Introducing The Skillman Visionary Awards

Shifting our strategy to support Detroit’s afterschool system

The Skillman Foundation shares the evidence-informed and equity-centered process we developed for a grantmaking transition as well as key lessons learned.

What we did and what we learned

The Skillman Foundation team spent 2023 carefully transitioning one changemaking strategy while forming a new one.

This is the story of the most sensitive and high stakes of these shifts.

Why we’re steadfast supporters of the afterschool system

Detroit children and youth are our purpose. We want them to thrive into the future, ultimately leading bold positive change in their communities, city, and world. How we support this is by focusing on the education system, using every resource at our disposal to ensure it is equitable and exceptional.

“Education system?” Why not just say “schools”? Because a young person’s education doesn’t only take place in classrooms—afterschool and summer programs are a major contributor to kids’ development. And education isn’t just the responsibility of teachers and principals. Out-of-school youth providers, students and families, business and community leaders, politicians, and taxpayers all have influential roles. In this way, an education system is like an orchestra. Every section must hit their notes and the entire group must play in sync.  

If Michigan’s education system was an orchestra, we could see, and hear, that our first and foremost problem is that the players aren’t reading from the same sheet music. Michigan needs a shared, comprehensive vision for our education system. And it must include out-of-school learning

Our historic support  

Since the founding of The Skillman Foundation in 1960, we have provided grant funding to afterschool and summer programs. Much of this funding was to directly support youth programming—from arts and culture to sports and recreation to literacy. Additionally, for over 30 years, we’ve invested in strengthening and expanding Detroit’s afterschool system. This has included investing in shared data and learning infrastructure, soliciting public and private partnerships, and advocating for increased public funding.

Our future support  

We’re shifting from funding individual programs and concentrating on advocacy to strengthen Detroit’s afterschool system. We will integrate supporting advocacy efforts for the afterschool system in our mission of partnering with people to transform the education system. The first step of transformation is visualization—imagining what the system should look and feel like in order to produce the results we all want for our young people. People across Detroit and Michigan are steeped in a collective reimaging, from changes within communities and school districts to statewide initiatives like Growing Michigan Together and Launch Michigan.

The Skillman Foundation carries the torch for afterschool wherever we go across these terrains. More importantly, we seek to uplift advocates from inside of Detroit’s afterschool system, investing in its leaders to be heard in education policy creation and implementation.

Why pivot?

In 2022, we funded afterschool programs at among the highest level in our history. We gave out $4.4 M, funding 40 spectacular programs that served a total of around 4,000 Detroit kids. There are 120,000 school-aged students in Detroit.

Could our newly emerging strategy draw more dollars-public and philanthropic-into Detroit’s afterschool system? Could we grow the commitment of civic and elected leaders to champion the afterschool system? This is where our efforts will take us.

And the reality is, we were unlikely to be able to maintain funding even at these levels. The main driver for this boost in grantmaking was response to the pandemic. Our board gave us permission to give out more money than the Foundation ever had in its history and we drove these dollars to organizations that were on the frontline of helping children stay engaged in learning.

How we’re pivoting, slowly

Our new strategic framework has the ability to drive more public funding to Detroit’s afterschool system and to ensure public funds are dispersed equitably, reaching organizations of all size. But it is a longer term play and we know organizations that have received funding from us bear the burden of finding replacement dollars when our funding shifts.

We took a deliberate and evidence-informed approach.

We started by researching lessons from the field. By reviewing funder-published literature, we synthesized lessons from philanthropic exits. One key insight was the benefits of forming a cross-functional team. Another other lesson was to allocate funding to meet the capacity needs of organizations that were not likely to receive grants under the funder’s new strategic direction. And a third lesson, among many, was to a conduct a retrospective evaluation to capture and share key insights from the grantmaking and assess how the grantmaking transition was experienced by grantees.

We engaged the Foundation’s full team in a two-part reflection series. This allowed us to surface insights from The Skillman Foundation’s history with grantmaking exits, naming what has worked as well as missteps to avoid repeating.

We formed a cross-organizational team that met weekly
. For nearly six months, eight people of our 20-ish member organization planned and implemented how The Skillman Foundation would respectfully transition from direct service grants to supporting the advocacy efforts of afterschool providers.

We established Guiding Principles. Before making any decisions, or even designing the process for decision making, we concretized principles ​based on our shared values, beliefs, and knowledge. Sticking to our guiding principles helped insure we would align our actions with our intentions.​

We brought in external consultants to facilitate key decision-making conversations. Sara Plachta Elliott, Siobhan O’Laoire, and Monica Marie Jones supported us with this, all who have deep understanding of Detroit’s afterschool ecosystem and how The Skillman Foundation has operated in it.

In line with our guiding principles of being data informed and racially equitable, we analyzed all of our out-of-school program grants for two things:

1) Organizations where a large percentage of their operating budget was filled by a Skillman Foundation grant

2) Organizations that are *BIPOC-led
(*Black, Indigenous, people of color)

To mitigate the impact of The Skillman Foundation’s transition away from directly funding afterschool programs, we determined we would provide three years of transition grants.

These transition grants gradually stepped down in amount. In 2023, the transitions grants ranged from 70-75% of the 2022 grant based on an analysis of the potential impact of the reduction and loss of Skillman Foundation funding. This analysis was based on a number of factors, primarily: 1) organizations that relied on Skillman Foundation funding for a larger amount of their annual funds, and 2) organizations led by a leader of color, acknowledging the persistent financial inequities faced in funding.

For this subsequent round of transition grants, we continue this step-down approach, ranging between 60-70%.

We also set on a floor: No organization would receive less than $50k per year.

Additionally, we determined we would allocate a fund of $800k to offer these grant partner organizations to use on field capacity building as they see fit.

All in all, our three-year afterschool transition grantmaking budget totals $8.2M.

Transparency was key in this process. Upon determining there would be a shift in our strategy and grantmaking, we called up the grant partners that would be affected. We didn’t have any answers yet to if there would be transition funding, for how long, and how much. We prioritized transparency, letting folks know a shift was coming. We kept in touch through phone calls and emails during the process. Then, when we had the plan in place, more phone calls, a letter to put it in writing, and virtual group meetings with open Q & A.

Key lessons learned

The key lessons we learned through this process are:

  • Ground strategy transitions in the “why”, explaining the reasons for pivoting
  • Set and stay accountable to guiding principles, aligning actions with intentions
  • Ground decision making in data, both quantitative and qualitative
  • Maintain open and consistent communication with grant partners
  • Offer financial support to the field as well as to grant partners
  • Learn from the grantmaking investments and from the exit process

What’s ahead

We aim to grow Detroit’s organizing power to lead education systems change. This includes investing in the policy advocacy efforts of Detroit afterschool leaders, youth, educators, and their allies—who we call ground builders. Ground builders are the people with the strongest on-the-ground understanding of how the education system currently works, or doesn’t, and how it could be transformed to truly serve students.

We will also work with Michigan policy makers and will connect them with ground builders. We’ll grow and share an understanding of the mechanics of education policy making so the people most impacted by the education system can lead its redesign.

This year, we begin launching new strategies, partnering with people to transform the education system—including the afterschool system—to nurture the brilliance of Detroit youth.

We will be posting updates here on our site and via our

The Skillman Foundation

The Skillman Foundation is a grantmaking organization established in 1960 by Rose Skillman. We have granted out more than $730 million and have served as a vocal advocate to strengthen K-12 education, afterschool programming, child-centered neighborhoods, youth and community leadership, and racial equity and justice.

We are in the process of developing a new strategic framework, co-designed with Detroit youth and their champions.

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