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How ECMC Foundation’s New Strategically Responsive Grantmaking Team Ensures Funding Goes Where It’s Most Needed

By Jennifer Zeisler, Senior Program Director

November 15, 2023

Students walking on campus

When I joined ECMC Foundation in 2015, I was hired to lead the Career Readiness portfolio, one of the two (alongside College Success) focus areas. The portfolio focused on improving outcomes for students from underserved backgrounds seeking academic credentials awarded for the successful completion of postsecondary career and technical education (CTE) programs. I’m deeply proud of the game-changing investments we made under the Career Readiness strategy.

But when the Foundation launched the new strategic framework last year, we decided to dissolve the focus areas in favor of utilizing three strategic priorities to guide our grantmaking: removing barriers to postsecondary completion; building the capacity of institutions, systems and organizations; and transforming the postsecondary ecosystem. The new strategic framework builds on learnings from the Career Readiness and College Success teams, continues our focus on improving postsecondary persistence and degree completion, and furthers our commitment to advancing systemic change in postsecondary education. The shift in strategy also resulted in some internal shifts; as a result, I now oversee ECMC Foundation’s strategically responsive grantmaking portfolio and lead a team of program officers who manage a broad range of project-based grants.

Guided by the Foundation’s three strategic priorities, the strategically responsive portfolio positions the Foundation to remain open to the changing needs and opportunities identified by the field. In alignment with our commitment to maintaining a culture of curiosity, humility and responsiveness, we recognize the need to ask questions, invite feedback and lean into the experience and expertise of our partners. This orientation can be seen in our strategically responsive grantmaking—which makes up a significant portion of our annual grantmaking budget—and across all aspects of our work.

We also remain responsive to the field by maintaining an open letter of inquiry (LOI) process, allowing any organization, institution or system to apply at any point throughout the year. We believe the open LOI is an important element of being an equitable grantmaker: it ensures any potential grantee has access to us, even without powerful contacts or brand names. In fact, over the last five years, the foundation has received more than 250 letters of inquiry per year—of which more than 80% were unsolicited. Through this process, we’re able to learn about current challenges, identify innovative approaches and remain open to a broad swath of opportunities to affect meaningful change.

As with all our grantmaking, the strategically responsive portfolio prioritizes project-based and reform-oriented efforts and engages in regular learning and evaluation activities to understand our impact and inform future grantmaking. This can include identifying trends and incubating emerging priority areas. In fact, all of our current initiatives first crystallized through individual grants made over a number of years, and we see other themes beginning to emerge across our grantmaking.

Efforts funded this year through the strategically responsive portfolio range from implementing innovative approaches to scaling promising practices. Our grantees aim to improve outcomes for students attending community colleges and broad access four-year institutions, and their projects touch all aspects of the higher education ecosystem.

An important part of that ecosystem continues to be CTE. One example of our ongoing commitment to CTE is a 2023 grant to the Urban Institute ($750,000), which enabled the continuation of the CTE CoLab, an exciting project initially launched in 2020 with our support. Armed with learnings from the actionable research conducted during the CoLab’s initial phase, the Urban Institute and their coalition of partners are helping four community colleges implement and scale promising practices aimed at advancing equity and improving outcomes for students of color in online or hybrid CTE programs.

We are also continuing to fund several projects involving mentoring, advising and coaching, including a grant to One Million Degrees ($800,000) to support a mentoring expansion project through the City Colleges of Chicago, Illinois. The project is aimed at offering community college students comprehensive supportive services to help them persist through their programs and graduate ready to launch economically mobile careers. Made just this year, the grant will enable the organization to redesign its program and pilot an “opt out” model to ensure eligible students can access its support.

While grants focusing on postsecondary CTE and mentoring, advising and coaching build on the learnings from the Career Readiness and College Success portfolios, new themes, such as work-based learning, are also starting to emerge. The Northland Workforce Training Center ($402,875) in Buffalo, New York, is a great example. Its Earn While You Learn apprenticeship-to-degree program in Mechanical Engineering Technology is a five-semester credential, offered through SUNY Erie over two years, that allows students to attend classes while simultaneously being employed by a Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance partner company. With funding from ECMC Foundation in 2020, NWTC was also able to employ a full-time Apprenticeship Coordinator to coach students and ensure they can persist, graduate and move forward to their next steps. As the first cohort concludes this fall, the second is already well underway with real-time improvements made based on student feedback and with graduates soon to join the manufacturing workforce.

Whether or not each of these themes will develop into an initiative, they demonstrate a variety of possibilities, and we’re excited to see where this work may lead. Looking ahead, our approach is a testament to our belief that philanthropy’s power lies in our ability to take risks, evaluate and share our learnings, and inform systemic change.

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