Tag Archives: Philanthropy

Long-Term Investments

Friday, September 4, 2015

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

This foundation cares about a lot of things. Recognition isn’t one of them. Why? “Because,” my boss would tell you, “this isn’t about us.”

Look around Vermont, in fact, and you’ll find buildings and facilities given in honor of other people – people who perhaps don’t have the means to make a “naming” contribution themselves, but who have given deeply of their passion and their labor. Naming buildings after folks like that is our way of celebrating those gifts, and of staying true to our core belief that no amount of money can have an impact without the people who do the real work at the community level.

But that’s a different story.

Today I’m thinking about another side of donor recognition. And I’m wondering if we – the philanthropic community – have been getting it wrong all along? And if, in doing so, we’re undermining the true nature of what philanthropic relationships are supposed to be about?

Here’s the problem. Last week I walked up to the post office and collected my typical pile of stuff: urgent notices about my (non-existent) business cable account, yet another IRS acknowledgement of our change of address three years ago, checks from our board treasurer, a couple of glossy non-profit magazines, and a stack of newsletters and annual reports.

As you’d expect, we get marketing pieces from all the non-profits to which we’ve written a check this year. And last year. And really ever. Some are slick and expensive, others about as homemade as you can imagine. In virtually every one, there’s that ubiquitous, clunky, tree-killing feature of the non-profit landscape: the donor acknowledgement list.

Please don’t tell my boss, but I actually read those lists. If we’ve given a gift recently, I check to be sure we’re listed and listed correctly. If we’re not, I drop a friendly, hey-this-really-isn’t-a-big-deal-but note to the organization to get the issue resolved.

Mind you, I hate writing those notes. I used to be in charge of donor lists when I worked for a community foundation out west. Whether compiling or just editing them, those lists pretty much never left our office without my initials on them somewhere. And I sweated those lists hard. I read them and read them and re-read them. I checked and double-checked. More than a decade later I can still tell you the correctly spelled names of a whole bunch of people I never even met. (Bet you can too.)

But mistakes inevitably happened, and the error notices came to me. So any time I have to alert a grantee now to an acknowledgement issue, it’s done with legitimate empathy.

The error I found last week was completely understandable. It happened because we’d made a complicated gift that wasn’t easily tracked in a database. The gift came as a mix of direct, indirect and in-kind support, conveyed over multiple years. I can only imagine the challenge of tracking each component for tiered recognition by fiscal year.

That’s the thing, though. Why try?

More and more we’ve come to understand that philanthropy is a long-term game, and that donor relations unfold over lifetimes – even beyond. Our Foundation certainly considers our non-profit partners to be long-term allies, and we view our investments as having a compounding effect.

So what does it tell donors when support is acknowledged strictly within an arbitrary date range? What does it suggest when thank you lists reset to zero each year, and support that may have built up over decades is functionally swept aside?

There are of course accounting realities and operating budgets that open and close on fixed dates. But that’s where I think we get into trouble: building donor recognition – better yet donor engagement – scenarios based on financial management tools.

I’m not suggesting that non-profits publish forever-additive lists. Perish the thought. But it does strike me that in as much as non-profits want to forge sustained relationships with donors – and vice versa – consideration of new systems of acknowledgement is warranted.

I’m imaging what my personal donor profile at my favorite non-profit might look like if it were structured to focus and build on the full history of our relationship. It’s a relationship that goes back to my early 20s, and includes years when even tiny gifts meant sacrifice. The few occasions when I didn’t send my check within their non-calendar fiscal year, my name was of course omitted from the published list.

Makes me wonder what the marketing of such a list is really intended to encourage. Is it motivating me to rush my gift in before the wonky fiscal year cut-off? I’m not sure. Right now I’m feeling something far less inspirational … like it reveals fickleness in a relationship I consider enduring. Certainly there’s a bit of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately flavor in it.

Of course the answer isn’t for non-profits to acknowledge donors who don’t give. But perhaps it is to forgive the occasional lapse, and publicly thank donors anyway for being part of a philanthropic movement that helped get the organization where it is today. Or maybe, for groups using a tiered acknowledgement system, it’s to orient those systems in a way that values a donor’s lifetime commitment to the cause, not a snapshot.

My boss, while not a fan of me spending time on donor recognition issues, is a fan of getting to the bottom line. So here it is:

Let’s acknowledge donor support as something deeper and with far broader a horizon than a fiscal year could justly describe.


Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

 

Momentum Moment

Monday, April 6, 2015

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

Foundations work a bunch of different levers tackling the sets of challenges that constitute our agendas.  Most obvious is the money lever, as in aggregate we grant some $50 billion each year throughout the United States.  Makes a lever long enough to move some awfully weighty issues, if not quite the world.

Our most successful work, though, comes when we add other resources to the mix: our experience, creativity, sweat equity, leadership, relationships and voice.  Rich calls these “force multipliers” – the things that can stretch the value of our invested dollars and increase our impact.

Last week yielded a bit of a force multiplication opportunity.  We were invited to the Statehouse to describe what we see as a time of great innovation in many Vermont schools, and our role in contributing to the broader positive momentum now building throughout Vermont’s education system.

Find below a reprint of testimony given to the Senate Education Committee during a few precious hours of spring sunshine.

 

Investing in the Future of Education

Prepared for the Senate Education Committee

Lauren A. Curry, Executive Director

Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation

April 3, 2015

 

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee this afternoon.  I will keep my comments brief so we can all get out to enjoy Vermont’s fine spring weather.

My name is Lauren Curry and I am the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation.  We are seldom participants at the Statehouse, and though I have previously addressed your colleagues in the House, this is my first appearance before the Senate Education Committee.

Over the last decade, the Tarrant Foundation has been one of Vermont’s most active philanthropic agents.  Our corpus is comparatively small, but we spend aggressively – investing roughly three times the resources in Vermont communities each year as a typical foundation our size.

Our largest single investment is in Vermont’s education system.  Since 2005 we have funded an independent team of researchers and educators at the University of Vermont to partner with teachers and school leaders around the State.  Their object is to help schools provide learning opportunities that better fit who Vermont’s students are, how they learn, and the world in which they live.  

The technical description of the team’s approach is embedded, sustained leadership support and professional development to increase student engagement through learning that is student-centered and technology-rich.  Said more plainly, we believe in engaging today’s youth, with today’s tools, for tomorrow’s jobs and society.  

The Tarrant Foundation is compelled in our investment by a clear need to better serve today’s youth.  In other areas of our grantmaking we see the impact of a stubborn achievement gap, and of comparatively low rates of post-secondary education and training.  

We are more troubled still by the disproportionate share of these burdens borne by young Vermonters who are economically, traditionally, or geographically disadvantaged.  We join Secretary Holcombe in her urging about those who fare statistically worst in our system, as she recently declared:

… one of our highest priorities as a state needs to be improving the learning of our boys who are growing up in poverty.

Equal to these needs, we believe, are the opportunity and strength found in Vermont schools.  Our education system is among the highest performing in the country – and by some measures the world.  We enjoy strong leadership, involved communities, and legislative tools like Act 77 that can facilitate crucial innovation.  Committed partners including the Tarrant Foundation, the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, and the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children help further strengthen that system and its outcomes.

UVM’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education has now partnered with more than a dozen schools in five counties, reaching over 5,000 students and their teachers.  The Tarrant Foundation’s recent new investment in the Institute will enable it to dramatically expand its work, now on course to involve at least half the middle schools in Vermont in the coming years.

The Tarrant Foundation’s continued investment in the Institute and in Vermont schools – already more than $12M – is fueled by several factors:

1.     Early research indicators.  A longitudinal study is now underway, but discreet results from the Tarrant Institute’s pilot sites are compelling.  In one school, the Institute observed a 21.2% decrease in male student absenteeism after just one year.  More meaningful still, reduced absentee rates for boys and girls persisted through high school – long past the active phase of their program.

Students, teachers and parents further reported improved student engagement, participation, behavior, and core academic outcomes – all harbingers of increased academic and earnings success later in life.

2.     The courage and commitment demonstrated by Vermont’s educators.  This is intensive and transformative work, requiring teachers and school leaders to establish clear goals and new infrastructure that develop schools as innovative organizations, reflecting in our schools the same agility and dynamism demanded of organizations beyond their walls.

Every day, school leaders are guiding their teams and communities through new conversations, teachers are leaving behind established habits and curriculum, and students are encouraged to take up new responsibility as leaders in their own education.

