Millions to Answer a Burning Question: What Really Works to Boost Men and Boys of Color?

It's now been almost two years since the leaders of 26 U.S. foundations came together in Chicago to plot a new push to improve life outcomes for boys and men of color. That initiative could hardly have been better timed, ramping up foundation efforts on a pressing national issue that moved into the spotlight in a big way after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, MO, last August. 

Of course, even two years ago, some foundations were already deep into work to boost the life chances of boys and men of color. In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations teamed up with the City of New York to launch the Young Men's Initiative, which would become a $120 million effort to "tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men." In 2012, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation launched its own large grantmaking effort in this area, Forward Promise. Atlantic and other foundations have backed various other initiatives, and more recently funders have lined up behind My Brother's Keeper.

In short, lots of work to boost boys and men of color has been going on for quite some time. But which of these efforts are really succeeding? And where should funders double down going forward? 

Those questions are clearly at the forefront because, today, the top funders in this zonewho are organized through the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color (the group organized two years ago)are mounting an ambitious effort to figure what strategies work best to help the most embattled slice of America's population. 

The effort is called RISE (Research, Integration, Strategy and Evaluation) for Boys and Men of Color, and it's a three-year collaborative that will focus on four areaseducation, health, criminal justice, and economic opportunity and workforce developmentwith "an aim to develop best practices, inspire new research, and bring together academics and policy makers to improve communities."

The budget? A hefty $10 million, with Atlantic Philanthropies and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation putting up most of the money. 

One way to think of RISE is that foundations are creating a brain trust to map out a funding push that, evidently, they plan to stick with for some time to come. Near the center of that trust is Shaun Harper, a leading expert on black male achievement at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE). Harper will serve as co-director of RISE, along with Sharon Norris-Shelton of the consulting group Equal Measure, a squad of wonks based in Philly that funders have long sought to figure out what works. 

But rest assured that Penn GSE and Equal Measure won't hog all the grant money in the pot. The plan of attack calls for "developing an interdisciplinary network of scholars, evaluators, practitioners and policy shapers," in Norris-Shelton's words, who'll outline an agenda for "research, evaluation, effective practice and policy advocacy."

It looks like grants will be going out to other scholars and groups that are either doing new research or spreading the word about best practices. Keep in mind that the collaborative has $10 million to work with over three years, so there should be opportunities for different players in this space to get into the mix and win support. 

It all sounds like great stuff. But one does wonder to what extent early funders on men and boys have been evaluating the efforts they've now been backing for a few yearsand why a more systematic effort to assess what works, and share findings, has taken this long to put together. 

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