Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.
‘Relationships Develop at the Speed of Trust’
Ingvild Bjornvold • June 2023
Editor’s Note: This interview updates our 2021 in-depth CTOP profile, “Tell Us What You Need to Succeed.”
Leap Ambassadors and Connecticut Opportunity Project (CTOP) Senior Portfolio Directors Adhlere Coffy and Amanda Olberg work with only three grantee partners each. If you think the small numbers have them twiddling their thumbs, think again.
CTOP, a Dalio Education initiative, makes an unparalleled, long-term investment of coaching, technical expertise, and funding in each grantee organization—with an even longer timeline and more intensive supports for earlier-stage nonprofits. Such organizations are a new focus for CTOP, as part of its commitment to advance equity by investing in entrepreneurial leaders of color who are from the same neighborhoods as the young people they serve but have little organizational infrastructure to support their efforts.
The multi-year investment of financial and nonfinancial resources is what CTOP believes it takes to elevate organizations’ capacity to help disconnected and severely off-track young people succeed in school and work. Adhlere and Amanda share what the initiative has accomplished so far, along with how and why it works, with Leap Ambassador Ingvild Bjornvold.
Ingvild: When we spoke in 2020, CTOP was three years old, and you were each responsible for the relationship with one grantee partner. What do your jobs look like now?
Amanda: At its core, the work is the same. We work collaboratively with our grantee partners in continuing to strengthen their organizational capacity, supporting them in understanding where their organizations are developmentally and then setting and working towards milestones together, with CTOP providing coaching and outside technical assistance in support of their work. Since 2020, we’ve expanded the portfolio from three grantee partners to seven. Just like our grantees, we’ve been working hard to strengthen our own organizational infrastructure at CTOP. And we’ve codified our strategic approach and practices, with the goals of institutionalizing this knowledge internally and sharing what we’ve learned with the broader field.
We also have a research agenda comprised of three research studies underway that will together update our collective understanding of the needs of, and opportunities for, severely off-track and disconnected young people and how best to support them in reconnecting to education and employment.
Adhlere: Our roles today also include overseeing a good deal of the growth as well as the operational execution of our core bodies of work. Recently, we’ve been working on hiring and onboarding staff, providing professional development, and forming the culture we need to build a strong and enduring team.
Ingvild: CTOP has a strong view of what high performance means and how you need to help the organizations you fund to get there. How would you describe it?
Adhlere: For us, high performance means that organizations have certain structures in place relative to where they are in their developmental life cycle that support their ability to provide high-quality services to the population they serve, in a way that is reliable and sustainable. Examples of those structures are good financial management systems and a strong board that can guide the organization’s strategic direction. It’s also key to have a robust staff representative of the community being served and the professional development arrangements to continue to grow while maintaining the high level of effectiveness and improving quality of service delivery to clients.
Amanda: We have a rubric for stages of organizational development, which serves as our framework for finding, selecting, and investing in organizations, as well as supporting their development over time. We’ve mapped out, for each pillar of the Performance Imperative, two or three developmental priorities that, if accomplished, will move an organization from one stage to the next along a developmental arc. We expect the average organization to spend two or three years in each of our six stages, and we expect to see organizational outcomes before we start to see youth outcomes.
Ingvild: What can you say about the progress CTOP has made so far?
Amanda: First, we’re starting to see the delivery of active service slots to a growing percentage of the young people that grantee partners are serving. “Active slot” is a term we use to designate a position in a program that is occupied by a participant who meets the criteria for the organization’s target population and is getting everything they need so that they can ultimately be successful when re-engaged in school or work—that is, they are receiving the types and levels of services the organization has hypothesized in its theory of change are necessary for the young person to experience positive long-term outcomes. So we consider this metric our short-term proxy for the social value grantee partners are creating, to which CTOP contributes.
Second, we’ve been doing this work for long enough now that we’re finally starting to see young people graduate successfully from our grantee partners’ programs and go on to achieve long-term outcomes. Meaning that three, six, 12 months after they are no longer participating in the organization’s core programming, they’re maintaining their employment or persisting in their post-secondary education.
We’ve seen a big increase in active slots over the last few years, growing from 387 to 754 across our grantee partners and approximately 900 projected for 2022-23. That’s an indicator that we’re on track to see not only continued growth in active slots in the coming years, but also increasing numbers of young people subsequently graduating from programming and going on to achieve long-term outcomes.
