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How to get started with collaborative philanthropy: 3 insights from our first funder summit

Dual enrolled students speaking at the Catalyzing Education through Collaborative Philanthropy Design Summit included Azeeza (from left), Mario, Kimberly, and Mikayla. Paula Dibley, Forsyth Tech's chief officer of Student Success and Strategic Innovation (and Designer in Residence at the Lab) moderated the discussion. Photo by Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle.
Flora Calderon-Steck, Forsyth Tech's executive director of Educational Partnerships (left), translates introductory remarks by Rosario Perez, parent of Forsyth Tech student Kimberly Perez. Photo by Jenny Terry, Forsyth Tech.
The funder panel included Atticus Simpson of Truliant Federal Credit Union; Beau Boice of the Strada Education Foundation; Nate Simpson of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Mamie McKinney Sutphin from the Twin City Development Foundation. Student Mikayla Dixon (right) moderated the panel. Photo by Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle.
A mix of funders, educators, and employers experience a "gallery walk" of local data and key takeaways from the morning's panel discussions. Photo by Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle.
The Forsyth Tech Foundation provided breakfast nibbles, boxed lunches, and snacks throughout the day-long summit.
Jessica Lauritsen, senior education designer at the Lab, poses with student Mikayla Dixon while Mikayla's dad looks on. Photo by Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle.
A group including Dr. Janet Spriggs, president of Forsyth Tech (second from left), discusses a prototype during the design sprint. Photo by Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle.
Education Design Lab and Forsyth Tech Community College (N.C.) gathered local and national funders for a Collaborative Philanthropy Design Summit as part of our dual enrollment pathways work.

By Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, Communications Director, Education Design Lab

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Education Design Lab’s first “funder summit” at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C., but I knew I needed to do something with my wet umbrella.

The Lab and Forsyth Tech co-hosted the Catalyzing Education Through Collaborative Philanthropy Design Summit on a soggy day in May 2024.

It was just one of many events associated with the Lab’s Designers in Residence: Accelerated Pathways program, which is building regional partnerships designed to support Black and Hispanic/Latino students, and students from low-income backgrounds, to complete an associate degree one year after high school graduation.

I had questions going into the summit, like … what does collaborative philanthropy look like? How might it catalyze and sustain innovation?

I was also curious about the student who was supposed to moderate the funder panel. Did I read that right on the agenda?

I approached my seat at one of about 10 table rounds set up in Forsyth Tech’s conference center and was immediately greeted with a warm smile.

Mikayla Dixon was the only person seated at the table, poised and ready to chat. She immediately put me at ease, noticing my wet umbrella and pointing me to a door I could hang it on.

Her enthusiasm bubbled right out. In just a few minutes, I learned she was a dual enrollment student — and an oldest sister — who wants to become a crisis management expert after blending multiple disciplines at Stanford University, where she has already visited. Her first love is dance, so she wants to minor in that as well. I was inspired by her ambition and fearless extroversion – as well as her bedazzling nail art — and was absolutely awestruck when Mikayla tells me she’s 16 years old.

I reviewed the agenda again. The student moderating the funder panel? I’m sitting right next to her.

Yes, Mikayla facilitated the panel discussion later that morning with the same confidence and natural ease.

Which leads me to the most important insight the Lab learned from co-hosting this funder summit …

1. Let your students lead.

Mikayla was just one of four Forsyth Tech students who joined us for the summit that day. Azeeza Evelyna, Forsyth Tech’s student government president and aspiring diplomat, started the morning with a warm welcome, followed by Rosario Perez, proud parent of Kimberly, who was graduating high school with an associate degree thanks to North Carolina’s Career and College Promise program.

Azeeza, along with Mikayla, Kimberly, and fellow student Mario shared their goals, challenges, and what support they need to succeed during the first panel discussion.

Notable was how frequently the learners credited the people who helped create their best experiences at Forsyth Tech: They raved about understanding professors, advisors, supportive friends, and the sense of belonging on campus. Twice, Mario gave a shout-out to two advisors by name: Eric and Janae.

The big takeaways from the student panel were summarized on the poster below, which was displayed for everyone to review before the design sprint later that afternoon.

 

From the beginning, the educators and funders in the room were reminded what this event — what this work — is all about. We design with (not for) learners, which gets to the heart of the Lab’s learner-centered design approach.

Later in the program, Carol Erickson, the Lab’s director of foundation and philanthropic partnerships, said this was the first time in her decades-long career in the charitable sector where students were in the room with funders.

And what did the students think about the process?

In my earlier chat with Mikalya, she lit up when talking about her involvement with Forsyth’s dual enrollment design team over the past few months.

“This was the best networking I’ve ever had.”

 

2. Mix up your invite list.

This invite-only event was designed to bring together national, regional, and local philanthropic partners committed to supporting and transforming educational opportunities in the Winston-Salem community and beyond.

We shared an agenda with invitees in advance, and welcomed the attendance of leadership, program staff, and interested board members.

