100K Strong and the REM Factor in Social Entrepreneurship

Steve Vetter, President & CEO, Partners of the Americas

While at the Second Hemispheric Workshop on 100,000 Strong in the Americas I participated in a series of “What Works” sessions and listened intently as international educators who had both won or lost in our open competitions shared more about their proposals to increase the flow of students within the hemisphere. What I found striking was the level of intensity and meaning that they gave to the development of the proposals and how important it was to them to win one of these small $25,000 grants.

Over many years of grant making at the Inter-American Foundation, I followed this same phenomena with special interest, trying to understand always which proposals had the best ideas and best chances for success. The issues of sustainability, growing the programs to scale and the simple issue of “doability” were ever-present in our grant making. With over 25 years to observe the success and failure of those many grant investments, I developed my own sense of what to look for as the basis for judging and allocating scarce grant resources.

Three elements stand out: Risk, Effort and Meaning (REM). The REM Factor can be explained in this way:

  • RISK: How much risk is an individual or institution willing to take to enter into a competitive arena? What are they willing to “put on the line?” Or as is often asked, “How much skin do they have in the game?”
  • EFFORT: How much heavy lifting, time and energy are they willing to invest in the development of the proposal and the project or program?
  • MEANING: What would it mean to win the grant? Why does it have special meaning for the individuals and institutions?

An illustration of how the REM Factor can be used to explain some of the winning and losing institutions in our open competition can be found in these cases:

María Cristina Osorio at Mexico’s Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo (UIMQRoo) saw an enormous need for empowerment to open up a horizon of possibilities for the indigenous people her institution serves. Before her vision, her students had no hope of a global educational experience, much less one outside of their own communities.

When she heard about our first 100K Strong in the Americas grant competition round, she knew it would be a risky long shot for a university with very little global experience, but an opportunity well worth pursuing. For María Cristina, a faculty member who took on a position as international director without staff and without a salary, it took a great deal of effort to rally support, convene the right people and prepare the proposal.

But the result – a winning proposal to expand study abroad– was deeply meaningful for her students, school and partners at universities across the U.S. With the 100K Strong in the Americas grant, Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo created the first study abroad programs for indigenous Mayan students, trained staff to support these exchanges, sent professors to the U.S. to do research, and received U.S. professors to do research related to Mayan culture. María Cristina Osorio created more than a dozen agreements with U.S. educational institutions that began to be developed during our grant period.

Any success like this, of course, comes with a fair amount of risk – risk Maria Cristina experienced when a change in university management shifted attention and resources away from the university’s internationalization. The decision sent María Cristina back to her faculty position and shifted funding priorities away from the programs she had won, including a large grant from the food giant, Nestlé. Though the priority shift is unfortunate, our ultimate hope is that the right decisions will be made to support study abroad for these indigenous students for the long term. For now, we are content that we have invested in the training of a hard-working expert who will carry forward in new ways throughout the rest of her career.

Two different examples of the REM Factor can be seen in Northampton Community College (NHCC) and North Carolina State University (NCSU), both 100K Strong grant recipients, who invested heavily in wanting to win for the recognition it would bring their schools. Their innovative and sustainable initiatives took root and are now thriving, though the grants have long been completed.

NHCC is a community college north of Philadelphia whose student cohort had little or no access to academic enrichment of study abroad before our grant. Students simply didn’t have the money or time to spend away from family and work for a semester-long program. The institution also had not prioritized service learning. But the combination of motivated and innovative faculty, a passionate director of international studies, and solid university and NGO partners (Universidad Nacional de Trujillo (Peru) and WindAid) brought this strong program together and to the attention of the review committee.

Similarly, NCSU distinguished their proposal by suggesting something radically different – a public-private partnership with a corporate collaborator, Chiquita Brands, and the University of Costa Rica for crop science students in the rainforests and around the banana plantations of Costa Rica.

Subsequently both have captured and disseminated the meaning and importance of their winning the grants to local, corporate, foundation and government audiences, laying the groundwork for many future study abroad experiences in Central America and Peru.

In contrast, a large U.S. university with a distinguished study abroad program submitted proposals to fund a program that had existed for more than a decade. The review panel recognized the high quality of the research and experience to be supported by a 100,000 Strong grant but didn’t see very much institutional meaning or new commitment to risk by the faculty and decided in favor of new and promising initiatives like those at UIMQR, NHCC and NCSU. In a later round, the university returned with a thoroughly new initiative which did receive funding.

At Partners, we continue to live the REM factor as well. As one senior government official told me only recently, initially there was skepticism when the public-private partnership was first announced that Partners could raise the money necessary to meet the demand for the Innovation Fund at higher education institutions. Partners took that calculated Risk and invested real Effort so that we are now realizing the meaning of President Obama’s vision of a much more dynamic future for our region.

Two new 100K rounds opened last week, financed by the Government of Colombia and CAF –Development Bank of Latin America to connect SENA Training Centers with U.S. community colleges, and the Campus Puerto Rico initiative to create a consortium of 54 universities on the island to bring in students from across the America. Both rounds will place a special emphasis on proposals that demonstrate all of the REM elements – and proposals that show a potential to thrive far beyond the boundaries of the grant funding.

To learn more about 100,000 Strong in the Americas and our most recent rounds, visit www.100kstrongamericas.org.