Philanthropy Digital Learning

The 5 things learned from my first grantmaking initiative

It has been nearly a year to the day since I started as SCE’s Digital Learning Program Officer. Since then, I’ve collaboratively worked to build and launch the Digital Learning Challenge. As in life, things always comes full circle: on the anniversary of my start date, we publicly announced our incredible program partners for the Digital Learning Challenge. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1) The hardest part is starting: There is an interesting balance required of any new employee in a new organization: find a way to respect the organization’s history and learnings, while respecting your own experience and knowledge, and then figure out how to blend them together so that all parties feel heard, respected, and invested. Yet, I’ve also learned that when you land in the right organization, that balance is no longer required. In short, it’s been a great year.

On its simplest level, SCE is a learning organization and my job is to figure out how to bring together really smart people with great ideas and work together to find answers to hard questions. We believe that our grantees – or as we refer to them, partners – are the experts because day in and day out, they are the ones researching and working directly with the youth to develop the programs that best work for them. At SCE, it is our job to listen. It’s not about saying we don’t know everything, it’s about recognizing that there is always more to learn. It’s a humbling and empowering way to work.

2) The second hardest part is remembering those values: The hard work is only just beginning and the true test is remembering to let go of what I think and really, truly listen.

3)  The more questions you ask…: When we set out to build the RFP, we took learnings from the first SEL Challenge. First, we did not want to overburden the finalists with a lengthy RFP process, so we sought to ask more questions up front, believing that it would provide us more information to make a decision. We also thought we were super smart in setting word counts. Nope. Not only did we likely put a strain on already-time-strapped (and overworked!) development officers and organizations, but then we had to read all the answers. With nearly 100 applicants, over 30 questions, 2 employees, and only 10 days to get through it all, it was a lot.

Next time, how do we set up an RFP that includes specific enough questions to get us the information we need while balancing the time and effort of the organizations applying? On that note, are there any grant processes that have been your ‘favorite’ and why? Leave a comment below!

4) How can we better address the geographical divide?: As you have seen in previous posts our goal with this initiative is to identify and bring together diverse organizations to collaborate and share their practices. Here’s who didn’t apply: organizations serving rural communities. More specifically, of 90 applicants, only 2 applicants served rural-only areas. The reality is, and further evidenced by results of the recent presidential election, urban and rural populations are deeply divided.

Now there could be a lot of reasons to this: there are not many organizations using digital tools for learning in rural communities (unlikely), organizations may not have ‘seen themselves’ in the RFP language (possible), organizations serving these areas may not have the capacity to participate in a high-touch initiative (something to think about), our networks in these areas are weak (true), or maybe they just don’t want to hang with us city folk (I don’t really blame you). But for whatever the reason for the dearth of applicants, we have to do better: all initiatives are stronger with diverse voices at the table.

If you’re an organization serving rural communities, we would love to hear from you on how we can do better. Comment below please!

5) Where are the Citizen Coders?:  Broadly speaking, our cohort of applicants consisted of two types: arts and design. We classified arts as journalism, photography, music, and digital arts programs and design as video game design, sound design, general making or other industrial-type design.

This led me to ask, why does it seem that the nonprofit, corporate, and civic sectors always talk about coding as a way to get a job, as opposed as a way to make change? We know that youth today are demanding careers that have a sense of purpose and meaning and to me, coding and STEM is just as much about art, language and problem solving as any of the other programs listed above. How can we change the narrative about these vital skills?

In conclusion, this is why SCE is so cool. I get to take these questions that arise from the first step of a process, talk to other people who are doing this work, and let that inform our grantmaking strategy moving forward. Stay tuned…

Sarah Kammerer is the Digital Learning Program Officer at SCE.