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Tower, Learning Disabilities & the Phone Call That Got Us Started [Part 1 of 4]

2015-January 30
by Nick Randell, Program Officer

[Part 1 of a 4-part blog series on our introduction to the LD field]

I think we have been procrastinating a little bit when it comes to blogging about our first forays into grantmaking in the learning disabilities field. They did not follow a particularly straight path. This look backwards is going to require a series of blog entries. But the time has come. Let the story be told!

In late 2010, the Tower trustees decided to replace the existing education category with a new one - learning disabilities. There was a feeling that the education funding space was crowded, and that the Foundation's commitment to youth that face the steepest challenges would be better served by a focus on young people with neurologically ingrained learning challenges. Tower grantmaking would look closest at helping kids that struggled to learn not just because our educational systems need work (though we know that they do) but because the wiring of their brains gets in the way of effective intake, storage, and processing of information. These can be diagnosable conditions (dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD) or simply manifest as a failure to thrive in the classroom.

Facing a field that staff didn't know much about, we sought out the wisdom of the ages.  Yes, we GoogledTM. [We would have asked Siri, but she wasn't around at the time.] The Foundation Center's database helped identify several foundations that made grants in learning disabilities. There were surprisingly few -- like about three! -- that dedicated a quarter or more of their grant resources to the field. One of them looked promising -- The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation in New Haven, Connecticut. They had been awarding grants in learning disabilities for a dozen or so years. Maybe we could pick their brains. We picked up the phone.

That phone call in April 2011 proved to be a wise move. Stewart Hudson who took the call, then president of the Tremaine Foundation, first challenged whether we were really interested in the same population that they were.

The call went something like this:

Hudson:  Thanks for reaching out to us. You're probably interested in a somewhat different target population. But what do you really mean when you say "learning disabilities."

Tower (haltingly):  Something distinct from the learning challenges associated with autism, or other intellectual and developmental disabilities. More the neurological-based processing disorders like dyslexia.

Hudson:  Hmm. Maybe you are talking about the same group of kids. Though I probably wouldn't have used the word "disorder."  This is a population working through the stigma of learning struggles. They like to accentuate the positive. Many challenged learners have higher than average IQ's, and are highly creative.

Tower (hopefully):  Can you help us learn about approaches to effective grantmaking in this field?

Hudson:  Why doesn't Tower join our monthly roundtable conversations with two other funders that focus a significant percentage of their resources on LD. We share what we've learned about effective interventions, instructional approaches, public opinion, and collaborations in the field.

Tower:  Seriously?  That would be awesome.

From here, things happened pretty quickly. We did join those monthly phone calls, conversations that also included leaders from the Poses Family Foundation and the Oak Foundation. Within the year, we paid Stewart a visit at Tremaine Foundation offices in Connecticut and hosted him at our offices for conversations with our trustees. We have also learned a lot from Poses and Oak staff's expertise in the field. The Poses Family Foundation is behind the ambitious parent website that we blogged about recently.

Participation in the LD funders group was very helpful in charting grantmaking strategy.  We were also invited to participate in an annual retreat of select non-profits and other stakeholders that meet to strengthen connections in the field. We've participated for the last three years.

Fast forward about a year to the spring of 2012. While continuing to learn from our new friends in the LD funders group (a rather prosaic name, but it works), we started reaching out to the communities of Western New York and Eastern Massachusetts.  In preparation for actual grantmaking in LD, we conducted a series of focus groups to test some grant objectives that Tower trustees had drafted. We reworked these objectives with input from educators, parents, and, at a particularly lively session, with students from the Gow School in Wales, NY.

While we were feeling a little more comfortable about a funding cycle in LD (targeting a December 2013 launch), we still felt that we needed to learn more from non-profit providers actually working in our funding areas. So in August of 2013 we trotted out what we called the Tower Planning Study for Learning Disabilities. And that is the subject of the next blog in our LD series.

Photo by Alexander Kelly
Flickr: call for assistance 1 | 3570151488
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed


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