Power of Ideas
How Foundations Can Generate Knowledge to Spark Change
In October, New York City Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott did something out of the ordinary at a press briefing: He built his remarks around a new RAND study, Hours of Opportunity, to help demonstrate the value of the investments that the city, in partnership with The Wallace Foundation, has made in finding new ways to coordinate and support after-school programs. This prominent attention from City Hall for a research study was unusual. What was not unusual was that a research study figured prominently in a Wallace Foundation initiative.
Photo courtesy of the Wallace Foundation
M. Christine DeVita is president of The Wallace Foundation, whose mission is to improve learning and enrichment opportunities for children.
At Wallace, we believe that credible, independent research is an indispensable part of developing solutions to important, unsolved social problems. We came to this conclusion as a result of an assessment we undertook about a decade ago. As we reviewed the results of our work, we were not satisfied that we were reaping the maximum social return we could achieve from the dollars we were investing. More often than we liked, we saw programs created with our grants wither when our funding ended. Despite some important successes, we did not believe our work had contributed enough to improvements in the major public systems in which we were working.
Our dissatisfaction led us to something better, built on an awareness of what foundations can accomplish. Although foundations have no direct authority to compel change, and very limited funds relative to the problems they seek to solve, they can nonetheless take advantage of the fact that in a democracy, there is a robust market for new ideas. We restructured the foundation around the concept of creating change by developing and sharing effective ideas and practices.
Under the new approach, which some scholars call “creative philanthropy,” we develop and test useful ideas “on the ground,” gather solid evidence on the results of significant innovations, and then share that knowledge with the individuals and institutions that have the authority or influence to bring those effective ideas to life.
How does it work in practice? Here’s a glimpse.
Out-of-School-Time. When we began to investigate this area, which encompasses summer and after-school programs, we commissioned RAND to investigate if what many people suspected was true. The resulting 2005 report, Making Out-of-School-Time Matter, challenged us and others in the field with its conclusion that simply adding more “slots” in existing programs for children was insufficient. Instead, programs needed to meet local needs and to be of sufficiently high quality to ensure that children kept participating long enough to benefit. Therefore, we worked with five cities to better coordinate and support their after-school programs. In 2009, we created an online cost calculator, based on a study by Public/Private Ventures, which is used hundreds of times every month by city leaders to figure out what it will cost to build quality programs. RAND’s recent study, Hours of Opportunity, paves the way for us to encourage broader adoption of the lessons learned by cities trying out innovations in building out-of-school-time programs.
Simply adding more “slots” in existing programs for children was insufficient.
School Leadership. In 2000, we entered what was then a neglected area of school reform. It was widely believed that in the face of pending retirements, the main problem was a shortage of certified principals to lead our schools. Wallace commissioned labor market studies, including one from RAND, that helped us conclude there was no shortage. There were plenty of certified principals — but most were neither interested in holding jobs as principals nor well prepared to improve low-performing schools. Research helped leaders understand that the real problem was ensuring the right kind of preparation and the right kind of incentives to attract good principals to low-performing schools. As a result, Wallace focused its efforts where they could do much more good. Based on research done at Stanford University, we built awareness of what made preparation effective, and we helped create new models, including the New York City Leadership Academy, of what good training looked like.
Arts. Wallace has spent many years funding arts organizations to help build new audiences. But two RAND studies, Gifts of the Muse and Cultivating Demand for the Arts, helped us and those in the arts field understand that focusing on the “supply side” was not sufficient. To reach our long-term goal of having more people participate in the arts, we would also have to improve arts education to reach prospective audiences when they were young.
Across these three areas, we’ve learned that for research to be the most valuable for leaders looking for solutions, it should
- be objective and credible. This means selecting qualified research partners well matched to the task.
- address real questions that field leaders have, which means asking them what they need to know to make progress. To promote action, research should also assess the costs and relative effectiveness of the approaches under study.
- be accompanied by observable examples of innovation, making findings more convincing to policy-makers and practitioners.
- be communicated to those in a position of authority to make change. This sometimes-forgotten step ensures that our public leaders have the best available information (regardless of whether the results are positive or negative) upon which to act.
Private philanthropy exists to serve the public good, and foundations have many ways to fulfill that mandate. The approach Wallace has chosen — identifying nascent problems or issues not yet widely recognized, working to understand problems in new ways that illuminate potential solutions, and supporting and assessing the work of innovators — requires that we use all the assets at our disposal. That’s why objective, credible, and useful research is a critical component of our approach.