In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence in nonprofit and foundation efforts to listen better to those they’re trying to help. Recent research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that, according to over 200 foundation CEOs, the single most promising practice for the future of foundation philanthropy is learning from the experiences of those we are trying to help. The interest in hearing from beneficiaries is clear – but where does one actually start?

In 2017, a group of Bay Area foundations came together to support local schools in gathering and using student feedback. Over the course of the next four years, this group of foundations is covering the cost of the YouthTruth Survey, which provides actionable measures of student engagement, school culture, and social-emotional learning (SEL). Education leaders and funders unpack the student survey results together, and collaboratively plan next steps for improvement. Our learning community is exploring how beneficiary feedback (through the YouthTruth survey) can be useful to funders.

What does our learning community look like in practice? Picture foundation CEOs, standing next to middle and high school students, alongside their school principals and district superintendents. The group analyzes data that paints a picture of the school experience. They notice disparities for students of diverse races and/or ethnicities. They discuss how students of different sexual orientations have different experiences in class. Student feedback reveals where schools across the region (their schools) are meeting learners’ needs, and where improvements can be made. Students not only identify issues – they also develop solutions. And adults in leadership positions in their schools and foundations are there to support and guide them.

Through the Bay Area Student Voice Initiative, foundation leaders have integrated student feedback in various ways to fit their unique contexts. Some foundations use the student survey results to monitor progress toward their goals related to whole child learning and deepening equity work in schools. Others set new goals and revise strategies, to respond to student needs. All members of our learning community have built new relationships with one another, deepened relationships with their education grantees, and found innovative ways to empower youth beneficiary voice.

For example, when the Career Technical Education (CTE) Foundation joined the Initiative in 2017, the team there hoped to better understand the experience of students across Sonoma County, where the foundation’s grantmaking and mission focuses. CTE Foundation supports career and technical education programs across the county and has been able to integrate feedback directly into its program evaluation and strategic planning processes. “The data has been incredibly thought-provoking,” says Associate Executive Director Amber Figueroa, “It’s challenged some perceptions and has galvanized not only our internal efforts to make our grantmaking and programs more effective for our student constituents, but also to engage other community partners in supporting efforts that will improve the student experience.” The foundation is in the planning and initial implementation stages of its next steps:

  • Convene school leaders and administrators to discuss opportunities for improvement and action
  • Explore grant opportunities for schools to design and test interventions in response to the YouthTruth data
  • Invite students to serve in an ex-oficio position on the Board of Directors and as participants on the Grant Committee
  • Develop student internships at the Foundation and engage them in programmatic work, including strategic design and implementation
  • Engage community groups such as Cradle to Career, Health Action, and Los Cien in the development of areas identified for growth based on YouthTruth insights

CTE Foundation and other funders in the community are working thoughtfully and deliberately to institutionalize more student-centered processes and develop the impact of their programs and grantmaking. The Bay Area Student Voice Initiative has helped CTE Foundation understand the student experience better, what is working for young people and what isn’t, and under what circumstances.

School year 2019-2020 will bring new foundations and schools to our learning community. Additionally, YouthTruth is convening a second regional collaborative of funders, districts, and schools through the Ohio Student Voice Initiative. In the long term, we envision a philanthropic sector in which education funders routinely seek feedback from students about their school experiences, and incorporate that feedback to improve the foundation’s work. Learn more about YouthTruth’s student and stakeholder surveys, programming, and student engagement resources.