A teacher at one of our partner schools described what he observes, saying:

I think it’s getting easier to keep [students] excited about things because we’re not teaching them to use the tool anymore. They already know how to use the tool better than any of the adults or teachers could show them. So we can refocus on the content, and the information we want to get across to the students … This year I’ve really seen them go farther than I could imagine.  (Joe Speers, Peoples Academy Middle Level)

This is just one of countless comments we’ve heard from educators, students, and parents capturing the impact, vulnerability and great potential of this evolutionary journey.

3.     A clear moment of opportunity.  Conversations that ten years ago started with “if” – if technology should play more of a role in education, if employers would be asking for new skills in our workforce, and if schools could make fundamental changes to how they deliver learning – are now focused wholly on “how”.  How teachers can get the time and support they need to innovate, how to ensure learners have access to relevant tools, and how schools can use new technology to create efficiencies and increase learning opportunities for all students.

More than 40 schools reached out to the Tarrant Institute this year to pursue what most acknowledge as the most intensive and challenging school change they have ever undertaken.  The Institute sees this – and their daily experience in classrooms – as evidence of an incredibly and productively dynamic moment in Vermont’s education history.  As a Foundation, we see it as evidence of an investment in change that’s working – an indication that schools, teachers, families and communities are ready, able and excited to move forward.  

Next week the Tarrant Foundation will join the McClure Foundation and the Vermont Community Foundation as hosts to 45 funders from around Vermont and New England.  We will gather for a day to listen to experts in the education community speak about goals, pressures, tools and opportunities they perceive in Vermont’s system.  

As co-convenors of that meeting, the Tarrant Foundation believes greater shared understanding of education in Vermont will give important context to arguably all philanthropic activity in the state, regardless of field of interest.  We more specifically hope this will serve as an opportunity for funders to consider new ways to support Vermont learners and schools.

I think each of us here today could point to numerous examples showing that people all over Vermont – in word and deed – are aligning themselves with the notion of change: change to increase opportunity in education, change to create greater equity, and change to ensure the sustainability of our system – and our communities.  

I’m proud of the Tarrant Foundation’s role in fueling that momentum.  I’m also grateful to those who work in Vermont’s education system – and who are charged to support it – as you work carefully and with courage to ensure the greatest possible future for every Vermont child.

Thank you.

                                                                                                                                                 

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Critical Lens

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

In philanthropy, sad stories are the coin of the realm.  They create awareness, inflame passions, awaken responsibilities, and pull people together.  They demand action and draw money.  They are the human (or animal or environmental …) face on the problem statements at the heart of each of our missions.

They can also sometimes distract from the business at hand.  The desperateness of the story can obscure mediocrity in a response, and doing something get in the way of doing something effective.

One of Rich’s mantras is “we leave our hearts at the door” any time we walk into the boardroom.  We are careful to respect and learn from stories, but base our decisions on a rubric grounded in strong leadership, fiscal responsibility, effective interventions, and meaningful outcomes.  It’s how we exercise due diligence in the expenditure of our resources.

That said, I’ve spent some time recently reading, watching, and thinking about sad stories.

The first real gut-wrencher was in a great New Yorker postmortem on Mark Zuckerberg’s failed $100M investment to reform the Newark School System.  Students in one school were prompted to write a poem using the word “hope”.  They responded in the context of surviving the violence and poverty that claims so many lives around them.  One student wrote:

My mother has hope that I won’t fall victim to the streets.

I hope that hope finds me.

Next up for me was a screening of the Sundance-winning documentary Rich Hill last monthIt’s a beautiful and awful portrayal of three boys growing up poor in Missouri.  It gets at complicated themes of mental health, juvenile justice, incarcerated parents, unstable housing, and temporary employment.  It’s real power for me, though, is where it lingers on the steady, quiet love binding families together.  And again, where we hear young voices with few prospects talking about hope:

I praise god.  I worship him. I pray every night.  Nothing’s came, but that ain’t gonna stop me.  This is what goes through my mind.  God has to be busy with everyone else.  Eventually he will come into my life.  I hope it happens.  It’s gonna break my heart if it don’t.  

Finally I went to an event that bridged my work with my personal efforts helping run a local food shelf.  We watched A Place at the Table, a high-powered documentary on food insecurity in the US featuring celebrities, politicians, and a handful of average Americans struggling to make ends meet.

