As we look back on 2019, we have a lot to reflect on and share with you all. This past year, we distributed approximately $36M and supported almost 100 grantee partners, reaching over 12.7M students. Additionally, we completed over ten research studies (findings and an overview can be found here in our 2018 and 2019 mid-year and end of year research overview). Mostly, this past year, we are proud of the time we have spent internally redefining all of our strategies aligned to our High School Readiness North Star, creating greater organizational clarity and coherence.

More than ever, through our new communications efforts, we amplified our work and the work of our grantee partners in 2019. Through more than 33 thought leadership pieces and over ten conference presentations, the Foundation shared strategies and partnerships externally and highlighted the work of many partners we support. As we continue to grow, Overdeck Family Foundation sees as its responsibility to use our national platform to share the stories of the work our grantees are doing that is most profoundly impacting families and kids across the country.

Below, we share 2019’s lessons learned, our “best mistakes,” and a look ahead to 2020 and beyond.

Overdeck Family Foundation sees as its responsibility to use our national platform to share the stories of the work our grantees are doing that is most profoundly impacting families and kids across the country.

Biggest Lessons 

This year was our Foundation’s largest grantmaking year to date, so it’s not surprising that many key lessons surfaced that will guide our work in 2020 and going forward. Below are our top five takeaways from 2019, spanning across our five portfolios. 

1. Data capacity and R&D remain underfunded by philanthropy. Organizations continue to struggle to attract and retain data talent, limiting their ability for in-house learning agendas, strategic research and development, or data-informed learning and improvement. 

  • Investing in data capacity supports for organizations has been an effective and supportive strategy that allows organizations to reduce reliance on outside experts. More of this type of support would help them build their internal ability to understand, learn, and report on organizational outcomes and improvements (e.g., Harvard Strategic Data Project Overdeck Fellows).

2. Promoting standard grantee metrics and measures is difficult, but not impossible, with the right toolset. Several of our portfolios struggle with defining and tracking standard metrics across grantees, especially those that operate outside the K-12 school system, such as organizations that fall into our Early Impact and Inspired Minds portfolios. However, to measure our Foundation’s effectiveness at supporting meaningful impact, we’ve realized that we need to have grantees align on how they define success. We’ve tried to do this in a way that is collaborative and helpful to all involved (versus top-down from our program teams), and have seen promise using the following tactics:

  • Convening grantees to provide an organic and collaborative forum to be part of the generative process of creating shared measures.
  • Funding researcher-led efforts on shared measurement (e.g., data analytics cohorts) to provide a more structured path forward that is supported by research and field experts, versus being driven by the Foundation.
  • Identifying a high-credibility research partner to work directly with organizations on research and assessment measures while also providing technical assistance to support meaningful decision-making, adoption, and use.
  • Tapping into the state, local, or federal funding streams that reward shared measurement (e.g., Race to the Top or Pay for Success) that encourage grantees to work together in service of a larger goal.

3. Evidence has the potential for a more significant impact if the intended purpose or goal is clear at the outset. Evidence requires buy-in from different audiences, and evidence for “proving” vs. “improving” vs. unlocking government dollars requires different approaches and stakeholders from the launch of the efforts. Working together with research, practitioners, and perceived end-users can help drive a greater collective effort towards achieving shared results. 

4. One way to help researchers spread their findings is to partner them with high-quality content disseminators, with existing distribution channels. This is particularly effective if a portfolio funds both content creators and content disseminators. For example, our Early Impact portfolio supported cross-grantee collaboration partnerships that brought high-quality, evidence-based parenting content to 18,000 caregivers who would otherwise have missed it. These partnerships helped content creators find new avenues to families, with a symbiotic benefit for content disseminators who did not have to create the content themselves. And while, for research partners used to writing in academic language, it could be daunting to modify research into a shorter format and a more conversational tone without losing meaning and precision, our grantees found that it opened doors of possibility for them in terms of expanding their audience. We expect to see similar synergy in our grant to Roadtrip Nation under the Exceptional Educators portfolio, which will use documentary-style storytelling to attract attention to the teacher retention crisis and opportunities to fix it, as well as our grant to EdTrust under the Data for Action portfolio, which funds a series of podcasts using Sean Reardon’s SEDA database to spotlight Extra-Ordinary school districts around the country. 

