Among the coolest perspectives I’ve gotten to observe while working for the Knight Foundation this summer have been those of the program directors. These are the folks who make grants in the Foundation’s 26 geographic communities across the US, each of whom is analogous to the primary grant officer of a local foundation.
They have a different angle from most other community leaders. Unlike heads of nonprofits or companies, their main responsibilities aren’t executive. Unlike politicians, they’re not really responsible for allocating a budget to satisfy various constituencies. Unlike VCs, they don’t seek ROI in money or influence. Instead, their mission is to find the most promising vectors for investment in a community — the individuals or organizations whom, if given a boost, might really begin boosting others — and fund them. Only they don’t just fund their grantees, they also advise them, cultivate them, promote them, and help them form key relationships. Most of the program director’s work actually isn’t about giving money, it’s about ensuring the money they give has a maximum impact.
This week, Knight announced a grant in Wichita, Kansas, that to my mind reflects the best sort of realization of this mission. An outsized component of Wichita’s economy has been aviation manufacturing, which can leave the city subject to cyclical downturns. So Wichita State University created the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopedic Research to take the facilities and know-how spent on making plane parts out of composite materials and develop that expertise into making medical devices, a market which continues to consume an ever-growing slice of US GDP. Knight’s gift of $2.1 million will help this transformation along.
That’s the background. The interesting story is what Anne Corriston, Knight’s program director in Wichita, did to accomplish this grant:
Mike Good, a key project planner and the director of business operations at Via Christi Research, said Wichita owes a debt to Corriston, who persuaded her board to give Wichita the grant.
Good said Corriston spent months studying hundreds of pages of documents on the project. She even took a five-week class [!!!] offered at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research, offered to non-science people studying composites.
“She wrote a better analysis of our business plan than did the people we hired to write an analysis of our business plan,” Good said.
I just think this is awesome. I feel like I end up in a lot of meetings where an ambitious vision to accomplish real social change turns into a plan to, um, start a Ning network. It’s way too rare that someone says, “I want to transform my city, so I’m going to take a five-week course on aviation composites!”
And then there’s this other fantastic part of the work of someone like Anne — this years-long discipline of putting pieces into place until things start to fall together. If you look at most of the grants Anne has arranged in Wichita, they seem earnest and straightforward — grants to tutor kids at the local Boys and Girls Club in reading and the sciences, grants to put in place a comprehensive elementary-through-college science and engineering curriculum — but not revolutionary. It’s only when you start to connect the dots — a few more kids in physics class, a few of whom might try out engineering in college, a couple of whom might end up working for CIBOR — that the patient, year-by-year process of transformation begins to show itself.
And if you find that little bit of pattern recognition sweet, you might share my love for this little narrative detail Anne posted after the grant was announced:
I actually learned about composites when I was a kid, but didn’t know what I was learning. My dad built a sailplane in our garage while I was growing up. He bought plans and over a number of years, with help from his flying buddies, many of whom were engineers at Cessna and Beech, built the fuselage and wings.
He used fiberglass and epoxy glue to create part of the wings so they’d be lightweight. When the epoxy dried, the fiberglass was much more durable with the hardened resin on it. That’s composites.
Dad is 75 now and building another plane. This time it’s a Tailwind in their basement. And yes, he’s still making stuff out of composites. I wasn’t aware of it until I started telling my parents about the grant I’d been working on while having Sunday dinner with them. That’s when Dad went down to his basement and brought up a little part he’d made from carbon fiber and resin.
Dad’s hobby plane in the garage plants the seeds of a $2 million grant. A butterfly flaps its wings.