Grantee-funder partnerships start with a shared vision. Period.
As funders focused on improving the well-being of people in the state of Arkansas, the first question we at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) ask ourselves before partnering with a grantee is: Does this organization share our vision for improving the lives of all Arkansans through education; economic development; and economic, racial, and social justice? If it does, and if it is doing effective work in one of these areas, we ask: What can we do to help increase your impact? Then we listen, define roles, and form a plan together.
When the executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges (ACC), Ed Franklin, approached us nearly a decade ago, for example, it was clear he shared our vision for increasing prosperity in Arkansas by providing greater access to quality higher education. He continually shared ideas with higher education colleagues, business leaders, policymakers, and foundation executives and discussed how to make them a reality. When he sat down with our former President and CEO Sybil Hampton, he explained our mission alignment and outlined a true partnership between our organizations. And we listened. He proposed that ACC continue to:
- Unify community colleges in Arkansas around building and implementing effective strategies
- Identify and align programs and resources community colleges offered, based on what Arkansas businesses needed from a qualified workforce
- Inform policy to increase resources available to community colleges based on what strategies ultimately improved economic opportunity
In addition to providing funding, Franklin and Hampton agreed that the foundation’s role was to join conversations with business leaders and policymakers as an advocate and thought partner. We were also responsible for opening doors Franklin may not have been able to open on his own. For example, we started conversations with the Kresge Foundation, Ford Foundation, and The Annie E. Casey Foundation to support research on the efficacy of promising practices implemented at community colleges across Arkansas.
Our partnership built upon ACC’s existing coalition, including the state’s 22 community colleges and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, with the aim of bringing Achieving the Dream’s model to Arkansas. The Achieving the Dream model builds institutional capacity at community colleges to meet the diverse needs of students. Through this partnership, and based on what we learned from Achieving the Dream’s national approach, we established the Arkansas System-Level Strategy, a strategic framework for community colleges to adopt, continuously refine, and scale teaching and support strategies to ensure that students received what they needed to graduate prepared to enter the workforce.
Over the years, our shared vision strengthened our partnership and helped it survive leadership changes at both organizations. In 2010, under the leadership of WRF’s new President and CEO Sherece Y. West-Scantlebury, we provided funding to support ACC in establishing the Student Success Center, an institution formed to implement and scale the Arkansas System-Level Strategy. Franklin hired Mike Leach to serve as the Center’s director before retiring because he knew Leach shared his vision for Arkansas. And while Franklin continued to serve as our partner and champion for community colleges across the state after retirement, ACC hired a new executive director, Bill Stovall, who shared Franklin’s passion and vision.
ACC and its partners later developed the Career Pathways Initiative (CPI), an effort that directed federal welfare funds to intensive, hands-on support for eligible Arkansans enrolled in community colleges. ACC gathered data and demonstrated CPI’s promise, but it needed funding to conduct in-depth research on the initiative’s outcomes. Again, listening to what ACC needed from us, we agreed to fund the research, and we reached out for additional support from The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Ford Foundation. We successfully moved this forward, because we had established our roles and were acting based on our shared game plan—we knew one of our main responsibilities was to leverage our network of national funders to support ACC’s initiatives and research.
In early 2016, in a room full of higher education leaders and Arkansas policymakers, our lead researcher for CPI, Katherine Boswell, presented the first section of “College Count$,” an extensive report on CPI’s return on investment. It turned out that CPI participants were 37 percent more likely to earn a two-year degree compared to the national average. Attendees stared at the slides, dumbstruck, as Boswell drove the point home. Students supported through CPI—mostly parents living well below the federal poverty line and often the first in their families to continue education after high school—were graduating at much higher rates. These Arkansas residents were leaving a welfare program to graduate college, obtain jobs, and increase tax revenue for the state.
Our shared vision was a critical first step on a path toward ensuring that high-quality education is accessible to all Arkansans, and we are continuing to experiment and discover new ways to help us realize that vision.
For example, we recently came together with Franklin and ACC’s new leadership, as well as leaders from across the state to grapple with the question: What’s preventing Arkansans from getting the jobs they need to climb out of poverty? Together, we formed an advisory committee, and WRF commissioned a report on the economic opportunities and challenges we face as a state.
The results were shocking: Nearly 70 percent of Arkansas jobs in the state were low-skill jobs, and most did not pay family-supporting wages.
In response, we’ve established an initiative called Expect More Arkansas to develop and implement strategies to attract, train, and maintain a talented workforce in the state. We will continue to rely on partners like Franklin, Stovall, and Leach to gather data to inform our decision-making, mobilize Arkansans to make the right decisions about their education, and advocate for systems and policy changes so that we can expect more for our state’s future.
WRF’s role in making the vision we share with ACC and others a reality requires that we listen to our partners, and clearly define what each of us is committed to and capable of accomplishing. These strategic partnerships and coordinated actions will move us closer to building a more prosperous and better-educated state.