Special Report

Event Aims to Leverage ‘i3' Competition Momentum

By Alyson Klein — January 18, 2011 5 min read
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Dozens of nonprofit organizations that narrowly missed out on a slice of the $650 million Investing in Innovation grant program may get a new shot at private funding, thanks in part to an event being organized this week by the Aspen Institute in Washington.

The event is seeking, in part, to continue the momentum that was spurred by the i3 program, which was created in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus program.

The competition, intended to help districts and nonprofit groups scale up promising practices, attracted 1,698 applications. Just 49 winners were awarded grants, announced last summer.

That left a lot of prominent runners-up, including some well-known education nonprofit organizations, such as New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based group that trains principals to serve underresourced communities, as well as large school districts, such as the 98,000-student Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, which includes Louisville.

Representatives from both Louisville and New Leaders are slated to attend the event, which also will include philanthropies and business officials. Executives from Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are scheduled to participate.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Jim Shelton, the assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, are also slated to speak.

Many i3 runners-up are excited about the line-up.

“I’ve written a lot of grants in my life, and no one has ever said, ‘Well, you didn’t get it, but here is the chance to talk to a large and deep group of policymakers, grantmakers, the for-profit world. … Let’s have a conversation and see where your ideas and your practice can move,’” said Mary Walsh, the executive director of City Connects, a Boston-based organization that promotes the integration of academics with support services.

City Connects came within a hairsbreadth of receiving an award of up to $30 million in the “validation grant” category, the largest set of grants and meant for approaches with research to back up their ideas.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Education isn’t playing a direct matchmaking role between the almost-winners and philanthropies, said Suzanne Immerman, the department’s director of philanthropic engagement.

But it has encouraged philanthropies and other funders to take a second look at all of the proposals that didn’t ultimately receive federal dollars through i3.

It has posted applications for the i3 program online, as well as those for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which provides grants for educational programs that offer comprehensive services that benefit children, such as health care and prekindergarten. The department also worked with philanthropies to create an online i3 registry, which is meant to connect funders and applicants.

Aspen Steps Up

Ms. Immerman credits Aspen with taking the concept “to the next level.”

Aspen invited 212 nonprofits, school districts and other i3 applicants who nearly made the cut to apply for a slot at the event. Of those eligible, 112 applied and 55 were selected. Aspen also invited another 50 innovative projects from outside the i3 applicant pool, including both nonprofits and for-profits.

When the Lotto in your state reaches nine figures, you play, because if you don't play, you're not going to win.

Aspen is also partnering with Investors Circle, a national network of more than 150 investors, professional venture capitalists, foundations, and others, as well as Startl, an organization in New York City that describes itself as a social enterprise dedicated to accelerating the growth of digital innovations for learning.

Organizations were invited to create booths at a “trade fair” where funders—both from the philanthropic and for-profit sectors—could ask questions and learn more about the organizations’ work, said Gary Huggins, the director of the Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan, independent effort dedicated to improving the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Beyond fundraising, the event is also intended to spark a broader discussion about how the philanthropic, education-redesign, and nonprofit communities can continue to build on the idea of innovation, spurred in part by i3.

Mr. Huggins said i3 “is not the solution but it’s a spark. The question is how can we really create an education marketplace? … There’s a chronic underinvestment in education from the venture capital world. As [school and state] budgets get thinner, we really need to attract that kind of investment.”


Still, revisiting the i3 process can be disheartening “for all us bridesmaids that didn’t get the funding,” said Dominic Belmonte, the president of the Golden Apple Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that works on teacher-quality issues in Illinois. The organization is seeking a grant to expand its training institutes beyond the Chicago area, into other high-need urban and rural areas in the state.

Mr. Belmonte was skeptical about the chances of securing funding at the event, but said his organization will make its pitch anyway.

“When the Lotto in your state reaches nine figures, you play, because if you don’t play, you’re not going to win at all,” he said.

Joel Vargas, a vice president at Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based organization that promotes new education and workforce strategies, said he’s hopeful that his organization’s high rating in the i3 competition by peer reviewers appointed by the U.S. Department of Education will serve as a seal of approval of sorts, even though the bid for a grant was unsuccessful.

“To come close is definitely good. … [It’s] at least implicit endorsement of strong ideas even though [the department] couldn’t fund everyone,” Mr. Vargas said.

It’s unclear whether i3, created as a one-time program under the ARRA, will be renewed for another year. The administration asked for $500 million in its fiscal year 2011 budget request to continue the program, but Congress hasn’t completed the legislation financing the U.S. Department of Education.

Even if there isn’t additional money in the budget for a second round of i3, the department is planning to apply some of the principles it used in structuring the competition to other programs.

Mr. Shelton of the Education Department described that approach as “more resources if you’re proven, less resources if you’re not.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Event Aims to Give ‘i3' Runners-Up a New Shot


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