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Wallace Foundation Invites Advocates to Calculate the Costs

It is increasingly hard in today’s world to get people’s attention — especially if what you say runs longer than 140 characters. So how can foundations engage audiences with detailed research and other information that could actually influence how and what they do?

That’s a question The Wallace Foundation regularly deals with as it disseminates knowledge — either resulting from its own work or commissioned research — to advance beneficial change in the areas of education leadership, arts participation and out-of-school time (OST).

Over the years, for instance, Wallace had frequently heard that a barrier to high-quality, out-of-school programming for children, was a real uncertainty about what it would cost.

To help, the foundation developed an on-line calculator that enables funders and other advocates to estimate resource requirements for programs in their own community based upon extensive research on the topic commissioned by Wallace.

The cost calculator, launched this past January, walks users through a series of brief questions about an actual or potential out-of-school program. Based upon responses, the system generates a one-page report of cost estimates — adjusted to reflect the cost of doing business in more than 300 metropolitan areas — including daily cost per slot, weekly cost per slot, and total monthly program costs.

This application has logged almost 6,000 user sessions since it was launched and earned a 2008 World Wide Web Awards Gold Award for its “…clean and organized design, user friendliness, and quality and informative content.”

The calculator wasn’t part of the plan from the start, however. It was built upon data first commissioned by Wallace in 2005 as the most comprehensive study on OST costs to date. Conducted by researchers from Public/Private Ventures and The Finance Project, it drew from 111 programs in Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, New York and Seattle.

Although the resulting research report was deemed very valuable, the foundation was concerned that, at 90 pages, decision-makers would never go near it.

Adding to the sheer volume of data was feedback from a focus group the foundation convened to review initial results. Panelists strongly suggested that the “average costs” outlined in the report were an ineffective and potentially misleading way to communicate what comprises quality and why such expenditures would be justified.

That’s when Wallace began searching for new approaches to enable city/state level decision-makers and other funders to quickly access information most relevant to their needs. Staff first looked at publishing the equivalent of a “Blue Book” with tables showing what certain programs with different features could be expected to cost. But, according to Lucas Held, Vice President of Communications, the foundation quickly realized that “…calculating the cost of quality after-school care isn’t as simple as estimating the cost of a 2000 Buick Century.”

So Wallace hired Collaborative Communications Group and Forum One Communications to build the calculator as well as a supporting microsite that houses a link to download the full report, methodology informing the calculations and potential funding sources for OST programs.

Once launched this past January, Wallace promoted the application widely. This included an e-mail blast to its own list and to Collaborative’s list of 10,000 leaders in out-of-school time, which yielded 50 links to the calculator. It conducted two webinars — one in conjunction with the National League of Cities — that drew a total of 550 people. In addition, Wallace conducted a session on the calculator at the National Afterschool Association Conference and sponsored kiosks that enabled conference attendees to try it themselves.

While the tool’s primary purpose is to help support planning for OST programs, some are finding other valuable uses as well. For instance, the Afterschool Partnership for Greater New Orleans said the tool — by showing the true costs involved in implementing a quality program — helped the OST providers justify “to their funders what they‘re asking for,” said Lauren J. Bierbaum, Ph.D., research director.

What lessons has Wallace learned after spending $695,000 to develop the research and $95,000 to develop and promote the cost calculator and microsite?

  • Integrate communications thinking early in the initiative development process. It has always been important that communicators are included at the front-end of the research development process. But as the need to funnel data into new and more compelling formats grows, so too does the need to make sure communication staff are involved as early as possible.
  • Remember that context is everything. The key to Wallace’s cost calculator is that it not only helps decision makers see for themselves various cost options that would be too difficult to see from reading a report, it also does so in a way that reflects the comprehensive nature of the research. As Held points out, “The challenge is to find the intersection between what the user needs and what the foundation is trying to say.”
  • Promote, promote, promote. It may be obvious but nobody will use your tool if they don’t know about it. Be sure to budget adequate marketing resources.

–Susan Herr


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