Failing Forward: Engagement Innovation

Reflect | Analyze | Plan

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) believes that strong nonprofit partners are critical to Arkansas’s success. Investing in the capacity of people, organizations, and nonprofit infrastructure is as important as programs and policies to increase prosperity, increase educational attainment, and strengthen communities.

A critical way to transform families’ lives and communities has been to increase access to individual savings. The Foundation began investing in education savings in 1999, when the Foundation supported Southern Bancorp as the lead advocate to create a state-sponsored Individual Development Account (IDA) program. IDAs were designed as matched saving accounts to help families with modest means save for a major asset, in this case, college tuition.

What was our role?

Recognizing the importance of saving for education, the Foundation provided grants for research and development of Youth IDAs and Children’s Savings Accounts as vehicles for Arkansans to build long-term assets for college completion. Going into the grant, WRF believed it would yield positive results for college- bound students and strengthen the field through data showing efficacy.

To identify an effective model for increased use of education savings, WRF provided $100,000 to support a demonstration project conducted by the Economic Opportunity Agency (EOA) of Washington County and the University of Arkansas (U of A) School of Social Work. This 2012 project was intended to increase postsecondary educational opportunities for racially and ethnically diverse high school students in Northwest Arkansas through IDAs. An incentive was created through available matching dollars for savers. The partners were strategic and well-resourced. But midway through the project, it became clear the project wasn’t working.

How did we fail?

Over two years, the EOA demonstration project served 17 people, and the U of A School of Social Work helped eight students open savings accounts. But only four saved enough to receive matching dollars. WRF split the project between these two organizations, but neither directly served students. Though both partners were respected, they did not have strong relationships with high schools and, therefore, struggled to build trust and networks with teachers, administrators, and students. The problem was not necessarily related to the program or the partners but with the capacity of the organizations carrying it out. “We thought of it like a ‘Field of Dreams’ situation—if we built it, people would come,” explained Cory Anderson, WRF executive vice president.

The U of A School of Social Work thought critically about why the project failed and documented lessons learned. At a cost of $4,000 per savings account, the program was unsustainable without significant change. Researchers found that the initiative did not reach students early enough to give them adequate time to save, did not do enough to build community trust, and did not effectively engage parents or inform them about the need for higher education and training for their children.

WRF took a risk and embraced the resulting failure as an opportunity to learn. The U of A School of Social Work was a great partner for expertise and analysis, but the Foundation realized that the project could have had a very different outcome with additional internal capacity and partnership with an organization that could effectively engage the community. When a new opportunity arose, the Foundation was ready and equipped with a new strategy.

In 2015, WRF awarded a $13,000 Capacity for Change (CFC) grant to the U of A School of Social Work to build capacity for community-based partnerships and to develop a new Children’s Saving Account program for immigrants in Northwest Arkansas. Simultaneously, the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese (ACOM), the first nonprofit led by and serving the Marshallese community in Arkansas, approached the Foundation for support. With a $30,000 CFC grant, WRF built ACOM’s capacity to engage the Marshallese community with the addition of a strategic plan and a formalized stakeholder network. ACOM and the U of A School of Social Work were able to build on each other’s strengths and served as ideal partners.

According to a 2010 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Marshall Islands represented the fourth-largest country of origin for Arkansas foreign-born residents. Marshallese individuals were drawn to Springdale for educational and employment opportunities. The unique background of the Marshallese population, their concentration in the Springdale area, their contributions to the local workforce and economy, and barriers to integration made them an ideal community for investment.

The U of A School of Social Work was able to lean on ACOM to connect people to the new savings program and provided the reputational capital to engage the community. ACOM worked with the U of A School of Social Work to design a savings program that fit the need, and the Foundation served as a broker for the relationship, a catalytic funder, and advocate to let the community partnership blossom.

Yvette Murphy-Erby, U of A vice-provost for diversity and inclusion, said, “The Foundation’s process and commitment to using lessons learned from previous

efforts set the stage for success.” This new partnership had greater capacity and energy that helped partners leverage a $250,000 grant from the United Way of Northwest Arkansas.

Later that summer, on the first day ACOM and the U of A School of Social Work launched the new Children’s Savings Account program, Marshallese families signed up for all 200 available slots. The U of A School of Social Work presented a report and preliminary research on the project at the Gathering for Pacific Islander Health in Hawaii that October. As of March 2018, 195 of the families who signed up for accounts completed all required paperwork and began saving.

What We Learned

  • EMBRACING RISK IS NECESSARY. Investment in a new idea combined with openness to keep trying made it possible to bring in new partners able to engage the right community.

  • PATIENCE IS IMPORTANT. It took time to explore a possible opportunity to make it the right one for children and families.

  • PARTNERS NEED THE RIGHT SKILLS. Partners needed to develop the right skills, and it took a new organization joining the partnership to drive change.

  • TRUST MAKES CHANGE POSSIBLE. A community-based organization with local relationships was necessary to build a grassroots


FailingForward-blogImg2.png (1)

Our Moving the Needle story doesn't end here. We invite you to read Looking Back, Failing Forward to join us as we examine lessons from our failures and continue to make progress toward our founder's vision of a thriving and prosperous Arkansas that benefits all Arkansans.