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Still Reflecting: 2015 Highlights

2016-February 5
by Tracy Sawicki, Executive Director

In my last blog about the Foundation's "Year of Reflection", I committed to writing another blog about the Foundation's 2015 accomplishments. I thought a blog would be a great way to share highlights before the release of our Annual Review sometime in the late spring. Given Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow and spring is on its way, I thought I better get to this.

Last year, was an excellent year for the Foundation. In addition to awarding a significant number of grants, we took on a few new projects.  I referred to them as distractions in my last blog, but went on to say they represented some of the Foundation's best work. This was affirmed as I listed our 2015 accomplishments. The list included two projects I had in mind when writing the previous blog, and many more. Since I listed far too many to include in this post, I decided to share three accomplishments of which I am particularly proud. Here they are in no particular order:

There are many reasons the Learning Disabilities (LD) Grantee Convening stands out for me. Since joining the Foundation, staff thought it was important to bring grantees together for shared learning. We had lots of ideas, but the timing was never quite right. Other priorities called. This list goes on. However, all of this changed with a group of grantees selected for our Learning Disabilities Tower Planning Study. The Foundation asked seven organizations to submit three ideas for short-term projects that would advance the Foundation's priorities for young people with learning disabilities. Projects could cost no more than $50,000. The Foundation selected one from each organization for implementation.

The conditions and timing seemed to be right for our first convening. The number of grantees participating in the Tower Planning Study was small, not overwhelming. Each grantee had a specific project to present and they welcomed an opportunity to be with peers from across Tower's funding regions in New York and Massachusetts. The Foundation had built strong relationships in the Learning Disabilities field that we could leverage and the Board was very supportive of the effort. Staff saw the opportunity, jumped into action and the rest is history.

The convening took place last March in Buffalo. Grantees from Massachusetts joined the New York grantees for a day and a half. The staff worked to create a warm and welcoming space for our grantees, with time to deepen existing relationships and build new ones. We designed the convening in a manner supportive of many learning differences, doing our best to ensure that all could participate fully. Speakers, well known in the field, spoke about their work and learned about the work of the grantees. And, Foundation staff was able to thank grantees personally for supporting young people with learning disabilities and their families. It was incredibly gratifying to be a part of this experience and to offer this opportunity to our grantees. We learned so much from our grantees and look forward to doing this again for other grantees in 2017.

Over the past four years, the Foundation has been engaged with grantees in new and different ways. We involved grantees in focus groups, getting their input on the Foundation's goals and strategies. We invited grantees to beta test our new online grants system and we started spending more face-to-face time with our grantees and in Tower communities. We made these efforts, believing they would further bolster our grantee relationships, which were already strong.  The Foundation decided to bring in the Center for Effective Philanthropy to conduct a Grantee Perception Report to see if what we believed would happen really did.

I am proud to say the feedback from our grantees was very good. Grantees found staff approachable and supportive. They thought staff were knowledgeable and their technical assistance extremely valuable. I smiled ear to ear as I read through the Report. There it was, in black and white. Our efforts were having the impact we hoped. I am so very appreciative of our grantees completing the survey. We value your input very much. I want to acknowledge the Tower Team for its effort stewarding these important relationships. Is there room for improvement? Of course!  For now, I am going to take a few more moments to celebrate this accomplishment.

In December, the Foundation released its Capacity Building Scan focusing on the Tower Regions. This was another first for the Foundation. This was a project that grew into something a bit more comprehensive than what we imagined at first and I am really glad it did! The Report provided lots of information on capacity building efforts across the Tower Regions and funders and consultant perspectives on the topic. This type of scan had not been done before and our colleagues are finding it extremely useful. The Report completes phase one of our scan.  Phase 2 will conclude later this year with a Report providing grantee input on their capacity building needs and reactions to the first Report.  Stay tuned.

 I can't close without mentioning our grantees. They did some really interesting work and reported many successes. The Foundation values these partnerships and collaborative efforts that take place in service of young people and their families.  

2015 was a very good year and 2016 is looking to be a good one too.

 

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