Twenty years ago, a group of four impressive college graduates came to then-fledgling Community Partnerswith a great new idea: to help promising students from low-income families achieve higher aspirations through college.
College Marketplace was new and innovative, and it was an ideal first stab at fiscal sponsorship for us. The project helped open higher education’s door to hundreds of kids, most of them the very first in their family ever to seek a college degree. It helped elevate awareness of the need for college access support in ways that have achieved movement scale today in communities all across America.
That alone is a proud achievement. But I know that all four of these leaders stayed in education, long after College Marketplace was absorbed by another nonprofit. What impact did their experience with us have on their lives and careers in the long-term, I wondered. And what can our current projects take away from this? We all checked in via conference call recently to delve into this question a little deeper.
Jill Nishi is a grantmaker in education with the Gates Foundation; Elizabeth Cushing has been instrumental in the success of San Francisco-based Playworks, focusing on recess in schools; Ken Chawkins ran for school board in Pasadena and is a senior level training manager for Southern California Edison; and Maria Morales-Kent is the director of college counseling at the prestigious Thacher School in Ojai.
We wanted to retrospectively look back and ask you, as the first team we cut our teeth on -- and the first project you cut your teeth on -- what did each of you grasp from that experience and still carry with you today?
Elizabeth Cushing: It was an education at every step of the way. I am now keenly aware of how much work is involved to build infrastructure and processes, and that’s present in every day of my role now. It’s not sexy to most people, but it’s crucial.
Ken Chawkins: Yes...on Elizabeth’s Playworks board, and on other boards I’ve sat on, I find I’m always the one who asks the unsexy questions about infrastructure and processes. If you don’t, you can be assured there will be problems ahead. That’s one of the key things I think I learned that stays with me today.
Jill Nishi: College Marketplace was such a formative experience. As a grantmaker today, I really appreciate having that understanding of how to take an idea and make it come alive, to get people to believe in it, and then operationalize it.
Maria Morales-Kent: Personally, the experience gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. Community Partners allowed four young people to feel empowered and supported in the way we wanted to make a difference, and that was really a dream. You were our partners – showing us the map, allowing us to grow and develop, helping us to operationalize.
Clearly the four of you are still very in tune with what’s happening in the education arena. With that expertise, I’d like to ask you to tap your inner entrepreneur and talk about how you might approach a start-up differently today?
KC: What I’ve learned over time is the importance of building in sustainability. For any new project, I would ask: how do we do this in a way that is taking assets in a given community and shifting them to service. I really believe strongly that there needs to be a fee-for-service component.
MMK: I have to agree with the revenue-generating aspect. I also would have used media in a more effective way. But I also like that we all had different capabilities. There’s a real benefit to working together and pooling different strengths.
JN: If I started a program today I would begin with the end in mind. I would ask: How will we sustain ourselves? What are our ambitions for scale? I would think about evidence that would indicate the idea has made a difference. I’d be clear on how we would measure success.
EC: I would look very closely at problems that are not being addressed by anybody else. And I would focus on who really cares about the particular issue. You really need to get others as invested and passionate about getting the problem solved.
And building from that point, can you talk about creating something in the nonprofit sector that is also about building a community of interest?
KC: When you stitch together a solution in a very organic way, one that takes in what other members of the community needs, then you will create something that is real and binding.
JN: As a funder you learn the importance of helping people to build community. That community piece is incredibly powerful and it’s what funders should be thinking about.
MMK: When I started ACCIS (the Association of College Counselors at Independent Secondary Schools created by Kent) I understood the need to engage all stakeholders as we developed, specifically because of my experience at Community Partners. I knew I had to identify all stakeholders, essentially drawing together a community of interest. It was critical to our success and I don’t think any of that would have been possible without my past experience.
EC: We were very young and naïve at the time we started that project. We didn’t really know anyone; we had a lot of contacts to make, a lot of partnerships to build...
MMK: ...and Community Partners gave us the space to think through all of this. We were able to explore and really shape something before we actually launched. That was invaluable.
All were in agreement that while a great idea is important, it is no guarantee for success. Infrastructure. Community-building. Capitalization. These are three elements key to a project’s impact and sustainability. And they are concepts that four successful leaders are still influenced by today. What do you see as the most important take-aways from your own nonprofit or sponsorship experience?