5. Scaling from early adopters to an organization’s total addressable market is difficult, even for the most “proven” organizations. Several of our grantees had difficulty meeting their reach expectations, which were modeled on a “hockey stick” growth pattern often seen with technology companies. What these organizations found was that linear or stepwise growth was much more likely, despite initial success and traction in increasing their reach. This was true not just for local but also national organizations, which expected to see “many ways to reach many.” Instead, what they saw were many barriers, including difficulties navigating funding, recruitment challenges, competition for student time, district leadership transitions, and even changing federal policies. These challenges make it more important than ever for foundations to ensure that organizations have sound growth plans and the internal capacity and resources needed to scale before setting large-scaling goals. We put many of these organizations in our “Equip” stage and often focus funding specifically on the capacity-building that they would need to do before meeting their scaling goals. 

For research partners used to writing in academic language, it can be daunting to modify research into a shorter format and a more conversational tone without losing meaning and precision, our grantees found that it opened doors of possibility for them in terms of expanding their audience.

Best Mistakes

When I was first putting together my list of Best Mistakes from 2018, I was nervous about how the field would receive it. After all, it’s easier to pretend that everything is perfect rather than take a critical look in the rearview mirror. But after all the gracious feedback I received from both grantees and other funders, I decided this was a worthwhile annual exercise. So, in the spirit of transparency and learning, here is my list of 2019’s best mistakes.

1. Knowledge unto itself doesn’t drive behavior change. Investments in new research and knowledge products often have not translated into new practices and policies. These investments require intentional plans for dissemination and encouraging adoption by intended audiences. As a foundation, we spend about 20% of our grantmaking dollars funding research and evidence building. Still, often the partner or we are not clear about the end-goal—what we expect people to do with the new information and what changes will result. 

  • Being clear about the audience for the knowledge and what intended behavior change we expect to see, or how we would define success, is the best starting place.  
  • Defining the difference between knowledge and delivery systems can help us to bridge the gap between knowledge and how we expect that knowledge to be understood by audiences or beneficiaries. Understanding the existing behaviors, values, and motivations of beneficiaries can help to support and sustain behavior change towards more evidence-based practices. 

2. When it comes to research that finds null or adverse effects, a lack of clarity about our Foundation’s communications goals leads to confusion down the line. As a foundation that spends nearly 20% of its annual distribution on research, we haven’t done enough thinking about how to communicate findings with less-than-desirable outcomes. This year, we’ve run into this situation multiple times, and each time felt a little stuck about what to do. On the one hand, we didn’t think that it was appropriate for us to hurt a grantee by publicizing what can be seen as a “bad” result. But on the other hand, it is our job to share what we’re learning with the field to drive evidence-based decision-making.

After much consideration, we decided to take the following steps for all research that we fund:

  • Require all grantees to pre-register their research designs at an open registry such as the Registry of Efficacy and Effectiveness Studies (REES) and ClincialTrials.gov based out of the U.S. National Library of Medicine
  • At the beginning of all projects, work with grantees to set clear, agreed-upon expectations, including developing strawman communications plans for possible outcomes, including positive, null, and adverse effects

3. Trying to decide between dichotomies in education misses the point. Funding work that focuses on just social-emotional learning or academic learning is too narrow an approach. It’s become more apparent than ever that social-emotional learning and skills are not a trade-off with, but a pathway to, academic achievement. While it’s true that incorporating a social-emotional curriculum into the classroom can take some time away from academic subjects, multiple studies have found that students who develop social-emotional competencies receive higher grades and test scores. Social-emotional skills—like the ability to regulate emotions and build positive relationships with peers and adults—can lead to 11% gains in academic achievement, in addition to improved behavior and well-being. The student-centered schools we fund in the Innovative Schools portfolio outperform their local districts by 15% on average. 

