S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation National Character Initiative Retrospective

The National Character Initiative sought to bolster youth development organizations in supporting character development in youth and to advance the practices of adults who work with young people. Beginning in 2014, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation did so by investing in the organizational capacity of youth-serving organizations, with a focus on improving program quality and organizational infrastructure. The Foundation provided funding to these organizations and offered supports to grantees to help them achieve their goals and advance internal change. The supports included (1) technical assistance from Foundation program staff, (2) convenings and communities of practice, and (3) technical assistance from expert partners.

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About the Retrospective

Starting in 2019, AIR partnered with the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, to capture grantees’ experiences with the National Character Initiative. Specifically, through interviews and surveys, AIR described grantees’ experiences implementing grants and participating in the supports that were provided by the Foundation and expert consultants. Findings from the retrospective may be useful to other foundations as they decide how to fund and support a national initiative.

Key Findings

Key Transformational Elements

AIR uncovered three key transformational elements of the National Character Initiative grantees reported were integral to their success in implementing the grants:

  • Responsiveness to needs – Program officers were responsive to grantees’ needs by getting to know grantees, being transparent, being flexible, and helping grantees address challenges with their grants. The communities of practice were driven by the interests and needs of grantees. Expert partners provided targeted supports to grantees that will have lasting value to them.
  • Culture of feedback – Foundation staff were collaborative and provided grantees with valuable feedback on how to implement their grants. Communities of practice provided grantees with opportunities to learn and solicit feedback from their peers. Expert partners provided feedback to grantees on how to implement the grants.
  • Opportunities for partnerships – Foundation staff connected grantees with others in the field. Communities of practice allowed grantees to share resources, collaborate with peers, and establish relationships with peers. Expert partners fostered collaboration among grantees.

Influence of the National Character Initiative Grants

Grantees explained that they used grant funding to improve their organizational capacity: (1) strengthened professional development and training opportunities; (2) improved the quality of programming or services, (3) boosted their reputation or image, (4) developed their capacity for research or evaluation, (5) built learning management systems, (6) their strategic plan to advance their mission.

Influence on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Read a summary of notable accomplishments made by Working Towards Equity grantees.

Starting in 2018, the Foundation prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion in its convenings with grantees and later with grantmaking. The Foundation provided supports to grantees to build grantees’ capacity related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Specifically, they hired a consultant, Equity Meets Design, to provide technical assistance to grantees and they allocated funds for Working Towards Equity grants that grantees used to address issues of equity.

Influence on the Field

Beyond the influence on individual organizations, grantees noted an influence of the field of character development more broadly. The National Character Initiative established a national collection of organizations and created opportunities for organizations to work together towards a common goal. It connected research, policy, and practice in a way that elevated the fields of character and youth development amongst funders and policymakers.

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Senior Researcher