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SVP Reflects on an Extraordinary Victory

Posted by Social Venture Partners Portland

by Lauren Johnson & Mark Holloway

We just helped score a MAJOR victory for our community so we can’t help but take this moment to both celebrate and reflect–on how we got here as well as what the win means for our community, our SVP Portland Partnership, and even the broader SVP global network.

Related from The New York Times:
How an Oregon Measure for Universal Preschool Could Be a National Model

Ten years ago, we were doing great work in our community with organizations serving “children, youth, and families at risk”, our explicit grantmaking focus at the time. But we also realized we were failing the community one success at a time. Each investment was a point of pride for our Partnership, but it wasn’t “moving the collective needle” for children and families. We helped individual organizations improve their capacity and sustainability, but the goal was never collective capacity and sustainability to serve all children and families who need support in our community, so we never reached higher. That changed in 2010 when we pondered a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), which became a commitment to ensuring all children in our community are ready for kindergarten. We were unclear then where it would lead us, but we were very clear that we couldn’t keep doing the same thing. We needed to think and act more boldly in order to maximize the impact of our collective resources, power, and creative energy to make a deep, lasting difference.

Over the years, we began succeeding, one failure at a time, taking each step thoughtfully and learning from our mistakes. We paused grantmaking briefly to get clear on where our resources were best placed, which initially created confusion and anxiety about whether we would continue community investments. In 2012, we opportunistically responded to a community need to co-lead the Ready for Kindergarten Collaborative. While that sunsetted in 2014 to make way for a state-run early learning system, it resulted in two high-impact and scalable early learning strategies that were co-created by Collaborative members. We also waited for a state kindergarten assessment to provide the outcome measurements for our goal, only to have the assessment discredited by child advocates.

In spite of these twists and turns, we remained steadfast in our commitment to our long-term goal. As a partnership, we rose to each new challenge and seized opportunities to leverage our resources when the community needed it. We also became a bigger “WE” in the process. More Partners joined us, yes, but we also developed more authentic partnerships with the nonprofits we served. We learned that grantmaking and capacity building were not enough. That was a one-way relationship and transactional in nature. Consequently, we began inviting leaders from our nonprofit Community Partners into our decision-making. We shifted hierarchical due diligence about new investments to a trust-building conversation and co-developing proposals that served the larger community goal as well as the needs of a single organization. We intentionally worked to create bi-directional, transformational partnerships, which was not the easiest path but, ultimately, the one with the greatest potential for impact.

Deeper engagement with our Community Partner leadership also led us to the clear conclusion that trying to address the needs of all children and families would not be achieved by just building capacity with one organization at a time. Capacity building is a critical piece, without a doubt. Yet, public investment was also needed to provide the resources for all children to be Ready for Kindergarten. What’s more, it was clear that our focus needed to prioritize the children with the least support and highest barriers: children of color, children whose first language was not English, and children of families living in poverty.

Related from Vox:
What this Oregon county’s “preschool for all” victory means for child care in America

After several years working toward this community goal, having such a clarity of purpose and focus propelled our efforts perhaps more than any other factor. With the local Early Learning Hub, we began hosting visioning and strategy sessions with parents and community-based organizations about a public investment. We prioritized SVP’s support for communities of color and, specifically, the exceptional but under-recognized work of culturally-specific organizations. We extended our investments from two years to ongoing… as long as the organization is working together with us toward developing the capacity needed for the priority children and families. Latino Network, for example, has grown tenfold in both its budget and number of children served during our eight-year partnership.

Those decisions and actions propelled us because they helped us build trust and credibility with our Community Partners and the community at large. Philanthropy doesn’t often commit long-term, practice shared decision-making, or help organizations go beyond direct service to advocate for public policy and funding. Donors and foundations are rarely true partners with their grantees– listening deeply, acting with humility, and doing what is needed to make progress together.

SVP did just that. Our victory with Preschool for All – Measure 26-214 is not just a victory for the children and families in our community. It is a victory for grassroots policymaking that we originated and supported with United Way’s Early Learning Multnomah. It is a victory for parent accountability, which we started in the Ready for Kindergarten Collaborative. It is a victory for “patient capital,” which, as this article explains, takes “savvy, instinct, grit, flexibility, and persistence”.

The Preschool for All victory took time, testing, trials, and understanding our own strengths and weaknesses. After going as far as possible with community visioning and strategy development, as well as conducting national research on best-practices, it was clear that we needed an elected official to take the baton and run with it. Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson answered the call to do this, maintaining the commitment to co-designing the policy with a broad set of community stakeholders and maintaining accountability with parents. Moreover, she provided recognized public leadership and the ability to command the attention of “grasstop” leaders that helped move the policy to the voters.

In the end, the Preschool for All victory is really a victory for partnership. SVP has developed deeper and broader trust and relationships than we ever imagined in those first conversations nine years ago. Parents, grassroots advocates, and grasstop leaders partnered to develop comprehensive policy that encouraged going beyond what we thought was possible. Preschool for All partnered with Universal Preschool Now to create a much more robust campaign with complementary assets. We could go on with more examples–it was truly founded and won on partnerships.

These will serve us well in the next stage of Preschool for All and beyond. As all partnerships morph and change to meet the needs of the moment, so must we. SVP’s strength in building capacity and sustainability will be critical for ensuring there are preschool providers who are ready to serve more priority children with culturally-relevant, high-quality programming; that there is a racially-diverse and well-trained workforce; that there are safe, accessible places and spaces for children to live. Accordingly, we will continue to partner with Multnomah County to help develop the systems and infrastructure needed to serve all children within ten years.

Related from The Lily:
These moms fought for universal preschool in their Oregon county — and won

It is said that progress moves at the speed of trust. We have certainly built trust in the community and with one another at SVP. It’s time now to do what we also do best: leverage. It’s time to leverage our learnings, these relationships, and the momentum we’ve built. While we celebrate this milestone, we must continue driving toward our longer-term goal of ensuring equitable access to quality early learning. Public funding is a MAJOR victory and critical element for sustainable success. Still, as venture philanthropists, we must keep our eyes on the long-term goal and invest even more patient capital.

We need our Partners as much now as ever before. With our increased capabilities and capacities as an organization, we have increased responsibility to leverage those resources for maximum impact. We are ready to embrace the new challenge of helping to implement the Preschool for All plan, and in a way that no other community has done before: by centering racial equity. We are ready to embrace the new challenge of rebuilding after the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with justice as a foundational value. We look forward to working with you in this next phase of work and to celebrating once again when we finally reach our goal. Our kids, our future leaders, depend on it!

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