A Surprising Prize: Passion and Vision

The Rathmann Challenge is helping to address the basic needs of two million kids across the country. Maybe someday soon the Challenge will assist in cooling the earth’s temperature.

NOVEMBER 17, 2016


Having constructed a hybrid granting vehicle that we hoped would provide all the upside of prize philanthropy while minimizing the downside (see Part I, “Small Dollars, Big Ideas”), all we needed now was to figure out the problem we wanted to address with our first Rathmann Challenge. We knew our founders had their passions with respect to philanthropic objectives, so we turned to the foundation’s grant history over the last twenty-five years for guidance. There were grants to the arts, to healthcare, to dog parks, to…well, everything imaginable. Fortunately, there was one piece of data that stood out; approximately 50 percent of our total funding was directed, in one manner or another, to education. Coupled with the involvement in that field by a number of foundation members, we had the subject of our first Challenge.

Education. Perfect…except, not so much. What problem could we possibly solve related to education that the likes of the Gates and Annenberg foundations had not already addressed — and, with four log orders more money!

The only way to find out was to pick up the phone and start calling every person we knew in the field. Soon, anecdotes were streaming in from all over, and they led us to two words: Basic Needs. Stories about kids missing classes because they had no way to get to school, being too distracted to learn because they hadn’t eaten a solid meal or hadn’t had a safe place to sleep for days, or feeling ashamed because they lacked the resources to buy a pencil and notebook, let alone a backpack. The more we listened, the more we learned about the endless number of missing essentials interfering with kids’ ability to be ready for learning. Someone, somewhere, had to have come up with a solution to at least one of these problems.

In order to cast the net as widely as possible, we framed our 2015 Challenge as “Provisions for Personal Necessities in Preparation for Learning” and listed all the possible areas brought to our attention, from health and welfare to food and shelter. When the Challenge opened its application period, the proposed solutions poured in. And they were as inspirational as they were diverse, from a massive warehouse of donated school supplies in Florida to a new school dining experience that addressed food deserts in the heart of San Francisco. The site visits to the finalists, three of whom received Honorable Mention awards, left us in awe: Hope House, a national program aimed at helping maintain a connection between incarcerated parents and their children; HEAL, a program in New Orleans that treats the whole child through physical and emotional health support delivered within the school system; and Thread, a Baltimore program designed to create an alternative family support system for at-risk kids.

The Recipient of the 2015 Rathmann Challenge was Vision to Learn, a California-based nonprofit that provides mobile eye examinations and free glasses. As the founder said, “It’s hard to learn when you can’t see the blackboard.” We met an optometry technician who described one little girl whose vision was so impaired she needed to use the white lines painted on the parking lot to find her way to and from the mobile clinic. We watched one little boy clutch his cherished (and broken) pair of glasses he’d received years earlier. He’d taped them together and around the back of his head each day so they would stay in place. When Vision to Learn applied to the Challenge, they were in two states and had provided glasses to approximately twenty-three thousand kids. Could their mobile clinic scale enough to address the two million kids across the country in desperate need of glasses? With the Even Bigger Idea® opportunity in their sights, Vision to Learn unveiled an ambitious national roll-out in ten new states with the potential to impact the lives of tens of thousands of children. And staff there was quick to credit the EBI for inspiring them to consider ways to solve the problem of youth vision health across the country.

Key components to Vision to Learn’s plan included successfully identifying reimbursement dollars in the Affordable Care Act and elsewhere for exactly this type of care (a possible government adoption “endgame’). It also planned to extend its proven partnering capability to local businesses and professional sports teams with vested interests in the health and welfare of local kids. And, lastly, it would continue to document the meaningful benefits and outcomes associated with vision health during early childhood.

In October 2016, Vision to Learn was awarded the inaugural Even Bigger Idea® grant in support of its work. We are thrilled the Rathmann Challenge led us to Vision to Learn, and even more thrilled we are now part of its efforts to help solve the problem of childhood vision health and its destructive impact on educational welfare across the country.

In addition to the wonderful relationship the Rathmann Family Foundation has with Vision to Learn, the Challenge also led us to relationships with many applicants who have now received funding in support of their efforts to address other basic needs. The Challenge had many “winners” but perhaps the biggest was the proof of principle that small dollars can have an outsized impact.

So, could this powerful grantmaking tool be used to help solve a completely different type of problem?

The 2017 Rathmann Challenge will give us the opportunity to find out. For years, the Rathmann Family Foundation has been funding studies related to agricultural land management and the impact of compost on those lands. Many land managers use compost to improve soil productivity, increase water retention, and reduce sensitivity to drought while effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions from materials otherwise left to decay in the waste stream. Research also has shown that an application of compost to agricultural lands increases carbon sequestration in soil where that carbon might otherwise be lost to the air or water. If the Rathmann Challenge could be used to help promote the widespread use of compost, it would help facilitate the adoption of an important tool for recapturing carbon from the atmosphere, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing the carbon cycle — all of which would aid in the massive effort needed to cool the earth’s temperature.

Our hope is that through the 2017 Rathmann Challenge we will be able to award $300,000 to an organization that can significantly expand the use of compost in the United States and, as before, leverage small dollars for an Even Bigger Idea® that could make a difference for many. The application period for the 2017 Challenge opens on February 15, 2017. Won’t you help us spread the word?

For more information on the 2017 Rathmann Challenge, click here.

Rick Rathmann has served on the board of directors of the Rathmann Family Foundation for the past twenty-five years and as executive director since 2002. During that time, Rathmann has engaged in seed and early-stage funding of a number of life science companies and has served in governance and advisory roles at numerous biotechnology start-ups. Prior to his philanthropic and venture capital work, Rathmann served as an assistant United States Attorney in the Central District of California (Los Angeles).