More than 65 people attended, and included a mix of local funders, educators at the college, and local employers.

We held the summit in mid-May, which was a strain for all during graduation season. For future events, we will ask funders what might be a better time of year.

During the funder panel discussion, we asked representatives from both local (Truliant Federal Credit Union, Twin City Development Foundation) and national funders (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Strada Education Foundation) to share their initiatives and approach.

Here are a few questions we shared with our panelists in advance:

  • How can philanthropic funding best support students’ hopes and dreams for their future, especially when those goals align with broader societal needs?
  • What role can collaborative philanthropy play in ensuring that students receive the support they need throughout their educational journey?
  • What challenges have you encountered in collaborative philanthropy, and how have you overcome them?

A few key themes emerged during the discussion, most notably: The success of collaborative philanthropy relies on strong relationships and trust among funders, grantees, and stakeholders.

“It’s not just about grants, it’s about trust,” said Nate Simpson, a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Philanthropy is very relationship-driven and human-centric.“

And building those relationships is key to accessing larger funding opportunities and ensuring projects align with different funding cycles and priorities. For grantees, it’s crucial to stay engaged and flexible, understanding that “no” often means “not right now,” rather than a final rejection. (That was one of the most memorable catch phrases of the morning.)

One of the best outcomes of the summit? Our conversation helped national and local funders connect and better understand their roles: Where would partnerships make sense? Where could each have the most impact?

For Atticus Simpson, an executive director at Truliant Federal Credit Union: “The biggest thing we can do is make sure that there is good alignment between what a charitable foundation does and what the needs of the students are.”

 

3. End with a design sprint.

The summit was an all-day event: It started with networking at 9:30 a.m. with plenty of coffee and breakfast nibbles … and concluded at 3:30 p.m. with reflection and closing remarks.

In between, there were the student and funder panel discussions (morning) … boxed sandwiches and salads at noon provided by the Forsyth Tech Foundation … and a design sprint (afternoon).

The design sprint is where participants get to experience a compressed version of the Lab’s design process, which includes the understand, ideate, and prototype phases in about two hours.

Our design question — which always starts with “How might we ?…” — was as follows:

How might we leverage resources to fund education initiatives that ensure equitable access, support, and empowerment for historically excluded learners to reach their goals?

After hearing from students and funders during the earlier panel discussions — and engaging in a “gallery walk” of various data points about the college and region (pictured below) — the room was ready to ideate.

Small groups of five first used sticky notes to brainstorm — and then large sheets of paper to prototype their best ideas, which were then passed around to all of the other tables for iteration.

Ideas that emerged from this process ranged from expanding wrap-around services provided by the existing Forsyth Tech Cares program to creating a shared, cohort-based advising model for 6th to 12th graders. That advising model idea was inspired by the panel discussion earlier that morning, when the students called for more support for advisors and high school guidance counselors, to help bridge the gaps between their high schools and the community college.

The design sprint was the most interactive part of the day – where ideas bounce from table to table, and you hear laughter and friendly debate. That joyous energy is also the perfect way to conclude such a collaborative event.

For the final reflection, Precious Quire-McCloud, a senior vice president at Truliant Federal Credit Union, asked participants to describe our day in just one word.

“Empowering,” “inspiring,” “transformative,” and “life-changing” were just a few that summarized the vibe. No rain or wicked problem could dampen our spirits.

***

We would like to thank the following partners and funders for making this summit possible (listed in order of the summit agenda):

Azeeza Evelyna, Forsyth Tech Student Government Association President
Rosario Perez, parent of Forsyth Tech student Kimberly Perez
Flora Calderon-Steck, Executive Director, Educational Partnerships, Forsyth Tech (and translator)
Dr. Janet Spriggs, Forsyth Tech President
Paula Dibley, Chief Officer, Student Success and Strategic Innovation, Forsyth Tech (and Designer in Residence at the Lab)
Mikayla Dixon, Forsyth Tech student
Nate Simpson, Senior Program Officer for Postsecondary Success and Education Pathways, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Beau Boice, Director, Programs, Strada Education Foundation
Atticus Simpson, Executive Director, Truliant Foundation and Government Affairs, Truliant Federal Credit Union
Mamie McKinney Sutphin, Board Member, Twin City Development Foundation
Patrick Crane, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, North Carolina Community College System Office
Renee Harrison, Dean, Health Sciences, Forsyth Tech
Doug Evans, Vice President and Executive Director, Forsyth Tech Foundation
Precious Quire-McCloud, Senior Vice President, Diversity and Social Responsibility, Truliant Federal Credit Union

Facilitated by Jessica Lauritsen and Elizabeth Ham, Education Design Lab.

Speakers and attendees from the Lab included Lisa Larson, Carol Erickson, Larry Roth, and Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle.

Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, the Lab’s communications director, combines her experience with daily journalism, design thinking, and community colleges to tell the story of the Lab and its innovative partners.

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