By Scott Gelzer, The Faye McBeath Foundation
In a Sunday morning session at ASF National Conference (a crowded room at 8 a.m., so you know we’re committed) our leader Garrison Kurtz encouraged us to talk among ourselves about what priorities we have in early childhood education. My tablemates, a typically diverse ASF mix of staff, trustees, consultants, and family funders were ready to talk.
What emerged was a picture of states and communities whose commitment to and support for early childhood education was a continuum from near zero to highly engaged. The session continued with examples on creating theories for change, case studies demonstrating successes and challengees, and lively discussion on how to’s.
Our diverse starting points led me to consider the following question: How does a foundation or any donor for that matter determine what is possible to achieve? What does success look like and how would you describe it? For small foundations this matter is paramount in planning.
Presented with two options, the traditional impulse is ”both.” But if we are to move the needle in a complex matter like child care, what are some markers to determine what is possible? What is realistic to achieve? If you can’t pick both due to resource constraints, how will you decide?
Here are some markers we’ve used in Milwaukee in our work to sort through options for focus.
- Are you the first to the table with this idea, issue, or concern? If yes, count on a longer time and resource commitment to achieve meaningful change. Will that fact make a difference in your planning? Then you might want to consider subtracting some points here.
- Are you aware of and relatively certain that others in your funding and grantee communities share this concern? Would they articulate it largely the same way that you do? Note: if you’re not sure of the answer, invest some time in conversations, a survey, or whatever works for you.
- Are there existing discussions via collaborative groups or in your area grantmakers association that are already addressing your concern or a similar issue? If yes, give extra points.
- Is there any, some, or a lot of public visibility for the issue in question? Extra points are awarded here as well, particularly if you note letters to the editor, blog posts, and other elements of an emerging consensus that “something must be done.” This should add points as well.
To me, the art of the possible often boils down to a basic question. Would we be attempting to “create the market” for change, or are we building on a shared concern or value already in play?
You can still answer “both” but creating the market is bound to be more challenging and resource diverting. A reason to say no – not in my book – but a serious consideration about moving ahead.
ASF member Scott Gelzer is executive director of The Faye McBeath Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
ASF’s programming in Early Childhood Development is generously supported, in part, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.