Adhlere: We’ve supported our partners to become stronger, more resilient organizations, not only in their ability to maintain or improve youth outcomes but also in their operations. That’s something that’s often overlooked in the philanthropic space. Our capacity building helps them put in place elements that will allow them to continue to perform without the same level of support from us in the future. In addition, it can include better supports and benefits for staff members to increase wellness and reduce burnout; components of professional development that go beyond regular training. Furthermore, our assistance helps ensure the executive team is supported by the scaffolding that allows them to step into more of a strategic rather than a quasi-frontline role. Such operational pieces are critical to an organization’s ability to increase active slots.
Amanda: Domus Kids offers an example of the incredible organizational effort that goes into being able to deliver active slots. They developed a new data system and trained their staff in using it, redesigned programming to ensure that it’s evidence-informed, developed new capacity to provide transitional employment for youth within their own internally-operated social enterprises, and trained their entire staff in cognitive-behavioral skills that are now infused throughout their programming. With all of these changes now implemented, 85 percent of their young people in core programming were in active service slots last year and they’re on track for the same this year, which is an incredible achievement. And now, the programs have been operating long enough for us to start seeing long-term outcomes, which is really exciting: Six months after graduating from their programs, 97 percent of their program graduates are still enrolled in post-secondary education or employed and on the path to self-sufficiency.
Adhlere: I would also spotlight Our Piece of the Pie (OPP). Hector Rivera, OPP CEO and fellow Leap Ambassador, has done a remarkable job of turning around underdeveloped areas of organizational design. He has ushered in a new wave of financial stability that has made OPP far more liquid and rebuilt their reserves after offloading some rather damaging property liabilities. He has recruited a new slate of board officers to bring in a fresh perspective and oversee critical changes to the organization’s strategic direction. Hector is rebuilding relationships with critical community stakeholders, like the public schools, the mayor, and city council members. OPP deserves a national spotlight for its fantastic work locally in Hartford and throughout Connecticut.
Ingvild: How has your collective thinking about equity evolved? What have you changed?
Adhlere: Overall, we’ve placed greater emphasis on communication. We previously overestimated how actions alone can communicate our equity and inclusion values, but we learned that we also needed to explain why those actions are critical to achieving equity. Now, we’re being far more intentional about our messaging.
Also, we built equity into our organizational muscle. For instance, we give supportive grants to all organizations we engage in our due diligence process to cover the time they spend going through that process with us. Another equity practice is structuring our rubric to take into account the longer duration of time and greater focus on executive and board development needed at the earlier stages in organizational development. We actively seek out such organizations in which to invest because they often are led by individuals of color. If we’re looking to really support these organizations, we have to grapple with the reality that they have been under-resourced for many years. The leaders haven’t had the same opportunities to develop into strong executive leaders with experience in strategic decision making and organizational management. With strong upfront investment, they will be able to make better use of available resources when they reach the more developed stages identified in our rubric.
Amanda: In the past year we’ve focused explicitly on how we hold ourselves accountable to the same expectations we have of grantee partners, including in the domain of equity. Most recently, for example, we’ve been hiring for two portfolio associates, and we’ve been intentional about bringing an equity lens to our design of that process.
Ingvild: How did you design that process?
Amanda: Adhlere is part of the Dalio Family Office’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. One of the recommendations coming out of their first year of work was to implement interviewer training on unconscious bias, which our team was the first to take. We were deliberate about which networks we were tapping when posting and recruiting for the positions, thoughtful about the kinds of questions we asked at each stage of the interview process, and worked on ensuring consistency in our approach and process from one candidate to the next to avoid the introduction of bias.
Adhlere: We were intentional about avoiding bias during the resume review process as well. We didn’t focus on GPA or school. Instead, we looked for evidence of the core skills needed. What experiences in the resume were relevant to this role? How could we learn more about the individual through those experiences and how they chose to communicate them? How could that signal that this individual had the cultural orientation and experiential knowledge that would make them successful in this role? And how can we support them to succeed? We apply a bidirectional lens: How would this candidate fit into our team, and how do we create the appropriate structures to support them?
Ingvild: How did you decide to recruit smaller, earlier-stage grantee partner organizations?
