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The Grant Maker

By Maureen Nolan
Nancy Roob ’87 is one of 10 individuals who used College Hill as a launching pad, and who are championing new ideas, challenging old conventions, pushing boundaries, and, in doing so, advancing their professions.

It’s one thing to fight childhood poverty and another to win the war. Throughout her career, Nancy Roob ’87, CEO and president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, saw that winning would require philanthropists to combine forces. It would take a collaborative, coordinated effort to invest enough money to enable effective nonprofits to fully implement their business plans. Under Roob’s stewardship, the Clark Foundation pioneered a strategy that does that; it’s called growth capital aggregation.

To push harder against childhood poverty, in 2016 the foundation announced the creation of Blue Meridian Partners. The collaboration, led by Roob, believes its united investment in select initiatives could have a national impact on childhood poverty. Its partners plan to invest a whopping $1 billion over the long term in a relative few nonprofits, whose progress will be closely evaluated. Blue Meridian’s approach has been called revolutionary.

Roob spoke recently about her life’s work with the Hamilton magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m interested in talking about what you’ve done in your career, and why you’ve done it.

My first job out of college was working with women getting off of welfare, helping them find childcare so they could work. So basically my job was going every day to welfare offices across the city of Boston, and for eight to 10 hours a day meeting with women and counseling them about their childcare options. These were women who were really motivated to find work and to get off of welfare. That job was very transformational for me. When we got things right for a mom, it was potentially transformative for her in terms of her life. But a lot of the time, despite everyone’s great intentions, what we were offering was very disconnected from the reality of what women needed. That revelation really led me to the desire to figure out how to help more people in need and that has been my mission since then, essentially. One job led to the next, led to graduate school, and eventually led me to this foundation.

It’s obviously a very big thing that you’re doing with Blue Meridian. Was that a scary decision to make, or did it just feel like the perfectly logical thing to do?

The thing that I think has motivated me is if one really wants to solve problems and have impact, one has to take risks. And the social-sector leaders that we’re working with, they’re taking risks every single day in the poorest communities across America to save the lives or transform the lives of kids. I think in philanthropy you’re in a pretty privileged place, from a comparative perspective. In order to have impact, we saw that we alone could not make a difference for the organizations that we were working with. If we were really serious about trying to move the needle on issues of poverty for the most disadvantaged kids, we couldn’t do this alone. It was very clear to me that we would kind of have to figure out a different way to do philanthropy that was in partnership with others and be willing to give it a shot. And I think, in general, you’ve got to be willing to fail sometimes to do what you see might be the right or better thing to do.

We’re making very big investments in a very small number of organizations and leaders, and I get to know all of them over time. That’s my favorite part of the work.

When you’ve been hearing about work that people do, or speaking to some of these people, is there anything you’ve heard that really stands out?

The thing that is just so motivating for me right now is with Blue Meridian we’re making very large-scale investments, so for example, in the range of, let’s say, a hundred million dollars. That kind of investment is completely unprecedented for social-sector leaders who are working on poverty-related issues. So for most, they’ve never imagined what they might do with that level of investment. The reality is that we’re not going to solve problems in America if organizations only receive average grants of $35,000, which is really the average grant size in philanthropy right now. I had a social sector leader in tears, saying to me they’d just never been able to think beyond the $15 million a year that they are able to raise. There’d be no point in thinking about what one could do with larger investments because one would never have access to those kinds of resources. I hope what Blue Meridian will be able to do is to inspire more social-sector leaders to be able to think bigger and to be able to really solve problems in this country, which we believe can be solved by them.

Nonprofits currently funded by Blue Meridian Partners
Nurse-Family Partnership: a research-based home visitation program for low-income first-time mothers. Its vision is to break the cycle of multi-generational poverty by 2023 for 100,000 mothers and children a year.
Wendy’s Wonderful Kids: a recruitment model that reduces the number of children in foster care by securing adoptive families. Its vision is to build by 2028 the infrastructure to serve nearly all the country’s hardest-to-place children.

Youth Villages: a program that helps troubled youth, often involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Its vision by 2023 is to make YVLifeSet (which works with youth aging out of foster care) available to nearly all youth who age out of foster care annually.

Year Up: a hands-on training and education program for low-income, chronically unemployed young adults. Its long-term vision is “to bridge the ‘opportunity divide’ that separates six million young adults across the country from hard-to-fill corporate ‘middle-skill’ jobs.”
Healthy Steps: a national model of enhanced pediatric care that integrates a child development specialist into the primary care team. Its long-term vision is to transform pediatric primary care, which is used by more than 90 percent of all U.S. families.
Birth through Eight Strategy for Tulsa: a 10-year community initiative for low-income children (pre-conception to age 8) and their families. Its long-term vision is to improve the odds for success for the county’s poorest children by increasing percentages of healthy births and of children raised in safe homes, ready for kindergarten, and who succeed in school by third grade.
Upstream USA: a program that supports health and family planning centers so they can offer women single-visit access to the full range of safe, effective contraceptives. Its long-term vision is to ensure that one day every child in the U.S. is planned for and wanted, thus reducing intergenerational and child poverty.

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Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Magazine
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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