A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Making a Big Bet: Moving From Transactional to Transformational Philanthropy

The Lerner Foundation had only been making grants for five years when the winds shifted—the board of directors decided it was time for a profound change in our priorities. Our founding purpose is simple and straightforward: “to further opportunity for the people of Maine.” Manny and Polly Lerner’s broad and hopeful intention gave us the space to consider what we might accomplish if we focused our resources on one big, bold idea. And a big idea did emerge for us.

The Aspirations Incubator, a six-year pilot project rooted in mentoring relationships, focuses on raising and sustaining the aspirations of rural middle school children in Maine. The ultimate goal is that many more young people develop the confidence, skills, and passion to pursue an academic or career pathway beyond high school. Since changing our focus, we’ve gone from having 40 grantees to just seven, and we’ve committed all our resources to this project. It’s a big bet—and here’s how we’re doing it.

Identifying the Path

Our board president, Eliot Cutler, first raised the possibility of a move away from traditional, cycle-based grantmaking after his independent gubernatorial campaign in 2014. On his travels to every corner of the state, Eliot heard Mainers’ concerns for the future of their communities, and he was moved to think expansively and creatively about how to raise and sustain aspirations across the state.

Our landscape presents unique barriers to success for young people—over half of Mainers live in rural areas, and 70% of schools are in rural places. Over time, factors such as population decline; isolation from cultural, academic, and employment centers; prevailing attitudes about the value of higher education as rural employment declines; and limited school and family resources have eroded educational and occupational aspirations in Maine’s rural communities.

But there is hope, too—Maine’s small towns are rich in community vitality, adept at making connections and solving problems, and determined to see their young people succeed. We believed that aspirations could be the key to increased possibility for young people in our state, and that was enough to get us started.

Making the Shift

Before making a transformational shift, we needed to understand the landscape, including what work was already being done, where there were gaps, what proven or innovative solutions already existed, and what expertise we could find in the communities we hoped to serve. I spent a year talking to as many people as I could in education, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropy to determine where the Lerner Foundation’s resources and social capital could be put to the best use.

I was intrigued by Trekkers, an outdoor-based mentoring program in midcoast Maine that embraced a program model based on evidence-backed principles of youth development. We hired Don Carpenter, who was retiring after 18 years as the founding executive director of Trekkers, as our senior program officer, and worked to create a framework for the Aspirations Incubator based on the Trekkers model.

After a lengthy vetting process, we announced our seven new partners. We decided to develop the Aspirations Incubator as a pilot project, with the goal of determining the necessary conditions to successfully implement and sustain a long-term mentoring-based youth program model in a rural setting.

Transforming Our Philanthropy

Seeing a need that will influence the very future of our state gave us the urgency, passion, and permission to aspire to a larger, more focused goal, and commit to it for several years.

The Lerner Foundation is small, with only two full-time staff and $7 million in assets. We had no long history of operating in one mode and no long-term funding commitments. What was scariest, and most exciting, was that we were investing in an idea, not an organization. We knew we’d need to find the right partners and trust their expertise, while we offered transformative capacity-building funding, professional development and leadership training, technical assistance, and evaluation support.

If the Aspirations Incubator is a ship with seven sails, the Lerner Foundation is its steady keel. It may be hard to let go of the ropes and trust our grantees to steer the course, but we’re learning. We’re now in our second year of programming, and our grantee partners just recruited their second cohorts of seventh graders. We can’t wait to see where the winds take us next.

I will report and reflect on our progress in a series of blogs for Exponent Philanthropy. I would love to hear your comments, questions, and ideas along the way. What big bets are you considering as a funder? –Erin

After spending 15 years in the nonprofit sector, Erin Cinelli has been executive director of the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation in Portland, Maine since 2013. Erin earned a Masters of Public Policy and Management from the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine in 2005, was a 2014 participant in the Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellows Program, and currently serves as vice chair of the Maine Philanthropy Center board of directors. 

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