Adhlere: When identifying new grantees, we found that there was a lack of organizations working to improve conditions for our target population. It became evident that we had to go upstream of where we initially thought was a good entry point in our Developmental Stages Rubric for engaging with an organization. That caused us to pause and ask, “What will it require of us to work with organizations that have less infrastructure in place?” If we made the same-sized investment in a smaller organization that we did with our Cohort 1 grantee partners, it would be irresponsible. Their structure couldn’t support the use of those resources for effective growth. We have to have a longer investment timeline and engage in a lot more nonfinancial support with earlier-stage organizations and plan purposefully, so we do no harm, which is the first principle in all of our engagements.
Ingvild: What is the most unique thing about CTOP?
Amanda: The authentic relationships that we develop with people at all levels of our grantee partner organizations, and not just with leadership, is unique. When they let us in to partner with them in working through challenges, we don’t use anything we learn in a punitive way. Instead, it allows us to be more helpful.
Adhlere: When a relationship is so strong that a leader calls and says, “Hey, I need to think through how to respond to an issue. Can we talk about it?” that’s one of the most humbling and profound reflections of how important we think trusting relationship development is. We believe relationships develop at the speed of trust, as coined by Stephen M.R. Covey
Ingvild: What have you learned about building that trust with grantee partners?
Adhlere: We know how to be more patient and thoughtful in the beginning, focusing on the relationship, so we can more effectively help achieve outcomes for the target population later. We’re better at navigating the contentious elements that go with a funder-grantee partnership. There are some warm and rewarding conversations, but it can be challenging to prompt action if a grantee partner isn’t performing well, for example, and ask, “What are some courses of action that you would feel comfortable with?” With a high degree of confidence and trust, we can be far more direct in our recommendations.
Amanda: Our aspiration is to transcend the traditional power dynamic between the funder and the grantee. As we built relationships with our initial grantee partners, we learned a lot about what that developmental arc for building an authentic relationship looks like.
Adhlere: We have to account for their expectations, for example, and navigate the challenges of previous funder relationships. We understand inherent reluctance in the early stages and reassure them that we’re not going to exert our power in a way that compromises the quality and authenticity of their work.
Ingvild: Have you found it possible to transcend the power dynamics?
Amanda: You’ll have to ask our grantee partners to what extent we succeed, but it’s certainly our goal. It’s a lofty aspiration, because the reality is that we bring funding. But we’ve built this goal into the structure of our approach by spending a lot of time on site with our grantee partners; building relationships with individuals at all levels of the organization; and working every day to be true thought partners, champions, and advocates for them.
Adhlere: “Transcending the power dynamics” is a beautiful way of describing it. It’s not to say that we’re ignorant of the reality. The only way to transcend the power dynamics is to be mindful of them, as Amanda said, in every single engagement. That’s why it’s so important to have a longer timeline for our investment; you can’t build a strong relationship, while also working through operational design and management, in two years.
Ingvild: What’s next for CTOP?
Amanda: We intend to leverage our research findings to inform our work, raise public awareness, and mobilize real action for the young people we care about, who are so often overlooked. We see such incredible opportunities for their futures, and we are looking at what else we can do to support them in realizing those opportunities.
Adhlere: I think it’s hugely important to use the research as a platform for advancing an advocacy agenda. It’s also important to speak publicly to the systemic dynamics our work is focused on—the systemic racism, under-resourcing in public education, discrimination in hiring, disparities in the criminal justice system, and lack of access to critical mental health supports that intensify challenges for our young people—and to be intentional about forming connections, raising consciousness in the philanthropic sector, and impacting systemic actions in support of young people and their future.
Ingvild: Looking forward, what are you most excited about?
Amanda: I’m really excited about our new strategy to connect grantee partners in developing pathways from one organization to the next for young people who are the most severely disconnected. Their journey to achieving and sustaining full-time employment requires a whole host of supports and opportunities. Some organizations are better suited to specialize in one area over another, and that creates an opportunity to collaborate with others in supporting young people in moving in a seamless way from one organization to the next in a journey to sustainable careers. Investing in organizations that can work together with an eye toward supporting the development of that pathway is new for us and something we’re looking to prioritize this year.
Adhlere: Absolutely, I share that excitement.
Ingvild: Thank you for sharing your progress.