By Elaine Gast Fawcett on behalf of Exponent Philanthropy
Rhonnel Sotelo doesn’t have a favorite childhood book. He wasn’t much of a reader as a child, and only reached third grade reading proficiency in eighth grade. Yet thanks to several caring high school teachers and two UCLA English professors, he was able to turn around his reading capability later in life and passed that love of reading on to his two teenage daughters. Now literacy and public education are his career and personal passion.
As executive director of the Rogers Family Foundation in Oakland, California, Sotelo in partnership with CEO Brian Rogers and team, works to make sure children have opportunities to attend high-quality schools that provide personalized student-centered learning experiences, as well as ensure that students get off to good starts by being able to read on grade level by the end of third grade.
Education, says Sotelo, has always been compelling for the Rogers family. In 2003, after selling the company they owned for 26 years, Dreyers Ice Cream, T. Gary and Kathleen Rogers, along with their four sons, looked at how they could give back to their hometown of Oakland. Certainly there was no shortage of needs: crime, healthcare, housing affordability, and the list goes on. Yet they realized if there was one funding focus that could help all these issues, it was educating children.
In 2009, the foundation developed its first education strategy for supporting Oakland’s public schools. Through the combined effort and thinking of its eight-person team, the foundation recently updated that strategy, setting exact goals to reach by the year 2020 at the foundation, partner, and city level. One of these goals is to create 10,000 new quality seats across Oakland’s public schools by 2020—serving the students that need them most.
Setting this strategy is not something that happened in a vacuum. “Our team needed to move beyond the traditional, insular strategic-planning-in-a-black-box exercise, seek input from our partners, and align the foundation’s strategy with the city, the school district, local charters, and nonprofits,” Sotelo says. This required building time-tested relationships and trust with community partners.
“When I go to meetings,” he says, “I’m a listener first, hoping to identify ways we can work with other local or national funders to make change happen. We are one of many voices.”
Sotelo also says that setting a timeline has been critical, even if change often happens over generations. “Because we’ve set a time frame horizon to meeting our goals, we’ve created a sense of urgency,” he says. “That gives our staff a clear purpose in action. At every meeting we ask, ‘What have we done these last two weeks to move our work forward? What can we do better?’”
Strategy has been an important step in the foundation’s growth, says Sotelo, as it helped board members get clear on exactly the change they wanted to see, and by when. “As a small foundation, it would have been easy to try to become everything to everyone in the local community, but our board challenges us to make tough choices,” Sotelo says. “The board saw an education system that needed to change, and they approved a strategy to work toward that change.”
When asked to identify one area where the foundation has seen results, Sotelo singled out the foundation’s investment in Lighthouse Community Charter School, now growing into a multiple school operator. According to Sotelo, Lighthouse serves a high population of students who are farthest from opportunity, and the school has been lauded as one of the top Bay Area schools for bridging the achievement gap. “Now we see African American and Latino students doing as well or better in terms of their performance across all measures of outcome. They aren’t just graduating high school; 955 are going on to four-year colleges, even with the odds stacked against them.”
“As a foundation, we aren’t necessarily the experts, but we are lifelong learners, looking for partners to make the changes we hope to see.”
Exponent Philanthropy recently released its annual Outsized Impact report, an e-publication filled with funder stories and stats to illustrate the power of those who give with few or no staff, including the previous story. Read the full report >>