Life in the old model yet?

Caroline Hartnell

When it comes to scaling up a programme, is the classic foundation model of piloting initiatives then persuading government to adopt them an outmoded one? Not if the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is anything to go by. Over lunch in February, Mott staff working on the Pathways out of Poverty programme talked to me about programmes they had successfully scaled up.

What unfolded was an approach that involves careful development, solid research and dissemination to create a significant body of opinion and practice, and advocacy and representation to those with the capacity to roll out initiatives on a big scale – governments. The model will not work in all circumstances, but there seems to be plenty of mileage in it given the right conditions.

Catalysing a movement through trade associations

‘I’m one of the few people who has spread a model through a trade association that is providing technical assistance to its membership,’ claims Jack Litzenberg. It’s an approach he has used successfully in Mott’s grantmaking to support microenterprise and sectoral employment training programmes.

On the microenterprise side, Mott helped create the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, which brings US practitioners together at various times during the year to talk, learn from each other, and share the results of studies demonstrating which models work best. When it comes to replication, he believes ‘getting practitioners involved in working with wannabe practitioners is the best way to do it’. Altogether, there are now more than 500 microenterprise programmes in the US; more than 300 of them are training programmes only and the rest offer both training and lending. When Mott started in this field, only a handful existed.

As part of the sectoral employment training movement, which connects low-income people with career development programmes, Mott helped form the National Network of Sector Partners, which has over 500 members and helps disseminate the approach.

Replication through governments

Replication by ‘selling’ the idea to state governments has worked particularly well in this case, because state governments control a lot of the money that is available for workforce development – and under the previous administration the federal government didn’t emphasize training. Instead, the government created a ‘Work First’ referral system for job placement without training. Mott went to the National Governors’ Association – which, Litzenberg explains, is a membership organization for state governors – to inform state policy about the approach. More than 40 states now have incorporated sectoral employment training into their workforce strategy.  

The findings from a multi-site evaluation of sectoral employment training were released in October 2008. The timing was fortuitous: the Obama administration was preparing to take office, and officials were contacting foundations looking for good ideas that had been thoroughly tested. This rigorous evaluation had been carried out specifically to disprove naysayers who argued that training doesn’t lead to wage gains or better job retention for low-income individuals. The Mott-funded random assignment evaluation showed wage gains and other improvements for employees who had completed sectoral employment training – the first workforce training evaluation to show such gains in 30 years. Federal legislation now calls for widespread use of the sectoral employment approach.

The importance of evaluation and research

Another good example of the use of rigorous testing is furnished by Mott’s support for asset-building programmes. Mott was one of several foundations that supported an experimental study showing the efficacy of matched savings accounts – known as Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) – to help low and moderate-income people save. The thinking behind IDAs is that economic self-sufficiency isn’t just a matter of income: people need assets too – to enable them to buy homes, start businesses, and so on.

Armed with findings from the study, Mott and others supported advocacy efforts to increase funding and expand savings opportunities for hundreds, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of families. Federal legislation now supports IDAs, and all but four states have some legislation that enables different funding streams to be used for them.

In all these cases, Mott’s fundamental approach seems to be to develop a model, fund a set of demonstration projects, carry out a rigorous evaluation, and then use the results to approach policymakers and encourage government take-up.

Still life in the ‘classic’ model?

I suggest that this seems in effect to be the traditional foundation model for scaling. Present-day wisdom seems to be that it is obsolete, a broken model, especially with difficult fiscal conditions, yet it seems to be working. ‘State and federal governments are always looking for good ideas,’ says Benita Melton. ‘We are trying to cultivate ideas so that when someone is looking for a good idea, we have them to offer.’

The afterschool programme

In some ways, the highly successful, federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers programme departs from the classic pattern, says An-Me Chung. Its success was partly a matter of timing. ‘The stars were aligned,’ she says. ‘The political will was there at the federal and local levels. The public understood and felt strongly about the importance of keeping kids safe and giving them something to do after school.’ To complement federal work, Mott funded a national awareness campaign, identification of promising practices, policy development, research and evaluation, and technical assistance, to the tune of $100 million over multiple years. This was critical in making the case for increasing the federal government’s afterschool funding from $1 million to $1 billion in four years.

Although some research existed, more research was needed to ensure long-term sustainability of high-quality programmes, says Chung. Especially in hard economic times, programmes need to be constantly defended from potential cuts, to prevent the money being diverted elsewhere. Research, along with good examples, helps you to engage with policymakers, she says; it gives you the confidence to go out and tell good stories about effective programmes.

All this is important in transitions from one administration to another. The afterschool programme successfully survived the transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration because an alliance of the grassroots movement and policymakers fought back against threatened cuts. ‘Without citizen involvement,’ Litzenberg argues, ‘the programme won’t carry weight with legislators.’ ‘It’s very hard to see policy change without public support,’ agrees Chung.

‘And you never know where your advocates are going to come from,’ Mott President William S White muses. ‘The other day,’ he says, ‘I was talking with a police chief. We started talking about education and the police chief became animated because he’s seeing the results of poor education every day. For him it’s a matter of  “we’ve got to do something about these kids or they come to me”.’

Sticking with it

‘If you think you can work all by yourself on a lot of different issues for the long term, then open the window and take a fly,’ he adds. If you’re trying to change a system through elected public officials, you need to build strong, logical arguments, best practice and good evidence, demonstrate its value to those you would persuade – and stick to it. ‘You’ve got to stay with an idea long enough so that as it changes, you can meet the demands and keep it fresh.’ Adds Melton, ‘You’ve got to be able to show others how to implement it. It’s not that government isn’t interested in new ideas. It’s just that the effectiveness of those ideas needs to be proved. The government is not always able to do the refining itself.’

Policy often needs to be tweaked as practice unfolds, so it’s a continuing cycle of learning, evaluating and informing policy. It isn’t just a case of tinkering with an approach till you’ve got it right, then thinking it will be sustainable for ever. Programmes need to change to reflect changes in society. In the end, White reflects, ‘you’re trying to improve people’s lives. When changes happen, you have to try to figure out how to adjust.’  

Now Mott, along with Ford, is investing some money in trying to spread the concept of land banks to cities across the country that are having to downsize, as elaborated on in the interview with William S White in this issue of Alliance.

Caroline Hartnell was talking to:

An-Me Chung Program Officer, Pathways out of Poverty
Jack A Litzenberg Interim Program Director, Pathways out of Poverty
Benita D Melton Program Officer, Pathways out of Poverty
William S White President and Chairman

An-Me Chung Jack Litzenberg Benita Melton Bill White


Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Special feature to read

Making small grants: where to start

Alliance magazine