A view of Boston's historic Pilot House from the harbor

Matt Conti

What We’re Learning from a Regional Approach

For years, Barr worked primarily in Boston. Since 2014, we have been evolving towards a regional approach. Some reflections on progress, challenges, and what we’ve been learning.

In 2014, in light of anticipated growth in the Barr Foundation’s giving capacity and opportunities to increase impact across Barr’s core issues, our trustees decided to expand the focus for the Foundation’s work from Boston to the region. Our program strategies, announced in early 2016, embody this new vision. What has that meant for our work? What new opportunities and challenges have we found? And what have we learned? We recently reflected on these questions with our trustees, and I offer here some of the key takeaways from that conversation.

Focus on opportunity, not lines on a map

Even as Barr’s geography has expanded, our trustees’ principal concern has remained impact on our core issues, rather than coverage of a region. Given that orientation, they invited each program team to determine what approach made the most sense, given its context and goals. As a result, each program defined “region” in a different way and tailored its approach to learning about how its issues were playing out over a broader geography, establishing new relationships, and investing in new areas of work.

Even as Barr’s geography has expanded, our trustees’ principal concern has remained impact on our core issues, rather than coverage of a region.

The Arts & Creativity Program, for example, defined its region as Massachusetts. As one approach to building our understanding of local issues across the state, enhancing the capacity and resources for local art ecosystems, and building allies for the arts statewide, the Foundation has partnered with five community foundations with planning grants to explore opportunities to be more strategic in their support for arts and creativity in their communities.

Based on the regional nature of the energy infrastructure and the program’s heavy focus on policy, the Clean Energy portfolio in our Climate Program defined its region as the Northeast (i.e., New England plus New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). In addition to targeted efforts in New England, Barr is working with the Energy Foundation, a national partnership of philanthropies supporting a network of grantees advancing clean energy, to advance efforts in key states like Pennsylvania and New York, and to build our knowledge of the policy environment in those states.

Given the important role that cities, towns, and states play in planning and policy for transportation and community development, the Mobility portfolio in our Climate Program defined its region as Massachusetts. In this strategy, alongside intensive work in Boston, a grant to the Consensus Building Institute supported Massachusetts’ State Senate President in conducting a series of conversations, titled “MassMoves,” which have engaged citizens across Massachusetts in conversations that elicit their views and begin to create consensus on shared transportation goals across the Commonwealth.

Barr’s Education Program chose to define New England as its region. In the summer and fall of 2016, the Education team engaged in extensive outreach, visits, and data gathering across New England, including a Request for Information last fall, to inform its understanding of opportunities to better connect all students to success in high school and beyond. This was a first step in what has since become Barr’s Engage New England: Doing High School Differently initiative, with a first set of grants awarded in June 2017 to a range of compelling efforts across the region.

Our conversation with the trustees reaffirmed this approach of focusing on opportunities, not lines on a map. However a program has defined its region, the goal is to identify strong partners and the highest-potential projects aligned with our goals wherever they may be in that region.

Our conversation with the trustees reaffirmed this approach of focusing on opportunities, not lines on a map.

Expanded opportunities for impact

Clearly we’re still in the early stages of our regionalization, with much still to learn and real impacts farther down the road. However, all of our program teams have already found that Barr’s regional expansion has presented significant new opportunities for extending the Foundation’s impact. Well beyond simply funding more projects, a regional focus has positioned us in new ways to:

  1. Build broad-based vision, public support, and leadership: In each of our program areas, strengthening and broadening the base of engagement, capacity, and advocacy across the state is critical. We expect that high-quality, high-visibility pilots in diverse locations can offer concrete examples, lift visions, connect communities across the region, and inform and inspire the wide range of important stakeholders on our core issues.
  2. Identify and invest in effective leaders: Engaging with the region has already allowed us to begin to identify the leaders and innovators pushing practice and policy across the region in ways that cross geographic boundaries. With a regional approach, we can help those leaders deepen their work, highlight their examples, and build their capacity to support others who are not as far along.
  3. Build and strengthen our fields and networks: Beyond the work of individual grants, we have seen the need and opportunity for field-building and have begun to develop cohorts and networks of grantees working toward similar goals. We have also started to offer technical assistance and learning opportunities focused on targeted needs identified by these partners.
  4. Build capacity for thoughtful engagement on local, regional, and national policy: Across all of these areas, state (and sometimes regional) policy has a significant impact on local practices and possibilities. With a regional approach, there are far more levers to inform the critical policies that enable local work. Even though Barr does not have a primary focus on national policy, we believe a regional approach will help build the knowledge and credibility to be visible and to weigh in on the national discourse—and to support our grantees in engaging in that discourse.

Reflecting on challenges and lessons

This kind of expansion is not without its challenges. Primary among them is staff time and capacity. Building relationships and trust is key to accessing authentic understanding of issues and dynamics; those steps take staff time and don’t happen overnight.

There are other challenges, as well. Given the Foundation’s preference for lean staffing and our goal to build capacity in the field, we regularly partner with intermediaries that bring knowledge of leading practices, policies, and research—and we recognize that intermediaries sometimes themselves require capacity-building investments.

We will continue to assess our progress in formal and informal ways, seeking to understand what has worked and what hasn’t and ensuring that all we do remains true to the Foundation’s values. At our staff retreat next month, we will reflect on how our regionalization affects the way we work with grantees in light of our goal to serve as a constructive partner. We are excited to bring on a director of learning and evaluation, who will help us assess these efforts in more systematic ways. We have also asked The Center for Effective Philanthropy to gather feedback from our grantees this fall through the Grantee Perception Report, which will provide direct feedback on how we’re doing. And we will continue our conversations as a staff team and with our trustees to reflect and adjust as necessary.

Looking forward

Despite some expected challenges, regionalization has created exciting new opportunities to expand our geographic footprint and to deepen knowledge and potential impact in each of Barr’s program areas. We continue to learn how best to implement high-impact work across our region, and we invite you to share your observations with our team, both positive and critical, to help us move forward effectively.

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