The film tells lots of tough stories. There’s a young girl with big dreams whose empty stomach keeps her from concentrating at school.  There’s a veteran police officer who relies on a local food pantry to get his family through the month.  And there’s a young mother trying to meet her children’s needs through unemployment and low-wage jobs.  When that young mother gets her turn at the microphone at a DC press conference, her comments are pointed:

If we switched lives for a week could you handle the stress? If we switched salaries for a month will you be able to live and still keep your pride? Are you aware of my hope and my determination? Are you aware of my dreams and my struggle? Are you aware of my ambition and motivation? Are you aware that I exist? My name is Barbara Izquierdo and I do exist.

Hope.  There’s that word again.

These sad stories inspire all the things they are supposed to inspire – donations, legislative action, and renewed commitment to change.  In me, they inspire hope.

I will continue to push hard at work for the effective and efficient solutions.  I will do that in part by leaving my heart at the door.  In my own community I will keep my shoulder to the wheel, building local resources and looking out for neighbors.  I will work.

There’s much to be done.  And hope is a very good thing.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

A Great Day

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

Most days in this job are pretty great. Today was extra great.

This morning I watched as Rich and Deb Tarrant announced a second $5 million investment in Vermont kids. The funds will go to the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont to support up to 60 new partnerships with middle schools statewide over the next five years. The Institute works with schools and teachers to create learning that is technology-rich, personalized, relevant and – most of all – engaging for today’s youth.

As a professional, that’s a pretty exciting moment. It’s as a parent, though, that I find myself most grateful for this extraordinary investment.

More than 9 years ago I sat down for a conversation with Rich and Deb Tarrant. I was meeting them for the first time, and was interviewing for a position with their new foundation. I was also 8 ½ months pregnant with my first child.

Rich asked me during that conversation what I thought of an idea he had to use technology to modernize education and improve learning opportunities for kids. Our discussion was exciting and, while I confess to focusing a bit much on the challenges involved, Rich’s passion and determination were compelling.

Not long after, I had a job offer … and a baby. And the Foundation had a new partner: Dr. Penny Bishop and her remarkable team at UVM’s College of Education and Social Services.

In 2006, after a long hot summer spent huddled around desks with a gifted group of teachers from Milton Middle School, we piloted our first student cohort. In 2009, with both Edmunds and Manchester Middle Schools on board, we formally launched the Tarrant Institute.

The Foundation’s gift to create the Institute was the largest in our history – by a lot. It marked a major turning point for us as an organization. Today marks an even bigger one. Rich told the audience gathered at the press conference this morning that we are “doubling down”, investing a further $5 million in a strategy that works.

Which brings me back to my perspective as a parent.

That beautiful baby boy born those many summers ago is now a 4th grader. He is smart, creative, and sometimes a handful in class. He thrives on technology. He is one of many kids who I think would chafe in a traditional middle level classroom. And he – along with every kid – deserves to learn in a setting that values his individuality, challenges his intellect, puts relevant tools in his hands, and positions him for success in his life ahead.

I am grateful that my son’s school and so many other middle schools in Vermont now have the opportunity to draw on the expertise, resources, and supportive partnership of the Tarrant Institute. Thank you Rich and Deb.  Thank you Penny.  Thank you to all of the wonderful, committed educators who bring this work to life.  As Rich said, “writing the check is the easy part … without these people we would be nowhere.”

You can listen to the complete press conference here, including remarks from a remarkable young 7th grader at People’s Academy in Morrisville. Educators can learn more about partnership with the Tarrant Institute at joinus.tarrantinstitute.org.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Crunching Numbers

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

 

I love data.

More accurately, I love stories.  And to me, data tell some of the most compelling and important stories out there.

For instance:

These and other statistics about poverty, education, aging, and strong communities have informed our grantmaking over the past ten years.  In that time, we’ve engaged with partner organizations all over the state, working to turn around the bad statistics and build on the good ones … one grant at a time.

We’ve also tried to be good neighbors.  Knowing that we are one on a very short list of Vermont foundations, and recognizing the many, many people out there working hard on behalf of causes they believe in, we’ve made an effort to keep our doors wide open.  We’ve awarded grants to all kinds of different organizations supporting all kinds of different programs, all lumped under the large umbrella of improving the quality of life for people in Vermont.

Very large umbrella.  Perhaps overly large.

Since 2006, we’ve made grants to more than 350 different organizations.  In the last five years alone, we’ve issued upwards of 370 separate grant checks.  That’s a lot for a foundation our size.  Maybe too many.

