by Jeanna White
Since its beginning in 1998, the Mebane Charitable Foundation has focused on a complex, deeply-rooted problem: literacy. The Foundation resolved to do everything in its power to ensure that all children, regardless of their background, will be reading at or above grade level by the end of the third grade. Research consistently shows that these children are vastly more likely to succeed in school. And a child who succeeds in school is more confident and more likely to succeed in work and in life.
Over the past 16 years, the Foundation has invested more than $7 million in literacy intervention partnerships. Those partners have included public school systems, traditional public schools, public-charter schools, private schools, and other literacy-focused organizations. While some interventions have worked better than others, all have provided valuable data, metrics and research results.
Realizing the value of being able to quantify the effectiveness of each project, the Mebane Foundation recently developed a series of metrics that will help it prioritize its investments and maximize its impact. This year, the Foundation will begin applying those new metrics to its largest grant to date: $2.5 million to Davie County Schools to support a five-year early literacy initiative to improve kindergarten readiness and to increase the percentage of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation, explained the new metrics and how they will guide the Foundation’s future endeavors.
Q: The Mebane Foundation has made significant contributions to literacy initiatives for the past 16 years and has achieved great success. Although many project results have been anecdotal, why develop specific metrics now?
Through the years we know we’ve partnered in some great work and had good success helping children, but as an organization we felt it was time “to move the needle”. The only way to do that is to measure growth, and without achievable and tangible metrics, how can we know whether we’re truly moving in the right direction? Well-defined metrics will also allow us to tweak our approach throughout the process. If we expect potential partners, like other school systems, foundations and political leaders to someday replicate our work, we need to be sure we can prove how we achieved our success.
Q: What are the performance metrics the Foundation has adopted to assess its work? How did the Foundation arrive at the specific metrics being adopted?
In the fall of 2016, the Mebane Foundation board went through an extensive exercise that led us to a consensus on what metrics we should hold to for years to come. First, we wanted to continue to engage other partners, whether that meant peer foundations and corporate funders, or political and educational partners at the local, regional, and national level. Secondly, we wanted to look at our funding decisions more closely through a financial lens. In order to maximize our impact, our decision-making process will now be driven by the number of children served, the predicted growth, and the program costs. Finally, we decided we wanted to “popularize” what we do with our partners. We see this as a win-win: the partnering organizations get great exposure and we get the opportunity to share ongoing best practices with peers in our educational space.
Q: What do you anticipate the impact of these metrics will be for the Foundation?
For the Mebane Foundation, these metrics put us out there in front of our peers and enable us to share valuable information and ideas. We no longer want to operate in a silo. These metrics allow us to evaluate and validate what we’re doing.
For the grantee organization?
We see the same benefits for our partners. Our metrics also will help them evaluate and validate their success.
At the end of the day, it’s all about offering every student the best opportunity to succeed. Our metrics are not meant to be intrusive and create more work and tests for our students and teachers. Our main goal is to add support so that they can perform to the best of their abilities. Metrics are a necessity, but they shouldn’t make the task at hand more difficult. On the contrary, the metrics should serve as a guide for our students and teachers.
Q: Why did the Foundation provide such a generous grant to Davie County schools? What does it ultimately hope to achieve?
We have a strong history with Davie County that has been forged over many years through multiple partnerships. This project is a huge undertaking that will require a strong partnership built on trust. With everything we’ve been through together over the last 15 years, and with all the assets remaining intact, we couldn’t think of a better place to tackle these aggressive goals and metrics.
Q: How does the Foundation envision its future? What would it like to be doing in 5 years? 10 years?
Five to ten years from now, I hope to see us funding similar partnerships to the one with Davie County Schools. That would mean it was a success. We will know the number of children served, the growth achieved, and the cost. Armed with that knowledge, I would anticipate that other systems and partners will be willing to take a similar approach. It is our hope that the Mebane Foundation will continue to be a catalyst for excellence and innovation in early education for many years to come.