Funders and Service Providers Working Together in Networks

The efforts of St. Louis Graduates, a regional network dedicated to helping students get in, stay in, and graduate from college, were recently highlighted at the national Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference. St. Louis Graduates is a group of educators, funders, businesses and nonprofit providers (including Wyman) which has committed to a big goal:  50% of adults in the St. Louis Region will have a post-secondary degree by 2020!

St. Louis Graduates knew that realizing this bold goal would occur best through cross-sector cooperation and intentionally using a “network mind-set” to approach the work.  A network mind-set emphasizes collaboration, sharing of knowledge, acting collectively, and cultivating leadership and skills across the board, leading to stronger results.

At the GEO Conference, Deaconess Foundation, Wyman, and The Coleman Foundation, presented “The Key to Advancing Change is Building an Effective Network.” The session used two case studies – St. Louis Graduates and Intersect for Ability in Chicago, to discuss lessons learned about what it takes to initiate and sustain a successful network. Four essential success factors, and how they are evident within St. Louis Graduates, are explored below:

  1. An intentional process rooted in data and best practices is critical to keeping a network on track.  St. Louis Graduates commissioned the region’s first ever report on post-secondary attainment, and will publish an update in 2012.  St. Louis Graduates’ community plan is anchored in best practices in the college access and success field.
  2. A focus on relationships builds a strong foundation for a successful network. St. Louis Graduates has all involved parties at the table, and has taken time to discuss and clarify roles, responsibilities, and agreements to ensure an effective working network. Having funders and providers at the same table, in an equitable manner, provides for rich conversations, improving the understanding of the issues and work on both ends.
  3. Building momentum through action keeps people engaged, leads to further opportunities, and creates meaningful ways for organizations to collaborate. St. Louis Graduates has grown a concept for an initial scholarship excel database into an on-line scholarship application system that streamlines processes for students, and creates value and ease of administration for scholarship providers.

  4. Engaging all levels strengthens the network. While it is critical for leadership of organizations, foundations, educational institutions, and the business community to commit to the process, it is equally necessary to get front-line staff engaged and committed. St. Louis Graduates has effectively gathered staff from across college access organizations, universities, school districts, and youth development organizations for a Professional Development Institute – providing real-time best practice support for college access and success efforts – and meeting a real and stated need of participants.

A special thanks to Jane Donahue and Elizabeth George from Deaconess Foundation, and Clark McCain from the Coleman Foundation for their efforts in sharing these essential “lessons learned” to a national audience.

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