Making a Significant Shift in Funding Priorities - Exponent Philanthropy
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Making a Significant Shift in Funding Priorities

On a cold day in February 2015 at a board retreat on the coast of Maine, the board of directors of the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation made a big decision. After 5 years funding nonprofits in Maine focused on civic engagement, cultural tolerance, and women and children, the board decided to take a break and refocus its mission in a new funding area: raising student aspirations in Maine.

The space for the foundation to make a significant shift in funding priorities was created by the simplicity of Manny and Polly Lerner’s original purpose for the foundation: “to further opportunity for the people of Maine.” The direction of the shift was rooted in the day-to-day experience of board chair Eliot Cutler during his independent gubernatorial campaign in 2014. Everywhere he went, he heard about Mainers’ concerns for the future of their communities, and, more specifically, concerns about a lack of aspirations among the youth growing up in those communities.

As the sole staff person at the foundation at the time, I was tasked with researching the landscape around education and student aspirations in Maine, then making a recommendation to the board by the end of 2015. I talked to as many people as I could—teachers, professors, and administrators in K-12 and higher education; nonprofit leaders and program staff who work with youth in school and afterschool; and other funders—about their perception of student aspirations in Maine, the root issues and current challenges, and their proposed solutions.

In addition to figuring out the right place in the education continuum to nurture student aspirations, the board also wanted to move away from cycle-based, transactional grantmaking, and was interested in exploring opportunities for foundation-initiated, transformational grantmaking. Over time, a clear path for the Lerner Foundation emerged.

We identified a space for a small foundation to plug in and make a big bet: investing in the expansion of a unique relationship-focused youth program for rural students that connects with them at the critical moment that aspirations need to be nurtured and supported—in middle school.

The board opted to develop a pilot project as the vehicle for this investment, and our primary goal for the pilot is to determine the conditions necessary to successfully implement and sustain a long-term mentoring-based youth program model in a rural setting. We chose Trekkers, an outdoor-based mentoring program in midcoast Maine that connects young people with caring adults, as the program model for the pilot project. We were aware of the increased educational outcomes that Trekkers students experience compared to their fellow classmates, and we were intrigued by their unique relationship-focused program model.

In early 2016, Don Carpenter (recently retired after 18 years as founding executive director at Trekkers) joined the Lerner Foundation as senior program officer. We got to work designing the details of a six-year pilot project, now called the Aspirations Incubator Program (AIP). Then we turned our attention to selecting the pilot expansion sites that will be our grant partners for the next 6 years.

Following a lengthy vetting process that included a statewide RFP in 2016, multiple stages of dialogue, individual concept proposals, and on-site community interviews, the Lerner Foundation developed partnerships with 8 community organizations, each connected to a local school district. We officially launched the Aspirations Incubator Program in April 2017, announcing our partner selections and our intention to invest $4.8 million in grant funding in these partnerships.

Over the course of the 6-year pilot project, the Lerner Foundation will provide $600,000 in capacity building grants, plus professional development training, technical assistance, and evaluation support to each partner organization, to support the implementation of youth programming rooted in Trekkers’ 10 Youth Programming Principles at each pilot program site.

Although we are only eight months into the Aspirations Incubator Program, we know this is our path for the next six years.

The experience of developing and engaging in this pilot project has sharpened our focus as an organization (it is, after all, the only thing we are doing!), allowing us to cultivate deep and complex relationships with our partner organizations, and providing an opportunity to engage in a broader conversation in our state about how to get more Maine students to and through post-secondary education.

We are looking forward to continued learning and engagement alongside our partners, as well as Graduation Day in June 2023 for the 7th graders who will be starting with their AIP cohorts this year!

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. She also serves as a grantmaking advisor with the Rocking Moon Foundation. 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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