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The Root Cause Blog
23 Jul

Gaining a deeper understanding: an initiative for exploring social issues

Written by Stephen M. Pratt, Director of Consulting
Interview of Katherine Mchugh

One of the unique features of the Social Innovation Forum, our initiative for early stage nonprofit ventures, is the opportunity for grant makers to gain a deeper understanding of a social issue and the diversity of potential solutions to it. In 2011, the Cabot Family Charitable Trust used its sponsorship of the early childhood social issue track as an opportunity to learn about the issues, challenges, and opportunities in the field. We recently sat down with the foundation's executive director, Kathy McHugh, to reflect on the experience.

Q. How old is the Cabot Family Charitable Trust? How many generations of the family are involved in grant making?

A. The foundation was established in the 1940s by Godfrey Lowell Cabot. It began with one trustee, then two, then three lifetime trustees, and now six trustees as part of a long-term transition to term trustees. Three family generations are actively involved in the Trust's grant making as either trustees or members of committees.

Q. Historically, what have been some of the key social issues that the Trust has been interested in addressing?

A. In the early days, we made a small number of substantial grants to large institutions. As trustees were added, the size, number, and focus of grants diversified. In the past eight years, we've had a broad range of interest in areas like health, environment, arts and culture, education and youth, civic engagement, and most recently, early childhood education.

Q. What led to the Trust's interest in early childhood?

A. Shortly after I came on board as executive director in 2008, we engaged in a strategic planning process with the aim of deepening the impact of our grant making. The plan that emerged balanced the desire to go deeper with a more limited set of issues with the sense that engaging each generation in the family—and the diversity of social issue interests that they bring to the table—was a core value for the Trust. Early childhood offered us a unique opportunity to address both goals because the issue actually cut across most of our existing fields of interest, providing the opportunity for highly leveraged investments.

Q. What were some of the gaps in your knowledge as you were starting grant making in this issue area?

A. Earlier in my career, I had been an education program officer, so I knew the basic principles of laying foundation for academic achievement. What I didn't know was the preschool nonprofit industry—child care, preschools, family day care, and family social service agencies and programs. I also had some exposure to the issue of early childhood health but wanted to learn more.

Q. How did you use the Social Innovation Forum issue track the framework to facilitate your entry into early childhood grant making?

A. I knew I did not want to focus the track on early literacy because I was already pretty familiar with those programs and wanted to use the SIF track to learn more about areas in which I was less knowledgeable. We chose the area of family empowerment to care for children, with a focus on holistic childhood development within context of the family. SIF staff were great at talking that through with me and then writing up guidelines for the track that attracted a variety of applicants but also satisfied my need to learn more about the field.

Q. What did you learn in the process?

A. It was unusual because I cared more about the process as a learning tool than about the actual winner. I tried to be involved in the first part of process as we vetted a range of organizations and narrowed down the groups. What I got from that was a scan of the field, a sense of what the best work looks like, and a sense of what the organizations are that are doing the strongest work. My learning agenda was fulfilled by the time the organizations were narrowed down to the finalists. But I did participate in the final interviews and was completely wowed by Cherie Craft and Smart from the Start, the eventual Social Innovator for our track.

Q. What surprised you?

A. I was surprised at how I was able to form opinions about programs. After working throughout the process with the SIF experts, evaluators, and Susan herself, it became clear to me what a good program model looked like. When I started working in education philanthropy (bringing only my experience as a parent), it took me a long time to feel like I could read a request and know whether the program model was a recipe for success. I was able to get there faster with the jump start provided by the SIF process and team.

Q. Describe your early childhood grant-making program today.

A. We're trying to ramp up our grants in this field by giving our trustees a variety of programs and options to consider. Among the projects we're funding or have under consideration are infant and prenatal care, parental involvement, neonatal nurturing in hospitals, early parenting skills, capital improvements to early childhood centers, and educating family day care providers about environmental hazards in the home, as well as programs like Smart from the Start, the Social Innovator that we supported in the 2011 SIF class.

To learn more about the Social Innovation Forum, click here