What’s Next For The Nellie Mae Education Foundation?

Last month, I announced that the Nellie Mae Education Foundation would be starting a review of our organizational strategy, coupled with the development of a refined strategic direction.

Traditional strategic planning processes at foundations often go something like this: the doors are closed, communication is paused, some grantmaking may be stalled, and months later, the organization announces a new strategy.

As we move forward with our own strategy process, our intention is to avoid such a design. In fact, it’s my hope that our process is distinctly different.

In the coming months, I plan to share regular, public updates on our strategy process through this blog. I hope to call on others — both staff and external partners — to share their thinking about our process as well through this forum.

In the past eleven years that I’ve been President & CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, I’ve had the privilege of working with many organizations and districts across the New England region who are rethinking where, when, and how learning happens. When Nellie Mae announced its commitment to advancing student-centered approaches to learning in 2010, we outlined a vision of the region where all learners would gain the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to succeed in college and career. And in 2015, we set an ambitious goal of 80% college and career readiness for all New England learners by 2030.

We are excited to see the scaling of student-centered practices and uptake in conversation around personalization throughout New England and nationwide. Yet too often the spread of such practices is not defined by rigorous or equitable distributions. We believe that high quality renditions of equitable, student-centered learning are critical to preparing students for college and career. However, we know that if we truly want to prepare all of New England’s students to succeed, we need to focus on where the need and opportunity gaps are. This means thinking more deliberately about how our organization serves low-income students and students of color.

We have always known that we can’t come close to reaching this goal without others. In fact, reaching our readiness goal is dependent upon our partners across many sectors. Over the past year, our organization has been deeply immersed in a racial equity assessment process. This process, in conjunction with what we know around progress towards our readiness goal, the momentum and spread of student-centered practices across the region, input from our partners and grantees, and direction from our Board, has led us to start a strategy review process earlier than anticipated.

Our racial equity assessment has started with a look in the mirror. With the support of Maggie Potapchuk of MP Associates, and Gita Gulati-Partee at Open Source Leadership Strategies, we’ve learned that we need to be more intentional in seeking the consultation and advice of those organizations, schools, districts and communities we seek to support. This will be a guiding principle moving into our strategy process.

Our organizational strategy process will build directly upon the self-examination that we’ve done through our racial equity assessment. We plan on continuing to reflect upon the ways that racial equity plays into our work and organizational culture through continuous learning. My hope is that prioritizing a focus on racial equity is front and center for our organization, and for our staff personally.

Over the next year or so, we’ll be partnering with the TCC Group to review our organizational strategy. With the right combination of technical expertise in unpacking a strategy, a strong equity focus and acumen of their own, and knowledge of the education landscape, we are excited to begin this journey with TCC as partners. We will be working with them to design a process that invites community input and listening to ensure that our work is driven by the needs of our region.

As I noted in my announcement of our strategy process, we are adjusting our immediate work in some initial ways to enhance a focus on equity. While we are eager to begin this journey, we are cautious to let our eagerness outpace the internal learning we need to do to best support our work.

We want to ensure that our organization has the necessary perspectives and competencies to advance this work with efficacy. Philanthropic organizations are rooted in the historical and racial inequities stemming from white privilege and power, and profits reaped from those less privileged. This is not a new or original insight. But what is new is our own organizational commitment to address these issues.

We want to know what you and others think about the critical inequities related to graduating all high school students prepared for college and career, and what you think it means for a funder like us to be explicit about racial equity.

I hope that this process will lead us to reassess our current organizational frame through the lens of racial equity. I also hope to build stronger relationships with others focused on the similar priorities. The work of social justice and educational change is too complex and important to attempt in isolation.

Our future strategy will build on these efforts as we work to grow our own capacity around racial equity, with the intention of supporting our region’s students to contribute to their communities as well-prepared community members and civic leaders.

I welcome your comments and reflections on these blogs by commenting below or emailing info@nmefoundation.org.