We all know how the saying goes.  You can’t be all things to all people.  Much as we might like to try to be, no one is well served by that approach in the end.

Data stories matter.  And our data story tells us it’s time for a change.  It’s time to narrow our focus, and put more money into the grants that have proven to make the greatest difference in the work we most care about.

You can read more about our new strategy in the Community Grants section of our website.  In short, from here forward our Community Grants will focus on the following distinct populations and goals:

  • Youth: Resilience and Aspiration
  • Working-Age Adults: Employment and Financial Independence
  • Seniors: Comfort and Dignity in Aging
  • Communities: Local Resources and Investments

Under each of these headings, you will find that we have identified specific strategies as the focus for our investments.  We have done so based on our interests, and your data stories … on what our non-profit partners have taught us over the years are the most meaningful and cost-effective interventions.  We will concentrate our funds in these areas, and as ever will make grants with minimal restrictions to give organizations the flexibility and control they need to run the very best and most efficient programs.

The tradeoff here, of course, is that we’ve made some cuts.  Extremely valuable work is being done in areas that did not make our list, and we are grateful to other foundations, businesses and individuals that continue to invest in those areas.  We are committed, though, to funding programs that best fit our values and theory of change, and that demonstrate the kind of impact and cost efficiency we seek.

We have heard many times over the years that we “don’t act like a typical foundation”.  It has always been meant as a compliment, and frankly, we’ll take it.  We – and many of our peer foundations serving this state – approach this work with a deep sense of gratitude, a keen interest in true partnership, and a binding commitment to make the greatest impact we possibly can with the dollars we have.

While I understand not everyone out there will be happy with these changes, I trust that those who know us will see the thought, care, and discipline that went into them.

I’m thinking as I write about Deb’s belief that our Foundation can make a difference, and Rich’s powerful statement on being good stewards.  With these changes, I think we are doing just that.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Reflecting

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The following blog post is submitted by Emma Galvin, who served as a Youth Intern at the Tarrant Foundation from 2011 – 2013.

Earlier this year, Lauren and I grabbed an informal lunch with a group of nonprofit development directors. It was an opportunity for nonprofits to speak directly with funders and learn a bit about different foundations’ approaches. As we sat around the table, eating bagels and doing introductions, I gave my usual explanation: I’m Emma Galvin, a Youth Intern, balancing my time at the Tarrant Foundation with a traditional load of high school classes. And I got the usual response: “Wow, what an amazing opportunity for a high school student!”

As a young person in the world of philanthropy, people are quick to appreciate the benefits I’m reaping. With philanthropy as a lens, I’ve gained perspective on my community, state and self. I’ve been a part of an organization that invests millions of dollars in causes I care about, in a state that I love.  It’s been an incredible experience for me.

But the value of the experience hasn’t been one-sided. This internship is not about youth engagement for the benefit of youth, this is about youth engagement for the benefit of everyone in the room. When we’re having difficult conversations at the Foundation about innovation, education and the future of our communities, what I bring to the table matters.

My favorite part of every site visit is watching an organization attempt to explain the core of its work to a 17-year-old. Some can do it exceptionally well and some struggle – losing clear explanations of need and impact amidst complicated systems, acronyms and bureaucracy.  When I am making funding recommendations, I can’t argue on behalf of organizations.  I have to argue on behalf of what they do.

Does any of this mean that bringing youth on as collaborators in traditionally adult settings is easy? Of course not. Students need careful and deliberate supports as they move into a new world of thinking. But that might not be as difficult as it seems. Youth are often capable of much, much more than is asked of them.

Departing from the norm may in fact be harder for the adults in an organization than for youth. When you’re headed full force in one direction, it can be daunting to stop and redirect. But if there is one thing I’ve learned during my time at the Tarrant Foundation, it’s that momentum isn’t an excuse. If our work feels 100% comfortable, we’re doing it wrong. Imagine if the next generation were able to both understand and hold us accountable to our mission statements.

So my introductions require a bit of extra explanation, but I am so much richer for the understanding, relationships, and experience I have gained here. And as I look forward to the next chapter, I hope the Tarrant Foundation is too.

                                                                                                                                               

Emma Galvin graduated with honors from Burlington High School in June.  She is taking a “gap year” to pursue Vermont-based and international service projects before heading to college next year.  The Tarrant Foundation welcomes its newest high school intern this week.