder must anchor its work in a compelling goal that is backed by solid research. In addition, it must identify the right role to play in advancing toward that goal.

At Irvine, our support for Linked Learning began with a research finding: It’s well known that attainment of a post-secondary degree is critical to earning a living wage later in life. This research was the basis for setting an anchor goal for the foundation’s youth program: to enable all California students to earn a post-secondary credential by the age of 25. Rather than set forth a firm “theory of change” to accomplish that goal, the Irvine team invested in an array of promising approaches. That experimentation led us to focus on the critical importance of enabling young people to be both college-ready and career-ready. (A decade ago, when we began this journey, few funders in the education reform community were talking about college and career in an integrated way.)

The idea for this anchor goal originated partly from the experience of Anne Stanton, who joined Irvine as the new leader of its youth program in 2003. Anne had previously run Larkin Street Youth Services, a nonprofit that focuses on transforming the lives of homeless young people. At Larkin Street, she had seen how education opportunities that are simultaneously rigorous and connected to career aspirations could motivate young people. She had come to believe, therefore, that any effort to transform outcomes for young people must incorporate a curriculum that links getting an education with pursuing a career. When she arrived at Irvine, Anne understood that a fundamental challenge with such an approach would be to confront the stigma associated with traditional vocational education. To do so, she and her colleagues would need to identify and support programs that successfully combine college-level academic preparation with equally challenging career-themed education.

For Irvine, the next step was to establish a suitable role for the foundation to play in advancing the new anchor goal. How could it support leaders who were rallying around the idea of “college and career readiness”? How could it help to build a strong field of organizations, all of them dedicated to pursuing this goal in California? Ultimately, for the majority of young people in the state to have access to career-themed, college-level learning, three elements would need to be in place: credible evidence that this model could enable any young person to succeed; support for schools and districts to transform their educational systems; and a statewide policy that would enable low-income young people to benefit from the model. At Irvine, leaders decided that the role of the foundation would be to serve as the “glue” (to use their word) that holds those elements together.

To determine the initial needs of this emerging field, Irvine in 2005 funded a study by MPR Associates (an evaluation organization that is now a part of RTI International). MPR advised Irvine to found a stand-alone organization that would serve as a “hub for innovative practice, policy, and research.” In response to that advice, Irvine made a $6 million grant to create ConnectEd, an organization that became the anchor institution around which the field could rally.

Pivot Points

Since launching the Linked Learning initiative, Irvine has stayed true to its goal and to its role. But along the way, the foundation also made three significant pivots that illustrate the practice of adaptive philanthropy.

From the school level to the district level | Irvine’s support for this field started locally, with a demonstration project that funded a network of 16 schools, nonprofits, and occupational programs to deliver rigorous, career-themed education to a few thousand students. After the first year of that effort, Irvine commissioned an independent evaluation to assess what worked and what did not. The evaluation found strong results: Students who received Linked Learning support were more likely than peers who did not receive that support to pass the California High School Exit Exam as sophomores, to complete the requirements for admission to a California public university, and to graduate from high school.

At that point, the foundation could have simply focused on adding more schools to the program. But in assessing the first phase of the initiative, it found that individual schools had attained success in spite of what occurred at the district level. There were no district policies in place that would expand Linked Learning opportunities to large numbers of additional students.

So, in partnership with ConnectEd, Irvine supported an initiative that enlisted nine school districts (with a collective student population of 115,000) to adopt the Linked Learning approach. An evaluation of this initiative showed that although performance varied among districts, the strategy as a whole was achieving positive results. But in light of Irvine’s long-term goal for the initiative, delivering good results at the scale of just nine districts would not be sufficient.

From implementation to advocacy | In 2008, Irvine established the Linked Learning Alliance, a statewide advocacy coalition that brings together educators, business leaders, and community organizations. In doing so, the foundation aimed to move beyond merely supporting district-level programs and to build a shared sense of purpose among alliance members. Thanks in part to the coordinated action of those members, the California legislature in 2011 created the Linked Learning Pilot, an effort to help 63 school districts (with a total of more than 600,000 students) implement the Linked Learning approach. Although the measure included no direct funding for programs, it counts as the first major statewide success for that approach.

Toward a regional strategy | To take advantage of early policy wins, the Linked Learning field needed to develop structures that could support accelerated expansion while ensuring fidelity to its proven model. At this point, a new challenge came into view: Linked Learning seeks to promote both college and career success—yet education is organized at the district level, whereas economic structures typically extend across city and county boundaries. Leaders at Irvine and its partner organizations, therefore, concluded that a regional approach would best reflect how labor markets and industries interact with the educational system.

The push for a regional strategy paid off in July 2013, when the California Legislature approved the formation of the California Career Pathways Trust, a competitive fund that supports regional consortia in their efforts to develop systems that will prepare young people for college and career success. The legislature initially funded the trust at the level of $250 million but later doubled that amount.

To take advantage of the newly available funding, Irvine worked with both new and existing regional Linked Learning consortia to help them submit proposals to the trust. These regional entities bring together school districts, companies, community organizations, and postsecondary educational institutions for the purpose of implementing a coordinated Linked Learning strategy. More than 120 consortia applied for the trust grants, and 40 of them received funding in May 2014. The trust will announce a new round of grants early this year.

As we look back at a decade of grantmaking in the Linked Learning field, we might be tempted to view it as a logical progression: First test and refine the core model in a small group of schools. Then expand it to the district level. Then garner statewide support and funding. Then adopt a regional approach in order to forge real-world links between the state’s education system and its economy. But 10 years ago, we did not lay out such a plan. Had we done so, it would have been a waste of time—and it would have been counterproductive. Instead, Irvine set out to act as the institutional glue for a diverse set of partners as they collectively responded to challenges and took advantage of evolving opportunities. Looking ahead, the foundation and its partners will trust the process of adaptation to guide them.

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