How community input shapes the Gates Foundation’s local work

Students engaging in a classroom.

Some of the strongest trees are those that bend, but don’t break, in heavy storms. There’s power in being rooted in place, while also remaining flexible enough to weather changes. For our Washington State team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we knew that part of being flexible meant recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. That’s why, as we dove into strategic planning for our new statewide grantmaking program, we reached out to community members across the state.

We knew that our Washington State work would focus on education, because we believe education is essential to giving young people control over their own lives—today and into the future. We also knew that our work would extend statewide, not just in one or two counties. But while we had guesses, we didn’t know exactly where or how we could make the biggest impact.

Over the course of six months, we collaborated with our partners at Education First to hold more than 200 conversations with stakeholders in all corners of Washington state. These conversations occurred during visits to Washington’s cities and towns, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations. Educators, community leaders, students, families, and funders all shared their experiences and thoughts. These conversations gave us an opportunity to build out our strategy in support of student and community aspirations.

For example, we know from survey research that almost 90% of high schoolers in Washington state want to pursue some type of postsecondary program after graduation—whether that’s a two-year or four-year college or apprenticeship program. That desire was consistent with what we heard across conversations: that parents and community members want students to be able to pursue education and career pathways that align with their interests and career goals. Recognizing this connection between what communities want for students and what students want for themselves, we began to focus on how we could help create more pathways for young people to get credentials that ensure a meaningful career.

As we explored this specific focus with community partners, four themes emerged to guide our decisions: strategy goals, trust and relationships, data, and collaboration. Here’s how community input on these topics gave us more focus for our decisions moving forward.

Strategy Goals

Stakeholders confirmed for us that our strategy goal should start with what young people tell us they want. They also helped us narrow our goal. The road to a postsecondary credential isn’t one-size-fits-all. We’re working on creating more educational pathways for students to achieve their dreams, and the paths might look different for many reasons, including where a student lives. We can’t and won’t have a blanket approach across the state.

Some community members also told us that this work has to start in middle school. While we will focus on the specific transition after high school, we’ll pursue that goal by supporting regional networks that can identify local needs and act on those priorities. One way we’ll do this is by bringing education funders together to find collective ways for our resources to go further. While our team might not focus on middle school, for example, there’s likely others who can provide that support.

Trust and Relationships

While we feel a sense of urgency for this work, we also were reminded of the wisdom in the saying, “Relationships are built at the speed of trust.” In more than 20 years of investing in education, we have seen the power of developing solutions in close partnership with communities, where local insight and expertise can inform and improve the work. Partnership with community is always more effective, and community members consistently emphasized that in our conversations. Given this feedback, we didn’t pre-select regions ahead of our Washington State strategy launch. We want to take the time to invite partnerships and build relationships with different organizations and networks in the state, and then help regions set goals for increasing postsecondary enrollment if our interests align.


Based on stakeholder input, we discovered that schools and regions have a strong desire to gather and use data more effectively. We heard that we need to work with local partners to identify measures of success that paint a fuller picture—through stories as well as numbers. So along with understanding milestones such as how many students complete their applications for financial aid, we’ll support our partners to learn how students and families experience education systems to build local definitions of success. And we need to make sure this information is available to all partners, including families. Improved data systems and information-sharing allow us all to measure how well systems are working for students and families while also supporting partners to increase their impact.


Stakeholders made it apparent that collaboration will keep our network of partners and communities moving forward. That doesn’t just mean collaboration within a regional network. It also means collaboration between networks across the state, and between the Gates Foundation and other education funders. Cross-sector and cross-regional work helps educators and education leaders better support students. We need to also ask about who isn’t currently at the table. This work must support an ongoing cycle of feedback for all partners involved. And people of color in the community—representing the very students we aim to serve in an equitable education system—must be included in local decision-making.

We also heard that it’s important to be clear about what we aren’t investing in. Our Washington State team work will focus on locally led solutions across the state that help more students enroll in postsecondary programs after high school, which includes apprenticeships, career training programs, and two- and four-year degrees. In the Greater Seattle region, our Community Engagement team will continue to provide grants to nonprofits working to address issues affecting the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors, such as housing security, access to social services, and racial equity.

Our roots began in Washington state, and we’re committed to this region for many years to come. With this long-term vision, we know that ongoing feedback from partners and community members is critical. We’ll continue to explore ways to share what we’re learning and get input on our goals and grantmaking programs, so we can adjust and do what’s best for Washington’s young people as our work progresses.

Stay up to date on the great work of our partners and meet our team in our monthly newsletter. In addition to sharing updates, we’ll also use the newsletter to answer your questions and gather feedback around specific topics.

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