Change Moves at the Speed of Trust

During the last eight years, TFF staff and board have learned valuable, sometimes humbling lessons about both the feasibility of their investment approach and the difficulty of supporting investees to move the needle on outcomes within a complex and ever-changing landscape. Over time, it became clear that tactical aspects of TFF’s model–such as the structure of the investments, and tools and templates–while very helpful, were not the main drivers of their most successful partnerships. Ultimately, TFF learned that the quality of the partnerships and perceived success of the investments rests on:

1Trusting, authentic relationships;
2Strong, decisive investee leadership; and,
3Alignment of values between TFF and investee organizations.

Building authentic partnerships, despite the power imbalance of funder-grantee relationships, takes time. Over the years, TFF’s consistency and openness engendered trust and transparency. Exemplified through its investing values, TFF’s approach has come to be aligned with Trust-Based Philanthropy[1]. TFF understood that without intentional and sustained effort to build relationships based on genuine care, it would not be possible to be a ‘critical friend,’ asking tough questions and receiving unguarded answers from investees.

Values Alignment and Leadership

All of TFF’s investees have experienced leadership transitions during the investment period. On one end of the spectrum, Bridgeport Public Schools has had four different superintendents since 2013 and, on the other, New Beginnings Family Academy’s Ronelle Swagerty has sustained an 18-year tenure, though, technically, in two different leadership roles.

Aligned values are at the heart of TFF’s ability to partner effectively with investees, regardless of style differences or shifting leadership. From the pool of potential investees, TFF’s selection process successfully identified organizations that are genuinely dedicated to improving the lives of Bridgeport’s children through a holistic lens. All investees enthusiastically believe in the power of equitable, supportive learning environments, social and emotional learning, and rigorous pursuit of outcomes, to change the lives of children.

One outlier in terms of alignment was Achievement First Bridgeport Academy Elementary School (AFBAES), which was part of TFF’s first portfolio of investees selected in 2013. AFBAES is part of a regional network of what were billed at the time of selection as “no excuses” charter schools. Though values and priorities misalignment was apparent early on in the investment period, by 2018, it was clear that AFBAES was not a fit for TFF’s portfolio. The Achievement First network has since increased its efforts to center the social and emotional well-being of students after facing a public reckoning about its leadership, student discipline practices, and school culture in 2019. TFF staff remain enthusiastic about the growth AFBAES made during the investment period in partnership with with Harvard’s Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning  (EASEL) Laboratory and are heartened by its current work to become a more trauma-informed, positive learning environment.

“They want to help you and you feel safe sharing the truth, warts and all, because you have this real relationship with them.”

- TFF Investee Partner

Landscape Analysis Timing

TFF was familiar with Bridgeport’s needs when they engaged in strategic planning almost a decade ago, yet several TFF representatives believe the Foundation could have conducted a more intentional and methodical landscape analysis before issuing the initial request for proposals in 2012. This oversight was rectified in 2016, when TFF staff produced a landscape analysis of the wider Bridgeport nonprofit sector and its interest in and capacity to implement SEL. This analysis, which ultimately affirmed TFF’s approach, also highlighted the opportunity to accelerate impact via investing in more partnerships/initiatives. Based on these findings, and all that had been learned by that point, the Foundation “re-upped” its strategy in 2018.

Adaptive Learning and Adopting an Equity Lens

Board members and long-term investees alike noted that the Foundation successfully embraced adaptive learning over time[2], becoming less rigid and more flexible, particularly as the second cohort was selected. This evolution took multiple forms including: streamlining reporting requirements; simplifying the capacity building work plan; and, developing, piloting, and then retiring the ‘Results Path’ (a tool designed to help investee’s monitor progress, which ultimately felt more burdensome than helpful to some partners).

