Giving Compass' Take:

• The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation shares how their initial strategy to increase educational attainment in Arkansas failed, and how they learned and grew from that failure. 

• How can funders better acknowledge and share philanthropic failures to provide learning for themselves and the sector? 

• Learn more about the value of failing in philanthropy

In meetings with school leaders and state policymakers, Dr. West-Scantlebury, then a recent transplant to the state, could not believe what she heard. “Our schools are doing just fine,” she was told. “Arkansas is ranked fifth in the country in education according to Education Week. The state’s investments in public education have paid off — it’s time to refocus elsewhere.”

How could state leaders declare “mission accomplished” in a state with entrenched generational poverty, alarming illiteracy rates, a growing number of academically distressed schools, and an achievement gap that left far too many students and communities of color behind? Clearly, there was no plan, no guiding star. The public education system in Arkansas was failing its students, parents, and communities. It was time to form a plan and act to unlock Arkansans’ educational and economic potential.

As a systems-change funder, the Foundation knew that forging change in Arkansas’s public education system would require vision and transformational goals. WRF set out to leverage the state’s multi-billion dollar education budget to create and implement strategies to prepare students for the 21st century global economy.

A priority of the Moving the Needle strategic plan was to create a vision and goals for K-12 education in the state. The Foundation began working closely with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) to build relationships with its leadership to increase educational attainment for all Arkansans. The Foundation also established statewide education initiatives such as the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, part of a national campaign to ensure all children read on grade level by the end of the third grade; invested in policy change and advocacy; and collaborated to promote high-quality learning opportunities through the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign. WRF supported several programs to assist children, youth, and families outside of the education system with the understanding that many social issues and forces outside schools affected what happened inside them. The Foundation used grantmaking to build the partnerships, case, and evidence for transformation of the state’s education system.

Although a K-12 strategic plan was ultimately created for the state, no public will existed beyond the planning process to drive change and implementation. The process also lacked the local relationships and connections to authentically engage students, parents, and business leaders. ADE’s plan was excellent, but it was destined to sit on a shelf to collect dust.

Some foundations might have given up, sulking about lost dollars, social and political capital, and staff time. Instead, the Foundation strategically pushed onward to make failure an important part of the process and journey.

Read the full article about struggling to improve educational attainment from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation at Medium.