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To Support Knowledge-Based Grantmaking, Teagle Embraces High-Tech Communications


W. Robert Connor may be a classics professor at heart – he taught ancient Greek literature and history at Princeton University – but today he spends most of his time thinking about the future, not the past.

Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation, a small grantmaking organization based in New York that is working to revitalize the liberal arts. As part of this effort, Connor has made communications a key element of the foundation’s change strategy, but in ways that you might not expect from a former professor with a love for ancient texts.

Over the past several years, Teagle has adopted a nearly paperless approach to communications as well as employing a range of online technologies – from chatrooms to podcasts – to disseminate knowledge designed to further the foundation’s mission.

The adoption of this high-tech approach to communications has been unfolding since 2003, when Connor took over the foundation. As one of his first activities, he traveled around the country talking with faculty, students and administrators on a number of college campuses. He wanted to determine how to make the biggest impact with Teagle’s limited resources. (The foundation’s assets totaled about $175 million at the end of fiscal 2008.)

Based on what he heard, Connor decided the Foundation’s objective of strengthening student learning in the liberal arts and sciences could best be achieved by focusing on systematic assessment – the process of evaluating what and how students learn. “If colleges know more about how their students are learning, they can teach better and students can learn better,” Connor says.

Along with changes to the Foundations’ programmatic focus, Connor shifted the organization’s grant making philosophy from “dollar-based” to “knowledge-based” philanthropy. The goal, Connor said, was to maximize the foundation’s impact by supporting Teagle’s grantees to develop knowledge and then sharing what was learned with colleges and universities that did not receive direct support so they, too, could apply on their own campuses what other institutions had learned about better approaches to assessment.

The Foundation believed that the success of its dissemination effort required more effective and different kinds of outreach rather than traditional approaches that involve producing and distributing paper versions of reports that often gather dust on shelves. As a first step, the foundation redesigned its website to create a virtual community around the liberal arts and assessment.

The intent was to make it a place where, in addition to learning about the work of Teagle’s grantees, faculty could interact and find valuable resources and best practices on assessment.

To draw visitors to its website, the foundation uses emails and electronic newsletters. Tracking tools allow Teagle to see where visitors come from, what sites referred them, what reports or sections they are reading and which and how many reports are being downloaded.

The Foundation also scrapped its printed annual report in favor of an electronic version that people can read online or print and read later. Teagle aggressively markets the report, emailing an announcement to supporters and subscribers of its newsletter–a list which tripled in size in one year. The foundation even ran banner ads on The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education for its most recent annual report, released in November. Since then the report has received over 2,000 page views and almost 800 copies have been downloaded.

Connor also writes a blog, in which he comments on developments in higher education as well as on what the foundation is doing. The blog is becoming one of the most read pages on the site. Recently, Teagle has begun experimenting with podcasting. The podcasts, which range from events Teagle or its grantees have organized, to interviews with the leaders of specific grants once their work is done, are featured on the site and can be subscribed to via Apple’s iTunes. A recent podcast on a newly released Teagle report has already been downloaded more than 300 times.

Teagle hasn’t totally cut its ties with the printed word. One recent grant funded Beyond the Rankings: Measuring Learning in Higher Education, a primer on assessment produced by the Hechinger Institute at Columbia University. This pamphlet, designed to help journalists cover the assessment movement, has gained a wide readership among faculty, administrators and governing board members because of the clarity of its discussion of assessment in higher education. However, the vast majority of Teagle’s outreach efforts are now electronic or web-based. And while the strategy is now only moving into its second year – too early to fully evaluate its overall effectiveness – there are signs that suggest it is working. Traffic to the site is steadily increasing, as is the volume of materials being downloaded from the site each month.

Program staff, too, have begun relying on new forms of communications technologies to help them with their work. For instance, before designing its programs, Teagle holds what have become known as Listenings, where a small but distinguished group of experts on a specific topic gather for a day or weekend of intensive talk and debate. In addition to the actual Listenings, Teagle has also held several Virtual Listenings, where a slightly larger group of experts are invited to respond to questions from Teagle and to react to each other through a secure chat board. Teagle keeps the postings confidential to encourage a full and frank discussion, but posts a report on the Virtual Listening once it is complete.

Building this type of virtual community around an issue takes time, but Teagle’s community is clearly growing. Teagle plans to continue experimenting with new communications technologies to disseminate their work, for example, the Foundation is now considering a wiki-based project. (Wikis allow visitors to a website to easily add, remove and otherwise edit and change some available content.)

Connor and others at Teagle believe their approach could serve as a model for other small and medium-sized foundations looking to increase the impact of their work through better and more effective use of communications.

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