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Four Learnings from Our Portfolio Review

By Ali Miller, Learning and Evaluation Officer, and Loraine Park, Director, Learning and Evaluation

May 13, 2024

As part of our ongoing series highlighting how learning and evaluation (L&E) drives our grantmaking strategies, this blog post delves deeper into one aspect of the L&E team’s work—the Foundation’s portfolio review. Read on to learn why this strategic work is essential to advance ECMC Foundation’s mission, measure our impact and ensure systemic change in postsecondary education.

As we shared in our first blog post, our L&E team serves various roles in support of advancing our grants and investments, and importantly, all of our work reinforces ECMC Foundation’s stance as a learning organization. The L&E team takes a holistic approach and engages in learning and evaluation efforts at multiple levels ranging from case studies of single grants or grantees to clusters of related grants to reviewing our grants in totality. Our evaluation work conducted in collaboration with third party evaluation firms and by the L&E team utilizes information provided by our applicants and grantees as well as other data sources. We also share trends and the latest findings with the field and encourage our grantee partners to do the same.

This blog post delves into one of our core internal learning processes, our portfolio review—a periodic checkpoint for us to assess the trends and impact of our grantmaking.  

The portfolio review analyzes data from our grants management system to assess all our funding across different portfolios and strategies throughout the entire grantmaking lifecycle. By looking at this information in totality, we can observe patterns over time, see the impact of our grantmaking and further disaggregate data to better understand the organizations, institutions and learners we serve.

Once the information is collected and analyzed, we share it with the ECMC Foundation Board of Directors, and we also use it to spur conversations with our grantmaking team to validate trends, review how our grants are distributed and ensure they are working to fulfill our mission.

What are we learning through our portfolio review?

     1. One-third of our grants directly serve students.

Our grants support a wide variety of student populations and seek to address a range of issues within postsecondary education. Here’s what we’ve learned through our portfolio review:

While all of our grants center on student success in support of our mission, vision and North Star goal, about one-third of our grantees serve students directly—an overwhelming majority of whom are students of color and Pell eligible. These grantees who track student outcomes during the grant timeframe show that they are closing equity gaps in academic outcomes such as persistence and completion. The other two-thirds are projects with intermediaries, institutions or other organizations, whose efforts may not serve students directly but ultimately aim to improve higher education to better serve the learners of today and tomorrow, for example by growing knowledge, changing practices and building capacity.

The populations most frequently targeted by our grants include students of color, low-income or Pell eligible students, first-generation college students and adult learners. 1 ECMC Foundation also has two population-focused initiatives–one centered on men of color and the other designed to reach single mother students. As with all of our grants, these efforts reflect ECMC Foundation’s mission and North Star commitment to close equity gaps in postsecondary completion among underrepresented students.

     2. Our grants utilize different strategies to support underserved learners on the path towards degree completion.

Our portfolio review also includes case studies that highlight the range of grants we make and emphasize that there are multiple ways to demonstrate a project is aimed at achieving systemic change. For example, our most recent portfolio review highlights grantees Bottom Line and the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) to bring to life how direct-service and technical assistance grants may be applied.

Bottom Line partners with students as they get into college, graduate and pursue pathways to meaningful careers. They do this through an intensive one-on-one advising model. What started as a small local program serving 25 students in Boston, Bottom Line has grown into a national organization serving about 7,000 students in Boston, New York City and Chicago. Last year, the organization announced its Dayton, Ohio office would open in fall 2024. During the course of their grant, they supported 945 students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years (a 78% completion rate) and helped 529 students obtain a relevant career within six months of graduation. This grant demonstrates how we have supported scaling of impactful efforts so that more students may benefit.

IHEP’s Degrees When Due (DWD) initiative demonstrates a different approach to closing equity gaps in postsecondary education. During the grant period, IHEP provided technical assistance to more than 100 higher education institutions to re-engage students who left without their degree, particularly those who might be just a few credits or requirements short of a degree. Through their participation in DWD, Shasta College identified that the most common barrier for their some college, no degree population was a computer literacy requirement. Shasta College removed this requirement and instead added a computer literacy course as an option to fulfill a general education requirement. As a result of IHEP’s work, almost 70% of DWD colleges and universities reported that the initiative increased their institutional capacity to implement adult re-engagement. And nearly 40% of institutions had integrated degree reclamation into the job responsibilities of staff.

     3. Grantees leverage our funding to make a broader impact.

Another exciting result of the portfolio review is to see how grantees are leveraging our funding to seek and secure additional funding from other sources, including private funders and public dollars.

For example, one subset of 236 grantees2 that received a total of $97 million from ECMC Foundation went on to leverage an additional $238 million from other sources—increasing their funding by a multiplier of 2.5. Combined, this equals more than $335 million in total funding at work for our grantees and their projects.

We are particularly interested in leveraged funding because we recognize that our funding alone cannot sustain the important work of our grantee partners. The data from our grantee partners signals that they are amplifying and building upon ECMC Foundation’s dollars in order to have broader impact in the field.

     4. Our projects advance knowledge in the field.

Our portfolio review also helps us understand how our grantees’ work helps to expand and share knowledge in the field. We see our grantees as learning partners and most produce publications that provide valuable insights to others. For example, during a review period of nearly six years, 117 grantees3 produced a total of 356 key resources that collectively reached an impressive 6.3 million views. Sharing what our grantees are learning—both internally and with the field more broadly—has been a key part of our DNA as a funder since inception.

Overall, our purpose is clear: We regularly conduct our portfolio review to ensure that we have a good understanding of our funding, its impact and key trends—all of which can help us continuously improve our funding strategy as we work to eliminate equity gaps in postsecondary completion.

Our next blog post will discuss another aspect of the L&E team’s work: theories of action and how they support strategy, learning and communications.


1 Based on 153 monitored grants made between September 21, 2016, and November 15, 2023.
2 Based on 236 grants that submitted a Phase 2 report or Phase 3 final report between December 19, 2017 and November 15, 2023.
3 Based on 142 grants between September 21, 2106, and November 15, 2023.

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