With an Eye on Innovation, the Barra Foundation Revamps Grantmaking Approach - Generocity Philly

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Oct. 28, 2014 11:57 am

With an Eye on Innovation, the Barra Foundation Revamps Grantmaking Approach

The Barra Foundation, a 51-year-old grantmaking organization that primarily supports innovative ideas with the potential to lift low-income populations, has redesigned its funding approach. The Foundation’s $4 million in annual giving is now divided between the Barra Awards and the Catalyst Fund. Founded in 1963 by Robert L. McNeil, Jr., the former chairman of the […]

The Barra Foundation, a 51-year-old grantmaking organization that primarily supports innovative ideas with the potential to lift low-income populations, has redesigned its funding approach. The Foundation’s $4 million in annual giving is now divided between the Barra Awards and the Catalyst Fund.

Founded in 1963 by Robert L. McNeil, Jr., the former chairman of the pharmaceutical company that developed Tylenol, the Barra Foundation prizes innovation — a nod to its scientific roots — but it’s not interested in reinventing the wheel.

“Innovation isn’t the next passing fad,” said Kristina Wahl, the president of the Foundation.

“It’s intentional. Innovation for Barra is about creating the conditions for idea generation, testing novel approaches to well-defined problems, and sharing lessons learned about what works and what doesn’t.”

The Foundation’s grantmaking is still concentrated in arts & culture, health, human services, and education, but now it is more focused on finding new approaches to addressing these issues.

“In talking with people in the field, we found that there were few funding opportunities for organizations that wanted to test something new that had the potential to be better than existing solutions,” Wahl said.

“What our grantees really want is the room to breathe – to tackle the same old issues with a fresh approach.”

The Barra Awards, established in 2013, offer $1 million per year in unrestricted operating support to exemplary nonprofits demonstrating leadership, adaptability and performance. Fifty-five grantees, nominated by their peers, received up to $40,000 over a two-year period. The next round of Awards is planned for early 2015.

The $3 million Catalyst Fund, for early-stage ideas, is intended for projects between one and three years old. It has a rolling deadline and will review the first round of applicants in December. The Fund seeks approaches that are new and different, have the potential to be better than existing solutions, and can inspire change beyond the organization, according to Wahl.

Seeding innovation

One of the ideas that has attracted the Foundation’s support is Building 21, a new, project-based high school that is housed in the once-shuttered Joseph C. Ferguson primary school in North Philadelphia.

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Building 21 opened in September, through a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia, along with two other school models, the U School and the LINC.

Building 21 uses personal engagement, strong relationships, and student-led learning to allow students to find and design an academic niche. All of its 140 students are low-income.

The school will add a class of incoming freshmen each year, with a projected student body of 600. It is also working on a partnership with the Allentown School District and plans to open a second school there.

Personalized curriculum for each student is central to Building 21’s approach — intended to “hook” students by connecting their interests to college and career pathways — but the school is also heavily invested in the professional development of its teachers.

“We’re trying to create a culture where teachers bring forward where they are succeeding, but also where they need help,” said Laura Shubilla, a co-founder of Building 21. Shubilla previously helped to establish the Philadelphia Youth Network.

In March, Building 21 received a six-month, $100,000 grant from the Barra Foundation to support its startup and bring on core staff, including the principal, for the design phase. Everything related to the school’s model will be open source, meaning it will be freely available for others to learn from, modify, or redistribute.

Applying innovation to the education arena, Shubilla said, “is often a controversial topic, because for many people, that translates as experimenting with kids.”

But Building 21 is committed to learning responsibly by “getting good at designing, iterating, and looking at data to improve.”

Early support from the Barra Foundation was key, explained Shubilla, “because they really understood what we were doing and what trying something new is all about.”

The Barra Foundation is especially interested in sharing the school’s model and results to expand the thinking about different methods of learning.

Along with Building 21, other recent grantees that would meet the guidelines for the Catalyst Fund include the Philadelphia Public History Truck, Single Stop, and Opera Philadelphia.

Despite the decades that have passed since the Foundation’s establishment, its core philosophy and its approach to grantmaking continue to change.

“It’s really been an evolution, not a revolution,” Wahl said. “We continue to have innovation at the heart and soul of what we do, and I think what we’ve done is contemporize it.”

Illustration by Russell Edling

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