Capacity-Building Through Community: Lessons Learned Supporting the Intermediaries for Scale

Funders, postsecondary intermediaries, and institutional leaders must work in radical collaboration with one another for a comprehensive and sustaining paradigm shift toward equitable outcomes in higher education. That means collaboration is deeply rooted in trust, organizational selflessness, and individual curiosity. In higher education, collective efforts have shown to be one the most important avenues for scalable systems change and transformation within higher education institutions. Since collective efforts often include a wide-range of goals, objectives, perspectives, and resources, each collective effort should be thoughtfully and uniquely approached. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Accounting for these variations in people, platforms, privilege, and money, can enable collective efforts to meet their moment. 

In support of the collective effort of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Intermediaries for Scale Initiative, Catalyst:Ed worked for 2.5 years as the network manager to empower the community to meet their moment. This blog highlights the approaches we employed, how we pivoted to meet the community’s needs, and lessons learned.

Clarifying Our Purpose

In the summer and fall of 2019, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the foundation) awarded 13 grants to organizations interested in becoming “Intermediaries for Scale” (IFS) in higher education. Catalyst:Ed was honored to be chosen as the organizational capacity-building partner and network manager for this community because of our central focus on supporting education organizations’ capacity-building journeys, our proximity to and deep knowledge about capacity-building in Networked Improvement Communities (NIC) through our work with the Gates Foundation’s Networks for School Improvement, and because of the sheer impact potential and power of working with these 13 intermediaries, who collectively work with almost three-quarters of the nation’s public two- and four-year institutions. 

As originally designed by the foundation and proposed by Catalyst:Ed, this journey was to take a traditional, linear plan like many learning community experiences: we would first engage in a needs sensing/assessment process, then develop a series of monthly conversations to discuss key challenges and surface new ideas, with an iterative cycle of revisiting those needs and planning for conversations. However, as we began engaging with the IFS community, we identified several deep-seated and likely long-standing issues that, if not addressed, could negatively affect community health and impact in the field. Specifically, intermediaries had various exposure, experiences, and funding histories within the postsecondary funding ecosystem. Intermediaries also had varied cultural contexts and positionalities in the postsecondary sector. These factors often enabled uneven power dynamics and a deep desire among community members for equitable approaches throughout all parts of our work. Given this context and with support from our Program Officers, Catalyst:Ed made a dramatic pivot and set up an emergent, sociocratic, and wholly participant-driven learning community that lifted lesser-heard voices, focused on strategic learning, moved away from notions of singularity in the direction and control, and constructed psychologically safe environments while being generative and productive.

What We Learned

With those principles in mind, Catalyst:Ed established systems, structures, habits, and routines to run a different kind of collaboration network. In doing so, we also pushed our own thinking about what needed to be true to foster the kind of equitable learning environment we sought to create, especially in a remote environment. The key philosophical principles and what we learned about them are below:

  • Empower community members: We established structures, norms, and systems to enable community members to set priorities, identify shared learning goals, learn and share best practices with one another, and drive the work forward. The most salient examples of this were our decisions to create a NIC Advisory Group with one member from each IFS committed to representing their organization in a monthly meeting and the development of a fully-vetted, shared learning agenda developed by the community to guide collaboration, learning, and growth over the life of the community. 
  • Leverage relationships from our work as a capacity-building partner: Because complex relationship dynamics play a role in all conversations, it was important to get to know the individuals, their motivations, and the interrelationships that existed in the community in order to forge a path forward. We thus relied on the entirety of our work and conversations with each partner – not just how they showed up in community spaces – to build a holistic and regularly-updating vision of the needs of each Intermediary. We were then able to work with each community member to bring them in and shine a light on their important work at various times and in the conversations that most energized them as individuals. 
  • Show up with operational excellence: Our work behind the scenes simplified the asks of community members, setting them up to lead meetings, sessions, or buckets of work, and enabling multiple avenues for people to plug in so they could focus their NIC time and effort where it was most needed – learning, sharing, and moving collective work forward. We created an expectation, community understanding, and clear templates to enable all Catalyst:Ed-organized community calls and learning sessions to be led by community members. Catalyst:Ed worked with these leaders in the background to develop content, design facilitation guides, map and refine mechanisms for engagement, and implement tools to turn conversations into action when needed. 
  • Explicitly prioritized equity in process and outcomes: We realized that equitable conversations don’t just happen, even if you have a good plan that was designed with equity in mind. Facilitators must be continually focused on whether they hear all voices, on the dynamics of what is said and by whom, and constantly center and elevate historically excluded voices and perspectives throughout every conversation. Our team was willing to embrace complexity, engage in difficult conversations, and speak truth to power in service of equity. In doing so, we were able to ensure that the voices of leaders of color and practitioners who bring deep experience and critical institutional knowledge (from the foundation and the field) were represented and respected in our communications and advocacy. 
  • Center the humanity of participants: We offered space for care and healing and built deep, authentic, trusting, and respectful relationships with and across community members. The African proverb says,” if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” We would  add  “…and do so with love, kindness, and appreciation.” We believe that the bedrock of trust that was built in this community and the quality and outputs of our work as the IFS NIC is very much tied to the love, kindness, and appreciation in the community. 

Ultimately, we feel proud of our work leading the IFS NIC and honored to have spent two-and-a-half years – despite a global pandemic and racial justice crisis – in community with the people and organizations in this portfolio. We heard the same feedback from many participants of the NIC: in our closing celebration, one of our participants said, “I can’t think of another single professional experience that I have had that led to so much connection and depth of relationships and learning.” 

As we progress with our work in building the capacity of K-12 and Higher Education organizations, we will continue to live by the lessons, principles, and relationships we have built through this work. Our team at Catalyst:Ed will continue to support education leaders and organizations to understand their needs, building capacity, and ensure that a diverse and healthy provider ecosystem exists for equity-oriented leaders seeking short-term talent for key projects. Reach out to our postsecondary team anytime for more information.

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