Executive Director’s Message

The vision of the Otto Bremer Foundation is explained in our Mission and Meaning statement. At root, our goal is to help the communities we serve become places where basic needs are met, mutual regard is prized and opportunities for economic, civic and social participation are within everyone’s reach.

This work is both art and science, and, as the trustees explained in their letter, learning supports both parts of the equation. I’d like to use this year’s message to outline a few ways learning takes shape at the Foundation.

Research and site visits

The Otto Bremer Foundation is a responsive grantmaker. Much of our learning happens through a combination of research and site visits in response to proposals that nonprofits send to us. Additionally, we pay close attention to the patterns of requests that come to us over time and across geography. We focus organization-wide learning on deepening our ability to respond in an informed, strategic manner to the key issues that emerge from those patterns. We engage in research on the web; we review data and reports issued by nonprofits, foundations, government and others; and we invite experts to meet with us. And then we share within our organization the key lessons that we are learning. We engaged in this type of learning on dozens of topics this year.

One example is in the area of job training. When we looked at patterns in our responsive grantmaking process, we saw that we received more than 40 proposals from throughout the region asking for job training funding in 2012. We knew we needed to understand which job training proposals would be the most fruitful investments for our communities. Based on our program officers’ research, our site visits, careful review of the literature, our learning in convenings and our work with other funders, we determined that the best job training investments are in programs that have:

  • Job quality. We see strength in programs that focus on high-quality jobs, which means jobs in high-demand occupations, jobs that pay a living wage, jobs that offer career pathways or ladders, and jobs that offer portable, industry-recognized credentials.
  • Employer partners. We see strength where employers provide input into program design, help programs stay abreast of industry trends and needs, and ensure that graduates will meet employer expectations.
  • Ability to address barriers. We see strength in programs that help job seekers address external and personal barriers through mechanisms including provision of assessment and screening, one-on-one support, social service referrals, “soft skills” training and post-placement support.
  • Rigorous evaluation. We see strength in program evaluations that include data on job placement, job retention and income growth. 
Once we engage in learning and develop a framework like the job training framework described here, we have a touchstone to refer to when we analyze future proposals. As we deepen our knowledge on a range of topics, our ability to make strategic decisions in response to grant proposals grows.

Convening

A second way of learning is through convening. In the past year the Foundation worked with local partners to try to better understand how post-secondary education in Minnesota can help improve the economic well-being of our communities. We started by reading key reports and talking with experts on this topic. Then we participated in convenings involving higher education officials, workforce development staff, economic development experts, K-12 education leaders and other leaders in three communities: St. Cloud, Marshall and Fergus Falls. We learned many lessons, including:

  • Completion of some post-secondary education—generally, at least a one-year 
certificate—is key to attaining a living-wage job.
  • Many promising students have difficulty overcoming obstacles to their 
participation in higher education, and personal and family financial challenges 
can impede college completion.
  • Many students who enter the higher education system need remedial or 
developmental education to become “college ready,” but this course work is 
expensive and generally does not earn credit towards certificates or degrees.
  • Good coordination between higher education and employers is key to job 
placement.

This information will help inform both our strategically responsive grantmaking and our choices about areas in which to focus in the future.

Evaluation

A third way we learn is through program evaluation. In 2011, the Foundation funded six grantees in a three-year effort to improve the safety and short-term stability of homeless youth in the Twin Cities. (See the fact sheet about our youth homelessness work). We asked evaluators Michael Quinn Patton and Nora Murphy to help these grantees—and eventually the field—understand how to do this important work in the best way possible. 

As part of this ongoing evaluation, participants developed in-depth case studies of fourteen youth who had each worked with several of the nonprofits and had had some measure of success in establishing stable lives that met some of their own key life goals. An analysis of the case studies is giving the nonprofits a remarkable window into what matters most to the youth. Although many of the nonprofits’ original hypotheses are supported by the evaluation research, they and we are gaining new insight into what is most critical to success from the youths’ perspective. This research will lead to an action plan that will likely include the development of new approaches to the work and new staff training materials for the six nonprofits; teaching throughout the Twin Cities youth homelessness community; and dialogue with the national evaluation community about how to support and assess work that aims to help homeless youth cross the bridge to safety, stability and success on the terms that matter most to them.

At the Otto Bremer Foundation we believe ongoing learning is critical to effective grantmaking, whether in response to individual proposals or to a specific area of focus shared by multiple communities. The more we can learn about what works to address our communities’ key concerns, the better we’ll do at supporting their ability to meet basic needs, enhance mutual regard and create opportunities that are within everyone’s reach.

Randi Ilyse Roth