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Heather Weiss and M. Elena Lopez of Harvard Family Research Project reveal the results of their W. K. Kellogg Foundation commission to examine trends in foundation grantmaking for children and youth.

In 1998 the W. K. Kellogg Foundation commissioned Harvard Family Research Project to examine trends in foundation grantmaking for children and youth. The Foundation wanted to use the information for its own grantmaking and to share the results with others in the philanthropic community. Nineteen foundations participated in this survey, which consisted of a documentary review, a questionnaire, and interviews with 23 senior officers. The foundations included most of the largest and wealthiest, and those whose grantmaking focused heavily on children and youth. Summarized below are the patterns of grantmaking for youth, the trends in grantmaking strategies, and the uses of evaluation among the foundations surveyed.

Patterns of Grantmaking for Youth

Most surveyed foundations have stable commitments to youth development. Of 11 foundations that keep data by age categories, 6 provide a quarter or more of their funds to youth ages 14-20. The bulk of foundation funds for children and youth are largely allocated to education, youth development, and school-to-work initiatives.

Grantmaking that serves youth tends to be fragmented among different program areas—education, community development, health, and so on. Foundation officers, however, increasingly view youth development as a bridge to link these areas. The connection between education and youth development, for example, supports a range of school-linked service models and partnerships between schools and youth-serving community organizations. Other crosscutting areas are youth and the arts, youth and community development, and the connection between domestic and international youth development.

Foundations adopt the principles of positive youth development, which emphasize human assets and participation in decision making. They support community foundations to involve youth in community grantmaking and youth-initiated efforts in leadership development and community improvement. Foundation officers interviewed agree that the youth development field needs a grantmaking strategy that focuses on capacity building, including training, leadership, and support for national intermediaries. Part of this effort consists of expanding the knowledge base through research on what promotes positive youth development and program evaluation, in order to identify and disseminate best practices.

Recognizing that the problems of youth are interconnected and require comprehensive solutions, foundations are shifting their grantmaking strategies from categorical to comprehensive initiatives (i.e., initiatives that cut across several different program areas). Several are concentrating more resources on long-term, place-based community strategies designed to improve outcomes for children and youth. Other foundations are integrating best practices from youth development programs into crisis intervention programs or established community-based education and cultural programs previously without a specific youth development focus.

Trends in Grantmaking Strategies

These grantmaking patterns exist within broader foundation efforts to scale-up and sustain effective programs and policies. The surveyed foundations are rethinking their basic assumptions about how to create and sustain change on a more widespread basis. In the past, much grantmaking was based on a theory of linear sequential change. In this sequence, foundation-sponsored research and demonstration can lead to effective programs which are then disseminated and replicated and, finally, scaled-up. Foundations assume leadership in creating innovative programs and expect the public sector to support the scale-up of programs with demonstrated effectiveness.

Based on their own critiques of past grantmaking experiences and strategic planning work, the foundations are beginning to operate on a comprehensive and simultaneous theory of change. The theory is that simultaneous and multicomponent strategies will lead to changes in the operating environment, which will create the demand, conditions, and capacity for scale-up and sustainability.

Most of the surveyed foundations fund in all the major grantmaking categories of knowledge development, capacity building, policy development, service delivery, dissemination, and public engagement. What is interesting is the way that these elements are put together into larger strategies from the start. For example, the multicomponent strategies simultaneously include support of research and demonstration, field development and expansion, and public engagement strategies. Unlike the linear theory of change, foundations assume leadership in creating the demand for scaled-up initiatives from their inception.

Uses of Evaluation

The shift to a multicomponent strategy entails the continuous development of knowledge to guide planning and implementation. Knowledge development consists of more diverse types of knowledge for a broader group of stakeholders and a greater range of purposes. Beyond research and demonstration, the expanded purposes include: understanding public perception of youth issues and informing the public about them; building the demand for policy change and accountability; determining and disseminating best practices for capacity building and scale-up; and using research and evaluation to maintain effectiveness.

All but one of the foundation officers interviewed reported that evaluation is more important now than in the past. They evaluate their large initiatives to learn about what is working and to identify the lessons for their strategies of scale-up and sustainability. Most foundations do not evaluate all individual grants. Many, however, require grantees to specify goals, benchmarks, outcomes, and lessons learned as part of their grantees’ reporting procedures. About half are engaged in some activity to build grantee learning and evaluation capacity.

As learning and evaluation play a greater role within these foundations, several officers suggested that more cross-foundation discussion about evaluation issues and challenges would be useful. They also suggested including similar discussions about the theories of change underlying emerging grantmaking strategies and efforts to develop integrated learning, evaluation, and communication strategies. Sharing results and lessons learned would be particularly beneficial in the changing context of grantmaking for children and youth.

Heather Weiss, Director, HFRP

M. Elena Lopez, Senior Consultant, HFRP

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© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project