A Piece of the Puzzle

Twenty years ago in our community it was considered normal that minority students would not finish high school much less go on to college. In fact, there was very little attention given to minority students expressing a desire for going beyond high school. A group of us began meeting and asking the question, “What would it take to increase the number of students who would be first in their family to attend college?” We did not focus on the dropout problem or limit our scope to minority students. We wanted to increase the number of “first in their family” students to enroll and then graduate from college. Over the following ten year period we saw 2,200 of these students attend and over 75% of them graduate. Small scholarships were far less important than identifying students early on (8th grade), creating high expectations, teaching students and their families how to play the game of college admissions and then following up while they were in college.

Out of that experience we developed some basic principles we have shared with other donors who want to address a particular issue in their own communities by doing more than making grants to deserving organizations.

Be an entrepreneur – not an expert. If you overvalue learning you will suffer “paralysis by analysis” but by learning too little you will pay a much higher cost of “tuition”and in the end get few results. Learn enough to get started and keep learning.

Scan for others. Everyone initially thinks they are the only (or one of a very few) funders working in the field. With a little research you will discover there are not only overlapping nonprofits but overlapping funders who are learning.

Clarify. Once you think you know enough to start, go back and clarify what you want to accomplish. The clearer you are, the greater your impact will be. To put it another way – be ruthless. Mission drift begins even before you take the first step if you are not absolutely clear about what you will not do.

Only work with those who are receptive. I learned this from Peter Drucker. In our case, we originally thought guidance counselors and school administrators would be our allies and would want to help more “first in their family” students get into college. We were wrong. They had more incentives for protecting the system than changing it. As well, they were already overwhelmed with other responsibilities and we did not have the authority to change that. Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Don’t assume people working in your field of interest are interested in changing or disrupting the system. Funders large and small – including Gates, Zuckerberg and Annenberg – have all made expensive discoveries about how little effect they can have as outsiders.

Find monomaniacs and back them. Don’t try to add what you want to do to the mission of an existing organization unless they are as committed to it as you are – and likely they are not or they would already be doing it.

Make small bets. Experiment. See what works. Try a little more and see if it grows. It’s tempting to go big from the outset. Don’t do it. Making a splash is appealing to the ego but deadly to the project. Yes, crawling before you run takes longer and you may think you do not have the patience for it but it will pay off.

Find other local investors. Unless you want to own it and be the main supporter for it financially over the long term, begin as soon as possible to bring on other investors. Otherwise, everyone will expect you to fully fund it forever. It’s a trade-off. You will have to give over some control but the long term health of the program will be better.

Measure the few things that matter. Find a few essential things to measure – not many. Measuring too much becomes a distraction and an end in itself.

There is no one point of leverage. Think in decades or in the same way you think about bond investments instead of certificates of deposit. You cannot “fix” the system, but you can make some changes that will have a ripple effect. The temptation is trying to find the one point of leverage that will change the game but in a complex system there is no single point. Often, what seems to be salient is insignificant but what looks inconsequential turns out to be key. Focus on a piece of the puzzle and be prepared for staying invested.

There is a right time to commit to action. When you know what you want to do then do it.

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