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Transitioning to a Sustainable Model: How an LSC became a viable entity to promote ongoing systemic reform

Reeny Davison

Through funding from the Copeland Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation and support from the foundation community, ASSET staff, board, and consultants embarked on a project to enable ASSET Inc., an independent nonprofit organization, to become self-sustaining. The impetus for the project was completion of the Local Systemic Change (LSC) grant from the National Science Foundation in May, 2001. The results from the LSC grant included the successful implementation of hands-on, inquiry-based science education in grades K-6 in 30 Allegheny County school districts and improved student achievement in science. ASSET provides ongoing support for reform districts by:

ASSET districts have been receiving these services for over 5 years. The question the project sought to answer was how much to charge the districts for these services, so that the organization could remain viable and continue to provide the services. A hidden benefit of completing the NSF grant was that ASSET's products and services would be available to all school districts, schools, or other entities. As a result of opening the program to others, in the 2002 school year 4 additional school districts joined the 30 districts already participating.

The transition process is described in the sections that follow. This paper reflects the report submitted to the Copeland Fund last fall.

Process used in Management Enhancement Project.

The goal of this transition project was to assist ASSET to move along the continuum from the launch of the program which was funded by the NSF grant and private contributions to a social enterprise with a diversified funding base where earned income exceeds contributed support.

The process included the following steps:

  1. Determine the strengths and weaknesses of the organization through focus groups meetings with Superintendents, principals, teachers and ASSET staff.

    Strength Weakness Example
    Strong Customer Focus Lacked Market Focus Program functioned exceedingly well in the 30 original districts with the support of a core group of funders. Marketing outside of these districts and to a more diverse funding group was just beginning.
    Highest Quality Programs Lack of "fee" or "cost" mindset Customer needs, i.e. Braille materials, were provided upon request without additional fees
    Dedicated and Qualified Staff Lack of internal management information systems Staff did not have true cost information on either courses or materials
    Success in the Classroom Not well known outside of the ASSET family Board was focused on quality programming almost exclusively and not broader fundraising initiatives

  2. Perform detailed financial analysis to develop forward looking budgets for different scenarios
    1. Created a base case scenario, which provided kits with limited professional development
    2. Provided for a viable structure even if fee income did not increase dramatically
    3. Designed the most likely case, where fees from districts would build over three years to replace a major portion of the foundation funding

  3. Articulate ASSET Value Proposition

    As ASSET began moving toward a fee for service profile, the ASSET Leadership Conference in August 2000 served to build consensus among the Superintendents and Board leadership to create the case for support, for championing ASSET within individual districts and more broadly throughout the community. Specific initiatives included:

    1. Business Planning Committee of the Board
    2. Corporate Fund Raising Initiative
    3. Publicity around the EPI Center Regional Education Index Report which cited the TIMMS results

  4. Build a coalition between the Board, the Districts, the Funders and the Management Team

    By combining the needs of the districts with the financial realities of the market, a new fee structure was created by the ASSET staff, and it was actively marketed to the districts by personal visits with them. Results from these marketing efforts were used to create a viable financial plan.

    1. The Finance Committee of the Board led the discussions with the foundation community, speaking to their commitment to fundraising and to monitoring the shift to an earned income bias.
    2. The corporate campaign was launched and continues.
    3. Cost meetings within districts converted thinking to "membership," thereby increasing ownership.
    4. Throughout the staff, a financial perspective was included into all decision making at all levels.


    Preliminary analyses requested by the consultant included:

    Management enhancement deliverables included

    Parallel work on new Fee Structure

    A membership structure was developed collaboratively with district representatives. It provides districts with four options/levels of membership; however, all levels combine professional development and materials provision to ensure appropriate support for teachers, and the two higher-end, comprehensive membership levels include two university partnership programs. The comprehensive membership levels approximate most closely the quality of the ASSET program under the grant from the National Science Foundation.

    Expectations and Strategy for Implementation

    ASSET fully expected districts to purchase a membership option because district representatives had been involved in developing the new fee structure and price list. Several Cost Committee meetings with district representatives helped create the fee structure and acceptable pricing.

