Learning With Our Grantees as Partners in the Work

By Sarah Barrett

Sarah Barrett is a Manager with our Human Capital Investments team.

When we started Education Forward DC, we tried to capture a specific approach to grant-making. One of the core tenets of our approach is:

We know that money matters, but money alone is often not enough.

Access to early-stage capital is key for any organization. However, from our work with education organizations in DC over the past decade, we know that entrepreneurs need more than funding to achieve their ambitious goals.

So, over the course of a grant, we collaborate with grantees and provide strategic support through what we refer to as management assistance. This can mean connecting grantees to key resources, working shoulder-to-shoulder as a thought partner, or checking in at key points. Often, engaging with Education Forward DC feels deeper, and more frequent than is typical in a funder-grantee relationship. For me, the best part of management assistance is getting to work collaboratively with passionate leaders to further their missions – and learning alongside them in the process.

What’s the purpose of engaging closely with grantees?
Our first priority is to support grantees to meet their grant goals and achieve their mission. We intend for our management assistance to accelerate impact, for example by providing leaders a shortcut to connections or expertise they need. In more formal roles, Education Forward DC team members serve on grantees’ board of directors, helping the organizations set strategy and work toward their missions.

By closely supporting a portfolio of grantees, we are also able to recognize patterns. We see common needs across our portfolio and can quickly anticipate risks and share lessons learned from grantee to grantee. This learning cycle informs our investment strategy and allows us to support grantees earlier and with more agility.

We know that entrepreneurship can be a lonely pursuit, so we also work to build community among our grantees. Through retreats, events, dinners, and work sessions, we convene DC education leaders in formal and informal ways throughout the year. We hope that by providing a space for relationship-building and collaboration, grantees can form or strengthen connections with one another and have direct lines to peers and partners for problem solving and support.

What does this look like in practice?
Management assistance is contextual, so it will look different for every grantee. We might connect two early-stage organizations that are going through business planning processes, so they can share approaches and lessons learned. We often share data analyses – for example on enrollment trends or citywide hiring needs – and facilitate discussion on implications. Or, we may serve as a sounding board for a nascent idea. In all cases, we appreciate the opportunity to work side-by-side with our grantees, in our shared pursuit of great outcomes for DC students.