Additionally, we’ve found that out-of-school STEM programs in the Inspired Minds portfolio often improve both social-emotional and academic measures, not just one or the other. These programs are in high demand by low-income and minority families. When it comes to math, they can successfully decrease the achievement gap between low‐ and high‐income students while improving work habits, increasing levels of persistence, and leading to better in-school attendance. 

We see other dichotomies continuing to take hold in education, overlooking the amplified impact we can see when both strategies are pursued together: Personalized learning vs. standards-based approaches, data for accountability vs. learning/improvement, top-down vs. bottom-up, and in-school vs. out-of-school. 

Based on Bellwether’s analysis of the existing evidence and learning science, interviews with over 50 stakeholders, and a closer look at 14 model schools, they hypothesized that there is a path forward that would help students who are behind not only get back on track but also gain grade-level knowledge. This evidence-based approach, called rigorous differentiation, would provide students instruction grounded in high-quality materials alongside differentiated support. In practice, students experiencing rigorous differentiation would:

  • Have equal access to grade-level work; 
  • See the coherence across different materials and learning experiences;
  • Be in an environment that fosters engagement and agency; and
  • Have a caring relationship with their teacher, with frequent 1:1 and small group learning opportunities. 

We believe this report is a significant first step in figuring out how to combine the benefits of high-quality instructional materials and personalized learning. As such, we are eager to continue an authentic dialogue with communities, curriculum providers, educators, funders, and researchers around a ‘both/and’ versus an ‘either/or’ vision.

Our goal as a team is to identify and invest in high-ROI opportunities towards and beyond high school readiness. The transition from middle school to high school is a pivotal moment in a student's trajectory.

Looking Forward to 2020 and Beyond 

Ever since I started working at Overdeck Family Foundation, we’ve been grappling with setting a meaningful way to gauge progress towards our organizational mission of opening doors for every child in the U.S. by measurably enhancing education both inside and outside the classroom. After learning from partners like Strive Together and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and looking to the evidence, our Foundation is excited to begin organizing our work around what we will define as “High School Readiness.” 

Our goal as a team is to identify and invest in high-ROI opportunities towards and beyond HS readiness. Why HS readiness? The transition from middle school to high school is a pivotal moment in a student’s trajectory. The evidence shows that 9th-grade achievement is a powerful predictor of HS success and, ultimately, college, career, and life outcomes. We have thus identified for our work a North Star of high school readiness comprised of academic and social-emotional skills and mindsets that will increase the likelihood of student success in HS and beyond.

To address high school readiness, we support students across several developmental stages of learning. We see the evidence base as robust and clear that the path to HS readiness begins as early as birth, following through to kindergarten and then middle school, and is influenced by factors both inside and outside the classroom. This is the rationale for our four key investment domains: Birth through age five (Early Impact), K-9 (Exceptional Educators and Innovative Schools), and out-of-school time, particularly as it relates to STEM (Inspired Minds).

We support organizations and researchers aligned with this goal by helping to develop and validate early-stage initiatives, as well as to scale evidence-based models. Ultimately, we see our responsibility as building a deeper evidence-base and developing new insights that fuel the adoption of cost-effective programs and solutions by the public sector and in communities across the country.

We also know that systems-change efforts are complicated, messy, and take a long time to manifest into results. We also know that systems need evidence-based providers of services and programs to reach families, parents, and children. Having one without the other offers only a limited perspective on how to make progress collectively. Given that we see an increasing focus among philanthropists towards a systems-based approach, and given our unique value proposition around data, evidence, impact, and scale, we expect to take a more focused venture-philanthropy approach in our work going forward. This approach will improve our ability to continue helping early-stage initiatives develop and validate their evidence base, while also providing funding to scale evidence-based projects. This shift will occur over the next year or so and will start with revised diligence systems moving into 2020. 

We are excited about what’s to come in 2020 and beyond, and we hope you are, too!