Learning and Improving at Nellie Mae

Learning and improving comes naturally to us as humans. Healthy babies learning to walk get up after each tumble as they figure out how to steady themselves and move ahead. Our job in Nellie Mae’s Learning and Evaluation initiative is to lean into our inclinations to learn as individuals, and encourage learning to improve as a communal endeavor.

To that end, the Foundation has developed a framework for learning and evaluation. We’re seeking to become clearer and more intentional about what we want our grantmaking to accomplish and what we learn along the way about ourselves. We’re increasingly capturing the thinking behind our values and efforts, the specifics of what we are doing and what we’re figuring out. We owe this to the students in the region, and what we know from a range of reports, including the recent 50-year update of the Kerner Commission Report that finds equity of access and outcomes is not making the strides needed for all students to experience progress and success in school. It’s taking way too long.

Through our grantmaking, we are seeking to be more intentional, track and evaluate how we are doing, unpack the reasons for our progress and missteps, and apply our learning to our next efforts. We believe this will help us do better work internally, as well as with our grantees and partners who with us, work to increase college and career readiness, particularly for traditionally marginalized students and communities. Our grantees are critical partners in helping us reflect on how we are supporting them to do such important work. As we analyze our progress internally, we employ three levels of analysis:

· Monitoring: Across grant funds, we monitor progress through program officers engaging with grantees, grantee reports, and ongoing contact with intermediaries. These are regular components of grantmaking practices.

· Evaluation of Impact: Some grant funds are examined through project evaluations, synthesis of grantee reports, and evaluations of clusters of grants or overall strategy. A set of Principles of Evaluation guide our evaluation practices.

· Learning and Reflection About our Strategy: At this level, we examine the external environment and related data sources, systems change frameworks, and some broader evaluations that can inform our overall strategy or related clusters of investments.

These three levels named in the framework are essential, and data collection isn’t enough. We give meaning to our data collection through:

Practices that Build a Learning Organization: We know our efforts can only improve when we regularly track and measure progress, stop to reflect, and then do better (see Marilyn Darling’s piece on “emergent learning”). The Learning and Evaluation team, with colleagues within and beyond the foundation, is working to make learning an organizational priority — something that’s embedded in everything we do. We are developing practices and tools to support our analysis, reflection, learning, and continuous improvement of programs and broader strategy. Over time, we want to learn increasingly alongside grantees and partners.

Communications About Findings and Learning: As findings emerge, we are poising ourselves to support communicating about lessons learned, progress, and challenges both within NMEF and grantees, as well as audiences we seek to reach strategically. We are looking at how to share progress and lessons with different stakeholders and audiences, so that lessons we learn together can be applied broadly. We want to be more transparent and communicate more — this new blog series is a case in point.

Together, these practices poise us to be more thoughtful and reflective as a Foundation as one organization among many working on similar issues that advance college and career readiness. The findings of an equity assessment and a current strategy review process are helping us consider what it means for us to be rededicated to equity and more explicit about race, and we’re examining our organizational strategy through an equity lens. We’re eager to increasingly engage in applying learning to our work with you on behalf of New England youth. And we want to be ready for the next generation of young people as they learn to walk towards fruitful college and career experiences.

In this new Learning and Evaluation series, we will shed light on how different program officers see what we’re accomplishing, what we’re learning, and what insights inform future work.

Because we believe that data is power to learn and do better, NMEF is evaluating and tracking progress more than ever before.