What’s next for GAR Foundation?

June 05, 2017

Back in March, we shared the news that GAR Foundation will be narrowing its focus with the goal of deepening our community outcomes.  By this we mean that with a portion of our funds, we seek to do fewer things better, to go deeper in a small number of high-priority areas, driving toward root causes and systemic solutions, rather than short-term solutions.

Over the last year, we engaged in a strategic planning process to take a hard look inward and a clear-eyed look outward at a community that has changed. We engaged deeply with community leaders and we convened focus groups. We sought input on our community’s greatest challenges and on the issues where GAR is positioned to lead high-impact work.  These efforts drew dozens of thoughtful responses, some surprising, many enlightening, all honest.

Now it’s our turn to share what we’ve learned, where we’ve landed, and what’s next for GAR Foundation.

What we’ve learned

First, throughout our strategic planning process, stakeholders strongly and repeatedly urged us to set aside hopes of being all things to all people, and instead focus our work on a few key areas where we can have the greatest impact. Second, there was widely-shared consensus that GAR should work closely with other community partners, using fact-based, cross-sector approaches in addressing key issues.

Through our process of exploration, we found that research validates the strong connection between early education and positive life outcomes. While we can celebrate improvement in many aspects of our education system, the fact remains that one-third of Summit County students do not enter Kindergarten ready to learn and 48% of children ages 3-5 are not involved in any early learning setting at all. We were also reminded by stakeholders and by the research that we must have high-quality K-16 teaching and learning to reinforce and capitalize on early learning investments, and to position people for the meaningful employment that drives a prosperous economy.

Speaking of a prosperous economy, we know that our community has made some progress in the past few years, with encouraging signs in productivity and average wages. And yet, there’s much work to be done in getting our economic fundamentals right. We know that income inequality has taken hold, that we are over-indexed in slow-growing industries and weaker in emerging ones, and that the geographic pattern of our economic growth continues to disconnect jobs from workers.

Perhaps most importantly, our strategy exploration illuminated the myriad ways in which these three topics – early childhood, K-16 education, and economic/workforce development – are inextricably intertwined. We believe wholeheartedly that our greatest impact will come from a well-conceived systems approach that improves the connections between these nodes.

Where we’re going

Our vision is that every child gets a great start in life and benefits from the best education, preparing for lifelong success, meaningful employment, and career advancement. Our goal is that companies grow in our talent-rich environment, creating an abundance of career opportunities; and pathways to prosperity are equitable, readily accessible and easily navigated by everyone, especially those most in need. Lastly, all residents and businesses feel connected to Greater Akron, are energized by its creative assets and aligned around broadly shared goals.

To achieve this vision, we have articulated a new mission for GAR Foundation. Our mission is to help Akron to become smarter, stronger, and more vibrant.

We will concentrate our resources in ways that build on established strengths, while consolidating our resources for impact. The three areas of deeper focus are our Systemic Solutions areas. They will run alongside our Community Programs.

Systemic Solutions:

  • Early Childhood Education
  • K-16 Education
  • Economic & Workforce Development

These three themes rose to the top during our rigorous strategic planning process. During our stakeholder interviews and focus groups, they were overwhelmingly prioritized as high-need areas GAR is well-positioned to address through our staff skill sets, expertise, and relationships. It’s critical to note that we will work differently in these areas, not separating them in subject matter silos, but rather seeking solutions at the intersections between them. In conjunction with key partners, we will co-create the metrics and tactics that will bring our strategies to life.

Community Programs:

  • Basic Needs
  • Arts & Culture
  • Nonprofit Sector Advancement

Although we will shift some resources to focus on Systemic Solutions, we will remain invested in three strategic areas familiar to GAR: basic needs, arts and culture, and nonprofit sector leadership.

Basic Needs

Throughout our strategic planning process, we found that poverty rates are highly concentrated in Akron, with more than half of the City’s children living below the poverty line and 48% of Akron’s population living below 200% of poverty. With concentrated poverty at this level, we believe it is important to address the most basic human needs that must be met before people can begin to improve their lives. As such, our Basic Needs funding will be narrowly focused on Akron’s food distribution hub and on its emergency shelters for people in crisis. Additionally, we will channel some resources towards the basic needs of Akron’s immigrant and refugee populations.

Arts & Culture

Over the past few years, we’ve had many touch points with the community around arts and culture. We conducted deep research in conjunction with our partners at Knight Foundation, we spurred conversations, we helped to launch a backbone arts organization, and we watched the community rally to strengthen and celebrate its arts and culture assets.

While it’s exciting to have hit a vein of community enthusiasm, we know much work lies ahead. Within the arts and culture sector, we will support high-quality, relevant arts and culture institutions across a diverse range of art forms. We will reserve some resources to support emerging and innovative arts and culture initiatives. And to ensure the growth of the sector in Akron, we will continue to invest in sector infrastructure.

Nonprofit Sector Advancement

We know that high-quality programs that build skills of nonprofit leaders and volunteers advance and promote long-term sustainability of the nonprofit sector. Thus, we will support initiatives that enhance the leadership capacity and effectiveness of Akron’s nonprofit sector.

We encourage you to explore more details about our new programs here on our website.

What’s next

In order to concentrate greater resources in our Systemic Solutions areas, we will be making fewer grants and discontinuing grants in some subject areas. We understand that this will create challenges for some organizations; there is no way around that unfortunate fact. Those challenges notwithstanding, we believe deeply that we will best achieve our founders’ vision for community impact by pursuing this new path of strategic focus. We also commit to operate in a way that is sensitive to the realities our nonprofit partners face. As you will see below, we are taking action to support nonprofits in the change process.

Here’s what to expect for the rest of this year:

  • We will not be expanding funding for current grantees, nor will we be taking on new programmatic applicants at this time.
  • All remaining and pending grants in 2017 will be decided in October. Those who typically apply to GAR on August 1 have already been notified to apply by June 15, and selected grantees who apply on November 1 are being notified to apply by January 15, 2018 for a decision next year.
  • Our new strategies for and deadlines for 2018 have been posted to our website.
  • We will host six informational sessions in June and July of this year where nonprofit executive directors and board leaders will have an opportunity to learn more about our strategies and ask questions. We strongly encourage attendance by a staff and board leader, to ensure that news of the changes gets to all interested parties in an organization. Registration information is available here on our site and will be emailed directly to the executive director so please keep an eye on your inbox in the next few days. If you have a question specific to your organization, email [email protected].
  • This fall, we will offer technical assistance training and workshops designed to help nonprofit organizations in building their capacity to adapt to a changing funding landscape. Again, details will be emailed to the executive director of the organization and posted on our website in the weeks to come.


Moving forward

As we conclude our strategic planning process, we view this as a next step toward achieving our vision for Akron. We are humbled by the opportunities and challenges ahead of us, and we are energized by the prospect of better serving the community we love. We stand ready to drive our mission of helping Akron become smarter, stronger, and more vibrant.

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