A Conversation on Regionally Focused Work

Voices December 10, 2019

A Conversation between Nancy Roob and Blue Meridian’s Regional Partners: Rhett Mabry, President of The Duke Endowment and Ken Levit, Executive Director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Nancy Roob: What does partnering with Blue Meridian bring to your regionally focused work?

Rhett Mabry: Collaborating with like-minded philanthropists challenges us to improve and expand our thinking for how best to achieve impact. Some of the most significant investments The Duke Endowment has made to help vulnerable children in the Carolinas were identified through our relationship with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and now Blue Meridian Partners.

Ken Levit: The wide variety of initiatives supported by Blue Meridian, not to mention the team’s decades of experience working to create greater opportunity for young people in this country, has created a very special learning environment for us.

Nancy: At the same time, the local expertise and deep relationships you have with leaders and nonprofits in Tulsa and the Carolinas ground Blue Meridian’s investments in communities in ways that would otherwise be challenging, if not impossible, for a national philanthropist.

Ken: There is a nice chemistry to the mix of our two approaches. We [GKFF and the Duke Endowment] are aggregating multiple, complementary programs and testing them through on-the-ground trial and error and course correction. Blue Meridian brings the expertise and experience in conducting rigorous, patient landscaping and evaluation of each standalone program. Ultimately, the pairing of a national investor with an on-the-ground implementer can create something more than the sum of the parts.

Nancy: Are there any lessons learned you can share from our work together thus far?

Rhett: National evidence-based programs sometimes struggle to achieve even greater scale and sustained impact because they fail to integrate locally with other nonprofits in the community or local systems like health and human services and schools. Too often, these evidence-based programs operate in isolation, and this fragmentation mitigates their impact on the community and potential to serve as a catalyst for change.

Ken: Even the best national program cannot just parachute into a community and expect success. Basic relationships, not to mention the routine blocking and tackling of execution, matter as much as whether an organization can boast a positive randomized control trial or has seen success in another place.

Rhett: We’ve also learned that evidence-based programs need to innovate. Technological advancements, changing societal norms (e.g., fewer mothers who smoke) and the need for improved efficiencies to drive down costs require measured adjustments that can enhance the model without compromising core components.

Nancy: That’s what we so appreciate about our partnership – the learning that comes  being able to support the tremendous work happening on the ground in Tulsa, Guilford and other communities across the country, which serve as the engines for change and speak to the critical importance of comprehensive, integrated strategies that are deeply owned by local constituencies.

Ken: Right. No one single program is enough to make a major difference in dealing with an issue as large as poverty or as complex as equal opportunity. These are difficult problems and require comprehensive, integrated solutions. We have come to rely more on the notion of knitting together several evidence-based and other approaches rather than simply scaling any one intervention.

Nancy: What advice have you received from other place-based strategies emerging around the country?

Rhett: We studied efforts across the country, including Harlem Children’s Zone, StriveTogether Communities, Purpose Built Communities and Able Learning Communities. The message from each was clear: listen to the people who live there. As the saying goes, culture trumps programs — even national evidence-based ones — so we must earn and keep the community’s trust by valuing its voice.

Ken: Even neighborhoods that are most distressed have pre-existing and longstanding communities of support, assets upon which to build and histories of resilience and strength. When one comes in from outside the neighborhood, it’s important to join from a place of respect.

Rhett: This is an intricate task; we’re working hard to earn trust in Guilford by strengthening the backbone organization Ready for School Ready for Life — which local leaders created and use as a platform to pilote initiatives for years, being transparent in our communications, and being visible and present in the community.

Ken: In Tulsa, the BEST effort has worked hard to get a large share of community players aligned to the objectives of the strategy. And Harlem Children’s Zone and its success is a powerful reminder that these efforts, even under the best of leadership, take time, require constant shifts and always have setbacks.

Nancy: Clearly you have been taking their advice to heart. I know how much I have personally learned over the last 20 years or so from Geoff Canada and his work in Harlem. And there is so much to learn from other communities across the country, including from your efforts in Tulsa and Guilford County as they unfold.

Learn more about Blue Meridian’s current regional investments.


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