In an interview by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, Barbara Greenberg of the Levitt Foundation discusses assessing youth development program outcomes with Paula Hewitt Amram of Open Road, a Levitt grantee
NYRAG: Paula, can you give me some background on Open Road, and tell me a little about the kind of outcomes you are hoping to achieve?
Paula Hewitt Amram: Open Road was founded in 1990, and is based in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, though we work citywide. When we first started, it was to take over a specific vacant lot that was being used for drug dealing. That established the way Open Road functions: working closely with families and staying involved long-term. In 1993, we took over a contaminated homeless encampment. It’s now called Open Road Park. The young people who started this project with us were then ages 11 and 13, and are now program directors. Our core mission is to develop these relationships and through them develop outdoor environmental projects that have tremendous public use. Open Road Park is now a one-acre public park with a basketball court, greenhouse, and a turtle pond. It also serves as the home-base for all our programs.
NYRAG: And Barbara, how is this a good fit for Levitt, and helping to further your mission?
Barbara Greenberg: The Levitt Foundation is a relatively small foundation, giving less than $1 million per year. Our focus is young people ages 6 to 18 in the five boroughs and on Long Island. We encourage children and youth to learn about their environment and improve and protect it in their own neighborhoods. We prefer to fund programs that are youth empowered, so kids identify and take action on issues that are important to them.
NYRAG: How do you set up your evaluation program to see if a particular grantee is meeting those goals?
BG: We obtain evidence that the young people have acquired knowledge, that they’ve improved or protected their environment, and that they’ve practiced leadership and citizenship skills. We strive to be accountable
and use each grant dollar wisely. However, we aren’t able to justify costly outside evaluations on every project. What we’ve done is build monitoring and evaluation into our whole grantmaking cycle. For instance, when we solicited a proposal from Open Road, we asked them to describe their goals and define the measures of success by which both of us could judge their achievements. Once a grant was approved, our letter of agreement restated these measures of success, and when they make their reports to the Levitt Foundation, they gauge their progress against these measures. Similarly, when we site visit we see how much of this has been achieved. In these ways, evaluation becomes an integral part of the entire grant cycle.
PHA: I can give you an example of one of our long-term projects that Levitt supports. It is called Prove It with Improvement, and we had very targeted goals because the young people had already chosen to work on specific environments. These were the same youth who had
been involved with the project before we wrote the proposal, and they’d already designed the project in a park in the Lower East Side. They wanted to reopen a locked gate, reopen a locked bathroom, and improve the environment where it had been poorly cared for. So that was one of the evaluations: asking whether they completed these very specific goals. We also said we’d be working with 20 young people and at least 30 adults from the general public. We had quantitative measures like these, plus qualitative measures like leadership development. We take attendance every day, and we know if the same people are coming on a regular basis, and if they were there in 2005, 2006, and 2007. We require that adult staff do extensive daily writing and keep journals. These journals are also part of our reports. In addition, many of our staff meet directly with the Levitt Foundation during site visits and are responsible for creating presentations.
BG: The Levitt Foundation is interested in whether we achieved the environmental impact we wanted. However, we also want to know whether the kids are practicing leadership skills and building their confidence. We expect many of these young people will become the future stewards of their urban environment, but we also anticipate these hands-on learning experiences will serve them well in whatever path they choose.
PHA: One of our evaluation methods is to do surveys of the surrounding neighborhoods. We found there’s been a change in people’s expectations during the 15 years we’ve been working in the Lower East Side. There is more of an expectation environmental projects are going to be more racially and culturally diverse. Not only is there an increase in the number of these programs, but there is also more demand for them. The city has a program where it grades parks, so this is another way for us to evaluate our work. Are the parks getting a better letter grade since we’ve been involved? Asking this question enables us to do external as well as internal evaluation.
Paula Hewitt Amram is the Founder/Executive Director of Open Road, which designs and creates free, public, youth-led projects through participatory design, including public gardens and parks, green roofs, mapping websites, public murals, and youth-led research. Since 1989, Ms. Amram has consulted on programs for the New York City Department of Education, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and environmental and youth organizations. Another NYRAG member that funds Open Road is The Hite Foundation. http://www.openroadny.org
Barbara R. Greenberg, MSW, is President of The Philanthropic Group, an organization that provides consulting and management services forfoundations. Greenberg facilitated a decision-making process to assist the Levitt Foundation board in reaching consensus on a grantmaking focus. She designed its grantmaking strategy, and has managed its grantmaking program for ten years. Ms. Greenberg has more than 25 years’ experience in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors, in diverse roles including Executive Director of a family foundation, Manager of a national corporate grantmaking program, and Executive Director of a countywide nonprofit counseling center. Her experience also includes serving as a board member with NYRAG, Grantmakers in Aging, the American Society on Aging, and the American Littoral Society.