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Special Report
Education Funding

Funders Giving ‘i3' Runners-Up Second Look

By Alyson Klein — September 28, 2010 5 min read
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Though nearly 1,700 nonprofit organizations and school districts spent hours filling out applications for the $650 million Investing in Innovation grant program, part of the economic-stimulus program, all but 49 applicants walked away empty-handed.

Now some foundations—with an assist from the U.S. Department of Education—are beginning to turn their attention to those that didn’t make the cut for federal funding this year.

Before the “i3” winners were officially announced in August, a group of foundations, including the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, of New York City, established a registry for programs vying for i3 grants. More than 700 applicants—the vast majority of which did not end up winning—submitted their applications to the registry, said Bibb Hubbard, a program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The registry was set up in part to give winning applicants a head start in securing a 20 percent private funding match, a requirement for receiving an i3 grant intended to scale up projects with promise for improving student achievement. Many of the winners were able to use the registry for at least part of the match, although a number found it to be less helpful than they had initially expected (“‘i3' Recipients Dash to Secure Private Match,” September 15, 2010.)

But another goal of the registry was to link promising projects, including those that may not necessarily have won i3 grants, with potential funders, Ms. Hubbard said.

The registry gave “philanthropic organizations greater access to different kinds of applicants who they traditionally wouldn’t have access to,” Ms. Hubbard said. And it helped applicants “discover foundations who may be aligned with their strategies that they hadn’t been aware of.”

In addition to providing matching funds to some of the 49 winners, Ms. Hubbard said the Gates Foundation will also be financing i3 applicants that weren’t tapped for the federal grants, but which have worthwhile projects and goals that match the foundation’s. She declined to list which programs the organization is poised to finance, saying details are still being finalized.

The Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va., is also combing the list of i3 applicants for strong programs with a rural focus that weren’t among the 49 selected by the department, said Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the organization.

The trust already provided some technical assistance to rural programs in developing their i3 applications, but will consider funding others, Mr. Mahaffey said. “The fact that [these organizations] didn’t win i3 doesn’t mean that their applications don’t have merit,” Mr. Mahaffey said.

The trust is hoping to focus on programs that were actually developed in rural places, he added, as opposed to taking models that were created in “suburban or urban settings and overlaid in rural places.”

In January, the Aspen Institute, based in Washington, is going to convene a summit on innovation that will include funders and i3 applicants that weren’t tapped by the federal government.

The event is aimed at connecting the two groups, and also exploring innovation in education in general, said Gary M. Huggins, the executive director of the commission’s

task force on the future of the No Child Left Behind Act, including “looking at ideas that perhaps didn’t fit the criteria of the i3 pool.”

Other foundations originally were using the registry to connect with winning applicants, but are now open to considering the rest of the list.

“We’re wiping the sweat from our brow now,” said George Soule, a spokesman for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The i3 winners had just five weeks to secure their match, putting deadline pressure on both programs and foundations. But now, he said, “we can be thoughtful without having the extraordinary pressure of a deadline.”

For its part, the Education Department is hoping to keep the i3 momentum going. The department plans to post all the nonwinning applications that received more than 80 points on the 100-point scale used to judge applications—163 programs in all.

And the department is heartened that programs and funders are connecting on their own.

“We understand from applicants and private funders that they are coming together to support a number of nongrantees to move their work forward, which is exciting for us,” Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the department, said in an e-mail.

The administration will also post on its Web site about 100 strong—but ultimately unsuccessful—planning-grant applications for the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps organizations develop comprehensive service networks for struggling communities (“Promise Neighborhoods Hopefuls Get First Round of Planning Grants,” September 29, 2010).

Fresh Contact

Some programs report that they already have been contacted by foundations from the registry.

New Visions for Public Schools, Inc., heard from one consultant working with a foundation on the registry, asking for more information about the organization, which submitted three separate i3 proposals, said Laura Garland, a development associate with the New York based nonprofit organization.

William H. Guenther, the president of Mass Insight, a nonprofit organization in Boston, said the registry “clearly provided air time across the major foundations for initiatives that might not otherwise have gotten attention.” Mass Insight sought $29 million for a validation grant aimed at ramping up its efforts at turning around low-performing schools.

Still, the hefty price tag for some of the proposals can make it tough for foundations to finance them as they were submitted to the Education Department.

For instance, a validation grant request of up to $30 million for programs with some track record would “take up more than half our budget,” said Denis Udall, a program officer with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif. “Therein lies the magic of the [federal] match.” (The Carnegie, Gates, and Hewlett foundations provide grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

And some applicants don’t have much faith that they’ll find help through the registry.

Dominic Belmonte, the president of the Golden Apple Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that works on teacher quality issues, said he’s pretty sure that the program’s singular focus on Illinois would put it out of the running for most foundation funding. Instead, Golden Apple is hoping for another round of the federal i3 competition. The Obama administration is seeking $500 million to continue the program next year and Congress is poised to come through with at least some of that money.

“We’re all waiting around seeing if the spigot is going to be open next year,” Mr. Belmonte said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week as Funders Giving ‘i3' Runners-Up Second Look

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