Mirellise Vazquez, former TFF Executive Director, explained the adaptive learning philosophy enhanced the application of an equity lens to its grantmaking by altering how TFF selected investees and the types of capacity building they funded. While TFF’s mission is to ensure Bridgeport’s children achieve more equitable outcomes, TFF had room for improvement in this area: “We learned there was an equity issue at play and if we were really about closing the achievement or opportunity gap, we needed to be about equity and that had to manifest itself in every aspect of our work, including how we decided to make grants . . . so, when we reaffirmed our strategy in 2018, we were purposely a little more flexible about certain aspects of our Theory of Change. We learned we had to work within it in a slightly more flexible way.” Additionally, in response to the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police which catalyzed introspection and action across the country, TFF provided support to investees as requested for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, including anti-bias training.

Expanding the investment model and target population

Several board members noted that although TFF became more flexible over time, in many ways, the Foundation had been opportunistic and responsive from the start. TFF adopted an investment model best suited for individual organizations then immediately invested outside of that model in their first cohort with the selection of a multi organization partnership–the Bridgeport Public Schools Social and Emotional Learning Initiative (BPS SEL Initiative). They did so because of the promise of significant impact–indeed, a majority of Bridgeport’s children gained access to an evidence-based program, the RULER Approach to SEL, within just a few years by virtue of the slightly ‘out of scope’ investment. The original proposal submitted to TFF in 2013 by The Consultation Center at Yale and BPS, which was selected for funding, proposed piloting RULER only at Wilbur Cross Elementary School, and slowly expanding to other district sites. However, when Fran Rabinowitz became interim superintendent of BPS in 2014 and almost immediately called for district-wide implementation of the RULER program, TFF felt compelled to further invest in the partnership and seize the impact opportunity in the tradition of adaptive philanthropy which encourages adjusting grantmaking strategies based on real-time learning and stakeholder needs.

Second, the Foundation’s original logic model identified elementary aged students from K-5 as TFF’s target population. Expansion into middle or high school occurred relatively quickly with three out of four investees in the first cohort, based on SEL implementation success in their early grades. This expansion was both logical and inevitable given the investees also serve children outside the K-5 target population. As it selected its second cohort, TFF made an intentional choice to invest in an even younger population in response to significant needs in the early childhood education (ECE) sector in Bridgeport. Guided by community input and ECE literature that confirms the critical importance of providing children with a strong social and emotional foundation,[3] TFF invited a proposal from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a coalition of Bridgeport ECE organizations to form the Bridgeport Early Childhood SEL Initiative. By 2017, TFF more intentionally sought to invest in a continuum of SEL supports for Bridgeport’s children and therefore the Foundation adjusted its investing aperture to include all grades, Pre-K-12.

Sustainability: Human Capital

Having sufficient human capital (enough trained, committed, skilled staff and leaders) remains one of the major challenges in the education and youth-serving nonprofit sector. Even prior to the catastrophic effects of the pandemic on staffing, there is simply insufficient funding available to schools to hire enough adults to fully implement all the annual goals each investee identifies. This is not a new problem in education, nor is it unique to Bridgeport. But the shortages have been severely exacerbated by the pandemic, with Bridgeport Public Schools experiencing a staffing crisis of more than 70 open positions in fall of 2021. While improving school climate and culture helps retain staff, BPS educators, in particular, are faced with a difficult decision when positions open up in other local districts that frequently pay $10,000 to 15,000 higher annual salaries than BPS. Teacher turnover at BPS hovered around 12% prior to the pandemic. Clearly, the sustainability of any initiative or strategy, including TFF’s, is jeopardized when staff that have been trained leave for jobs outside of the city.

1 The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project was formally launched in 2018, as part of The Whitman Institute’s (TWI) spend down strategy. A partnership between TWI, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the Headwaters Foundation, invites others in the sector to embody these trust-based principles.

2 Adaptive philanthropy involves “adopting a strategy that can adapt to unpredictable changes”. See Five Ways to Move from Strategic to Adaptive Philanthropy, by Susan Wolf Ditkoff in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

3 See, for example, Denham S.A. (2003) Social and Emotional Learning, Early Childhood. In: Gullotta T.P. et al. (eds) Encyclopedia of Primary Prevention and Health Promotion.