For the past three years, the New York Life Foundation and City Year have partnered to build a standard, scalable afterschool program across City Year's network in 28 U.S. cities that helps to prepare middle school students for the transition to high school and provide them with additional supports designed to increase academic achievement, attendance and engagement. At this year's Yale Philanthropy Conference, Marlyn Torres and Sheryl Boris-Schacter shared details about their unusually honest and open collaboration that has fundamentally changed the way City Year serves students in afterschool programs. Below are highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and length.
How did your collaboration require the nonprofit and funder to act differently than they had in the past?
SBS: From the outset, City Year focused on having an open and honest dialogue with New York Life throughout the duration of the three-year grant about our challenges, successes and learnings from the field. We knew that our content varied greatly from site to site, resulting in an inconsistent experience for students and a heightened level of stress for City Year AmeriCorps members because of all they had to create. Sometimes, it can seem daunting and risky to share challenges so openly with a funder, especially in the early stages of a partnership. But with the New York Life Foundation, we knew honesty was imperative if we were going to be successful in creating a menu of vetted curricula options and developing a national standard for afterschool program delivery in middle schools – outcomes that were very important to both organizations. The approach paid off: City Year believes that our work together has improved the quality of our afterschool programming and the impact on students. We are so appreciative of the time we were given because of the partnership funding to thoughtfully plan and pilot programming and structure to better serve our students.
MT: As a funder you always have to be aware and sensitive to the power dynamics that exist in a funder-grantee relationship. Part of my role as the Senior Program Officer for the Foundation is to create and foster open and honest communications with my grantee partners. As a funder, it is my responsibility not only to create a "safe space" where grantees know they can speak honestly, but I also strive to create a "brave space" where grantees know it’s okay if things don’t go as planned. What's important is that they know they are in a partnership and we will work together to make adjustments that are needed as a pilot or program is being implemented. It’s important to be flexible, continuing to work toward the same goals but perhaps altering the path along the way.
How did City Year share its challenges with New York Life Foundation?
SBS: City Year was willing to be powerfully vulnerable about our starting point as an organization – we were not where we wanted and needed to be. One of the first things we did was invite New York Life to participate in an afterschool focus group in Boston in 2014. We had candid conversations with afterschool representatives from across the City Year network about what was going well, what the challenges were, and where there were opportunities to improve our programming and the AmeriCorps member experience. Building on that strong start, we continued sharing along the way: instead of following the more common bi-annual reporting cycle, we provided in-depth updates about the pilot curricula we were running in several sites, the framework changes we were making, and the learnings from the field about best practice
Because of our open communication, we were able to make several changes in the second year of the partnership. One of the biggest was a shift in how we collected site feedback. In the original grant, we had proposed three observation sites and 10 to 15 schools where we would test the curriculum. But we realized we needed to streamline our operations in order to gain deeper and better feedback from the field, so we shifted to six sites for observation and selected four schools at each site to pilot the curriculum. We also decided to include one high school from each site in the pilot to inform our high school after school model and collect feedback about the transition of middle school students to high school. This was an adjustment to what was originally proposed and allowed us to expand our work into an area of great interest to both City Year and the New York Life Foundation.
MT: We were able to discuss challenges as they came up throughout the process and talked through proposed next steps. For example, last fall, City Year made a change to a pilot site's participation when they did not meet the student enrollment goals or the implementation requirements, which sometimes happens. They proposed to repurpose the pilot funds to cover additional afterschool training for the City Year network, and we were fully supportive of that change. It is important to learn from what's not working. If some initial assumptions don't prove true, then you need to be able to recognize this and be agile and propose other alternatives that will make the program stronger and more successful in the long term.
SBS: Our goal was to create a national standard for City Year afterschool programs for middle school students, and we needed support for developing a broad mission, building out enrichment areas, developing a menu of curriculum options that sites can choose from, and establishing cohesive frameworks for After School program components. The collaboration with the New York Life Foundation greatly enhanced our capacity in all of those areas. Much of our work was informed by the national Peer Learning Group meetings that New York Life hosted from 2014 – 2106, our City Year After School focus group, and our ability to authentically share what we were learning on an ongoing basis with Marlyn and her team.
MT: We decided to convene a Peer Learning Group of all of our education grantees who are leaders in the out-of-school time space and youth development fields. This Peer Learning Group created opportunities for these providers to share resources and best practices and create a network they could call on when they needed insights into program planning and evaluation. The Group helped us to learn a lot about the challenges encountered and the great work our grantees do every day, and it helped to inform our grantmaking in the out-of-school-time space focused on middle school students.
SBS: As we near the end of the three-year grant, City Year is proud of the tremendous progress it has made in building a sustainable, high-impact afterschool program in the middle schools where we serve. We could not have done it without the significant investment from the New York Life Foundation and the invaluable partnership support from their team. We are excited about the opportunity ahead to continue to build on the strong framework we developed for afterschool and continue to refine and enhance our program to deliver value to students. Although our first iteration of the curriculum menu is being released to the school teams in the new school year, it is a strong foundation for ongoing work, not a complete or static resource.
Has there been a long term effect on the nonprofit and funder, both in terms of the program and the way they work?
SBS: The progress that City Year has made over the past three years in developing a standard middle-school afterschool program has fundamentally changed the way that City Year serves students in afterschool. The New York Life Foundation's support has been instrumental in allowing City Year the critical design time to build a thoughtfully conceived and executed afterschool program, and it will have an impact on City Year's program for years to come. The Foundation is unique because it recognized how essential this planning time is to building a sustainable program. The grant structure and partnership that we developed together allowed City Year the time to do this.
The collaboration and open dialogue with New York Life throughout the process is a model for our partnerships with other funders, particularly when it comes to supporting national capacity projects such as afterschool program development.
MT: City Year has a large footprint with programs across the country. Supporting their efforts to strengthen and expand their afterschool programs will help thousands of disadvantaged youth. Also, as a leader in the youth development field, City Year is looked to by other organizations. Providing City Year with the tools to improve their afterschool programs also provides best practices to the field at large, further leveraging our investment and helping even more children to reach their full potential.