    Since the grant from the National Science Foundation was completed in May, 2001, it was necessary to market the structure and gain school district commitment by June, so that the program could continue in the new school year. Once the new fee structure was completed, the ASSET staff reviewed it for clarity, and then teams of staff members visited each district that had been part of the grant-funded program. Additionally, as other districts expressed interest in joining the program, a team made those visits. The purpose of the visits was to clarify the options available to school districts, to answer any questions or concerns, and to leave with them a copy of the commitment form.

    All the commitment forms were received by June, the Board adopted the revised budget based on projected revenue, and professional development sessions for the summer began. Orders for materials were received in May and June. In order to enable districts to participate in summer professional development sessions as part of their purchased membership, a coupon system was developed and put into place. Through corporate grant funding, the materials necessary to refurbish the curriculum modules for delivery late August were purchased.

    Implementation of the new business model has been very smooth. In early fall a new and complex invoicing system tracked membership commitments and services purchased in addition to membership options. Most of the districts have been invoiced, and enough cash was received by December to warrant an investment account.

    Long-term Expectations for Success

    Through the management assistance, the basic parameters of the business and the organization have been defined. Thus, as ASSET takes on new programs, such as extending the program into middle and high school, the structures for participation and for payment are already in place. Essentially, ASSET has evolved from a project, which has a circumscribed timeframe and outcome, to a viable, self-sustaining nonprofit organization that will continue to provide services that enhance school district programs.

    We are confident that we have evolved into an organization whose services are valued by school districts. As a result, we have articulated, what role ASSET plays for school districts. We have realized that our impact goes well beyond science education. We believe we have become a Center for Educational Excellence.

    Organizational Learning

    1. Reflections: It is hard to describe the organizational learning that has taken place among the staff over the past year as a result of the management enhancement process and our change to an organization based primarily on fee for service. We learned that districts value our services and how we provide them. We realized that while turning into a business requires thinking through details differently, a business model is cleaner and less abstract. Staff functions changed subtly, however, and therefore, we held a staff retreat at Duquesne University (one of our partners) on August 29 and 30. We discussed how things had changed, what services we provided, and who provided them. After two days, everyone had a clear sense of the new organization and how they fit into it. Our product was a calendar of the major activities for the year and who would take lead responsibility for each. The result was that everyone agreed that while we were different, we were better.
    2. Collective discoveries: From a programmatic standpoint, the staff realized that we had created an "addiction" model, in that districts couldn't teach science without us. From an organizational perspective, we came to realize that being mission-driven and being a good business model was possible.
    3. Organizational change: ASSET Inc. has a viable business plan that will serve the core operation, some R & D, and any programmatic or geographic growth. We now understand the difference between supporting our current customers through the core program and adding value by enhancing services to the current customers through aligned R & D efforts. Staff roles and functions are clearly delineated. We hear comments repeatedly that we have accomplished a minor miracle in this transition. The community's level of respect for us has grown as a result of our new business plan. The stage is set for growth.
    4. Expectations: As a Center for Educational Excellence, ASSET is positioned to grow. However, the growth will be closely aligned with current products, services and methods. As districts realize more and more the impact ASSET professional development program has on student achievement, the services, especially professional development through the Academy for Inquiry, will be more and more in demand. Additionally, as a successful implementation program ASSET will form strategic partnerships, such as with the EPI Center, whose focus is more on educational policy, and with the National Science Resources Center and its LASER leadership. The Principals Academy of Western Pennsylvania at the University of Pittsburgh will continue to strengthen its partnership with ASSET. Together, the partners will bring a powerful force for improvement of student achievement through education reform in southwestern PA.


    In addition to the indispensable support from Bayer Corporation, The National Science Foundation, and the National Science Resources Center, we express our gratitude to Pittsburgh's Foundation Community who has supported and guided the ASSET Program from its inception. Specifically, we thank Susan Brownlee of the Grable Foundation for convening a core group of funders; Scott Izzo of the RK Mellon Foundation for recommending a wonderful consultant, Lisa Kuzma of the Bayer Center for NonProfit Management; Gerry Balbier of the Heinz Endowments, who called ASSET's success "a home run" from a funder's perspective, Dr. Joe Dominic, Education Program Director of the Heinz Endorsements for watching out for us and highlighting our work; and Dr. Doreen Boyce and Dr. Cheryl Kubelick of the Buhl Foundation for asking us tough questions that enable us to get better. Lastly, we thank the 34 school districts who work with us to bring about science education reform.

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