Elements of a Niche Program

Monday, November 24, 2014

This month, the Johnson Scholar’s Inaugural Luncheon was held on on October 14th at Valencia College, Orlando. The article summarizes the elements of this program and relates it to two students who are pursuing degrees in the health sciences. We are described as “a national, private foundation with a mission to assist deserving people in achieving higher education and a belief in education as a means to help people to succeed in life.” 

The purpose of this event was to recognize and inspire scholarship recipients and to promote the Johnson Scholarship at DirectConnect, presumably for the purpose of fundraising and marketing. Students, parents and faculty from UCF, Eastern, Lake Sumter, Seminole and Valencia Colleges attended. Dick, David Blaikie, Bobby and I attended for the Foundation. This was a first class event that included a reception and luncheon and a ceremony to present medallions to each Johnson Scholar. I addressed the students as did President Ann McGee, of Seminole State College and Sandy Shugart, President of Valencia College. From the Foundation’s perspective, one of the event’s best features was that it was entirely produced by our DirectConnect partners. Our role was limited to showing up, meeting everyone and speaking to the students. 

We have spoken in the past about the “hedgehog analogy” and finding the Foundation’s programing niche. The hedgehog can’t run fast or fight but, when it curls up into an impenetrable ball it can resist even nature’s fleetest and most gifted predators. Using the hedgehog analogy, can the Foundation find a programing niche that it can do as well as or perhaps even better than the country’s smartest and most well-endowed funders? This is a fundamental question and it is not as broad as it seems. 

For the Foundation to make a difference it has to do more than write checks. To be effective it should bring to bear its bargaining power, accumulated experience and knowledge. It must also conduct research to find the best situations for its grantmaking. Follow up is required to ensure that our grantee partners do what they promised and also to judge the results of what they have done. However the Foundation cannot undertake too much activity. Our grant budget is about $7 million. How much of that do we want to spend on research, evaluation and other grant related expenses? 

The Foundation’s mission is to be a perpetual body and one of its core values is to generate an investment return of 5% plus inflation. This has to be net of investment expenses, which are close to $500 thousand per year. Anyone investing money knows how difficult this has been. It follows that the Foundation’s programing niche will be found in grants (within its mission and experience), which leave the work to grantee partners but still allow for Foundation follow up and measurement. The best of these will also provide for continued Foundation participation in low effort/high impact activities such as sharing knowledge or contacts, convening, meeting students, organizations or other funders. Within these parameters there is virtually unlimited scope for creativity and innovation. 

The Foundation’s DirectConnect investment seems to fit this niche perfectly and might serve as a model for future programing.