Most foundations make grants with the idea to launch a new effort that then becomes a regular part of the organization’s operations.

That means a foundation spends a lot of time looking at just how committed an institution seems to be to an idea — or if it is just latching onto a project that it hopes will provide some quick money.

This can be difficult to judge, since the areas in which some of us work — the Teagle Foundation, for example, focuses on higher education — attract a fair number of people who are skilled in rhetoric and can write beautiful grant proposals.

But it’s possible to detect warning signals as well as hints that the organization is sincere in its efforts. 

For openers, foundation officials can look for an overlap between project participants and individuals with important leadership responsibilities — in the case of colleges and universities, faculty members and senior administrators. As for faculty participation, the involvement not just of individuals but also of academic departments is an encouraging sign. So are letters from presidents that are persuasively substantive rather than formulaic. 

Danger signs, on the other hand, include plans that involve simply adding courses or academic programs rather than transforming them. Also worrisome: plans that hinge on hiring an additional administrator or administrators. These are symptoms of a lack of serious strategic thinking, revealing a failure to understand that these are hardly times for adding to costs. Reports from grantees often note that progress on a project has been delayed because of the departure of a particular faculty member or administrator who was to play a key role. That’s also a warning sign of lagging commitment: No single person should be critical to a project that is truly meaningful at a large organization.

It is also a more generally unsettling sign of the times, in which we overvalue individual leaders and undervalue institutions. To be sure, leaders do make a significant difference, but to say that the arrival of a new provost or president means that all bets are off is to say that the institution has developed no clear sense of where it is going. To have an important project in the hands of one hard-to-replace person means that not much thought has been given to the how of the project or the what.

A Project Gone Awry

Two projects the Teagle Foundation supports, both focused on taking advantage of technology to share educational resources, illustrate how things can go right — and why they too often go wrong.

In one project, a consortium of five colleges sought to develop hybrid courses that would allow them to expand their offerings to students and use their teachers more efficiently. After some effort, the five mathematics departments participating in the pilot agreed on the curriculum for a shared algebra course. 

One institution, however, withdrew from the project early on when the provost made administrative changes that posed a barrier to the newly developed course’s format getting approval for credit. Another institution decided that the course did not, after all, fit into the curriculum. At a third college, students were forced to withdraw from the course just a few weeks into the semester because administrators were uncomfortable with the hybrid format.  

Clearly, the provosts and department chairs at each institution had an uneven commitment to the project. Glitches that developed early became obstacles rather than challenges that could be creatively solved. Not surprisingly, the colleges lost trust in one another and in a promising pedagogical experiment. 

Success Story

Consider the experience of another consortium, this one interested in using online resources to expand opportunities for undergraduate research and to extend the range of faculty expertise available to students. The consortium initially envisioned a research "exchange" in which a central coordinator linked faculty and students with shared research interests to collaborate, even if they were not at the same institution. Initially, however, very few productive faculty-student pairings resulted from this approach, which demanded a great deal of maturity from undergraduates navigating research opportunities with mentors at other institutions.

The consortium then decided to enlist teams of faculty to lead intensive seminars with students from multiple campuses; students engaged in research drawing on local or regional archives and made their findings available in digital formats so they could always be accessible to local residents.

For instance, a seminar to mark the centennial of World War I involved students conducting research on their region’s engagement in the war effort. They used digital resources they developed to share their work both with fellow students and people who live near the campuses.

The combined seminar-research format ultimately involved over 15 campuses. The approach worked so well that the consortium board voted to reallocate resources from its budget to continue support for the program, allowing it to continue without any need for philanthropic money.

Long-Term Support

To be sure, there are times when foundations want to provide regular support to a nonprofit over the long term. At Teagle, for instance, we have long-standing relationships with a group of community organizations that help students who might not otherwise get access to outstanding liberal-arts colleges. The long-term support we provide has allowed these organizations to improve their planning and performance.

With each grant cycle, we convey our belief in the future of the projects. We consult with grantees both on their programs and on their finances and encourage them to develop new sources of revenue. Several of the programs have demonstrated promise of sustainability; in one case, a collaborating college is establishing an endowment for the program. 

Had the foundation discontinued support within one grant cycle or even two, these partnerships would probably have ceased to exist rather than pursuing their goals with increasing effectiveness.

Any project that relies on foundation support inevitably experiences challenges. Grants are not contracts, and foundations must take risks if they expect to bring about real change. But it’s worth remembering that foundations mean it when they say they want partnerships and transformative change. We can’t waste our money on institutions that aren’t committed to making a real difference with our dollars.